Saturday, March 23, 2019

The White Stadium: A Review


The White Stadium, the film of the 1928 Winter Olympic Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland, was "perceived lost" until 2011, when it was reconstructed from various Austrian, German, Russian and Swiss sources. The reconstructed film is a massive leap in the art of Olympic films, a mixture of athleticism and romanticism that is both artistic and informative. The White Stadium is a harbinger of both the artistry of German cinema and the rise of Nazi Cinema best captured in a future Olympic film: Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia.

The White Stadium begins with various scenes of St. Moritz before "The Big Day". It takes almost a full half-hour before we get to the Parade of Nations, but those 26 minutes are not wasted. Far from it, as The White Stadium is almost a tone poem of the beautiful Swiss winter, capturing amazingly poetic moments that look almost like paintings. We see people arriving on trains and a 'Children's Olympics' consisting of a delightful snowball fight.

Then comes "The Big Day" and a more standard chronicling of the Games with various events ranging from ice hockey, figure skating and curling to now-forgotten or discarded events such as horse ice racing (racing horses on the ice) to skijoring, a most dangerous horse sport best described as racing horses while the jockey holds on for dear life behind it via a large piece of cloth. The White Stadium ends with an "Ice Festival of Professional Skaters", akin to an Ice Capades show complete with acrobatics and elaborate costumes.

Image result for skijoring 1928The White Stadium was directed by Arnold Fanck, best remembered for his 'mountain films' such as The Holy Mountain, The White Hell of Pitz Palu and S.O.S. Eisberg. These 'mountain films', where it is 'man against nature' were quite popular in Germany, with many of them focusing on the harsh yet beautiful winters. As such, The White Stadium was right up Fanck's street, and he brought a rare artistry to the documentary sports film.

This is best captured in the long opening to The White Stadium. The imagery is breathtaking, enhanced by the brilliant restoration work that so spectacular that it looks virtually brand new. There is a visual poetry to The White Mountain, and not just of the magnificent visual images of the wintry vistas.

The text is also extraordinarily poetic. "Steam rises from the lakes in the cold of the wintry morning," we are told just as we see these majestic images. "And every twig sparkles with the enchanting crystals of hoar frost". I do not know what 'hoar frost' is, but if we go by the visuals, it is almost divinely inspired images of Paradise.

The White Stadium also features some wildly inventive visuals and editing. When we see the trains arriving at St. Moritz, the visuals show us almost a kaleidoscope of trains all coming simultaneously, visually suggesting the mass numbers of people coming to the Winter Games. We also see when 'townspeople become athletes', a series of montages of 'ordinary' people changing from their civilian to athletic gear, even the children which lends a soft, comedic touch.

It is no surprise that future yet controversial cinematic legend Leni Riefenstahl took her cues from her mentor Fanck. The celebration of the country, the editing to create mood such as the montage of the 'Children's Olympics' down to the old people 'looking on' at the antics to the celebration of the body beautiful that Riefenstahl would use in her own films all appear in The White Stadium

Image result for the white stadium 1928Interestingly enough, Riefenstahl herself appears in The White Stadium in a 'blink-and-you'll-miss-it' moment when Leni 'waves' at an unidentified winner. Another future legend appears in the film in an extended sequence. Sonja Henie, an ice skating champion who later achieved Hollywood fame in films that almost always featured an ice skating sequence, is showcased. The White Stadium not only displays Henie's skating skills but a charming personality that signaled her film career as the ice skating version of other athletes turned movie stars like swimmers Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams.

Fanck's cinematic skills are evident throughout The White Stadium visually and in adding drama and psychological elements. In the speed-skating sequences for example, he not only uses slow-motion to showcase the race but cuts to a stopwatch to add an element of suspense to the various races. This is enhanced by the musical score written specifically for the 2015 restoration by Frido ter Beek with additional instrumentation by Yamila Bavio.

In terms of the Criterion Olympic Film series, this too is an improvement over the previous films that featured Donald Sosin's musical work. While Sosin's music is mostly good, it was almost thoroughly piano-dominated, making it at times monotonous. Ter Beek also used piano, but there was more woodwind and percussion instruments used, such as a baritone saxophone and what sounds like cowbell to imitate the 'tick-tock' of the stopwatch.

Image result for the white stadium 1928
There are a few very amusing moments, such as when the poor Austrian nameplate holder almost loses his balance at the blustery Parade of Nations that opens the Winter Games or when we see the hockey players for the various nations carry their sticks like rifles. The focus on curling does not make it any more sensible to those not aware of why brooms are such an important part of the event, and one of the curlers looks a bit like Dr. Strangelove. One is surprised at how so many events were outdoors: the ice skating, horse racing and hockey matches were all in the open. In fact, I don't think one event in The White Stadium took place inside an actual arena.

We do also see that Fanck played a little fast-and-loose with crowd scenes, sometimes reusing the same footage for different events. We also are treated to a surprising moment when a Teutonic couple wearing almost nothing are skiing and contemplating their surroundings. This curious display of 'Aryan' male and female, with the latter topless, suggests that the glorification of the "physical ideal" was already present before the rise of the Nazi Party that took it to much more dangerous extremes.

However, The White Stadium is on the whole a marvel film. With images that appear to have inspired The Grand Budapest Hotel and a mix of artistic and athletic expression, The White Stadium is a leap forward in Olympic coverage.


Next Olympic Film: Amsterdam, 1928: The IX Olympiad in Amsterdam

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