Bound to baffle auds other than committed students of early cinema or German history, “The Olympic Summer” is nonetheless an audacious stylistic experiment and a valuable document. Wrapping a silent film-like scenario around rarely seen images of everyday life in Nazi-era Berlin, it earns a unique place in the libraries of film schools and universities.
Shot in staccato b&w on a 1927 Askania camera (and blown up to 35mm), pic could pass for a genuine artifact from between the wars. With its brooding close-up, off-kilter compositions and pastoral, if disconcertingly sped-up, long shots, it more than glancingly recalls the rolling, hypnotic mood of silents such as “Pandora’s Box” and early talkies like “L’Atalante.”
Clearly, that’s only the starting point for young Heidelberg helmer Gordian Maugg (he was born in 1966), who fashions an allegory for the Third Reich around the elemental tale of a naive butcher’s apprentice (Jost Gerstein) and his prolonged fall from innocence.
Leaving his characters unnamed and mute (the pic is narrated, sonorously, by “Wings of Desire” angel Otto Sander) may have been a commercially disastrous choice, but Maugg’s pictures, courtesy of lenser Andreas Giesecke, take on the quality of half-remembered myth — although not the kind that Leni Riefenstahl had in mind.
In this scratchy, herky-jerk context, deftly intercut footage of real Berlin street scenes from the period leading up to the 1936 Olympics appear oddly modern (it’s unnerving to see the smiles, the ice cream cones and the German and American flags fluttering side by side).
Unfortunately, the archival material is so strong it slowly overwhelms the slim saga of the apprentice, his troubled relationship with a homely widow (Verena Plangger) and his subsequent slide into urban despair — including an ill-fated friendship with a homosexual SA man and, after the war is under way, a return to his butchering skills as horses die in the charnel house called Berlin.
Some of the “romantic” material (the Vaterland’s star-crossed affair with Herr Hitler?) is recycled so often that the pic’s 85 minutes feel padded, and the final quarter — set in various prisons — is appropriately claustrophobic, if dramatically unengaging.
Still, “The Olympic Summer” is as much to be listened to as looked at, since it collects genuine radio broadcasts, pop songs and other aural ephemera from a setting that’s already been combed for meaning in more obvious ways. This time-capsule-in-reverse will never set any B.O. records, but it does represent a quiet triumph of its own.