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By Phil Hall | March 20, 2009

BOOTLEG FILES 275: “Olympia 52” (Chris Marker’s 1952 documentary on the Helsinki Olympics)

LAST SEEN: The film is available on YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It was never commercially released in the U.S.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: No evidence that this will happen in the near future.

I’ve been trying to track down a copy of the 1952 documentary “Olympia 52” for a number of years, if only to complete my appreciation of the works of French filmmaker Chris Marker. “Olympia 52” was Marker’s first feature-length film, and I was curious to see how the innovative director approached the challenge of creating a documentary on the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

The answer was rather disappointing. “Olympia 52” is a quotidian and frequently monotonous film that reduces the drama and emotions of the Olympics to the level of polite travelogue. Had I not been aware that Marker was the film’s director, I would never have assumed the man who made “La Jette” or “A Grin Without a Cat” created this work.

“Olympia 52” begins with a trip around Helsinki. The Olympic stadium is empty, except for some workmen putting the finishing touches on the grounds, so Marker takes the viewer to an amusement park and offers views of an empty ferris wheel that spin in silhouette against the sky. We then visit an outdoor café, where diners enjoy platefuls of Finnish cuisine. There’s even a brief visit to a sea lion exhibit at the zoo.

Eventually, Marker remembers the film is called “Olympia 52” and he returns to the Olympic stadium, just in time for the opening ceremonies. Despite overcast weather, the athletes from around the world come marching into the stadium. Cages full of doves are released, an orchestra booms out music, and Finnish track legend Paavo Nurmi runs in with the Olympic torch. A few minutes later, a woman in a white gown runs around the track with her arms outstretched. Needless to say, the Finns weren’t quite as outlandish in their showmanship as the Germans were with their 1936 Berlin Olympics – and Marker confirms this with a brief clip from the 1938 Leni Riefenstahl landmark “Olympia.”

After this admittedly bizarre opening, “Olympia 52” focuses on the actual Olympiad. The flags of the nations are seeing fluttering in the wind (with a billboard for Coca-Cola also in view). There is a lengthy sequence showing the male track stars limbering up – which is accompanied by a combination of jazz and big band music that doesn’t quite fit the imagery. U.S. decathalon star Bob Mathias greets fans, and athletes from the USSR (in that nation’s first Olympic appearance) also enjoy camera time. There is also a montage of runners and jumpers who race about in very slow motion.

The women runners arrive later, and they get to warm up to the sounds of noisy Finnish folk music. The film then visits the Soviet athletes at their compound, where they sleep for the camera, drink tea and annoy a cat.

At long last, we finally get to see the sporting events – but it appears Marker could only get seats in the upper bleachers. “Olympia 52” places its cameras so far from the events that it is difficult to see who is running. At one point, a race falls into slow motion. There are numerous close-up cutaway shots of the audience, most of whom appear to be bored (can you blame them?).

About halfway through the film, there is an abrupt sequence where a number of events are presented in 30- to 60-second snatches. There is one witty moment where a cycling event abruptly cuts to a pretty woman on a bicycle – she pulls out binoculars to watch a yachting event. Then we have quick glimpses of rowing (again, filmed from what appears to be a half-mile away), gymnastics (a buff young guy twirling on a pommel horse), equestrian events, shooting, diving, and swimming. Sohn Kee-chung, the Korean winner of the 1936 Olympics’ marathon, shows up for a visit, and the film switches back to the track and field events. After the marathon is run, the closing ceremonies take place (lasting less than two minutes of screen time). The film closes with an empty stadium – and the viewer wondering what the hell he was watching for the previous 82 minutes.

“Olympia 52” was produced by Peuple et Culture, a French nonprofit that advocated sports and the arts. It appeared that no one in Finland knew how to make a documentary, so the Finnish government approved the request by Peuple et Culture to create this film. Marker did double duty as one of the film’s four-man cinematography squad, and he later co-wrote the film’s narration.

There is no record of “Olympia 52” being released in the United States. The bootleg copy I located was the French-language version without English subtitles. This version was spread across eight segments on YouTube, and that version’s visual quality varied from segment to segment. Admittedly, this is the worst possible way to watch a movie – but it was either that or never get to see “Olympia 52.”

I have no clue whether “Olympia 52” will ever get a proper commercial release on this side of the Atlantic. Despite Marker’s standing as a film legend, no one has made any effort to restore and present the film for today’s viewing. But from what I was able to see, it is easy to realize why this has yet to happen. But that may not be so bad – sometimes, obscurity is a well-deserved location for a movie!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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