100 Years of Olympic Films
05: Amsterdam 1928
Spanning fifty-three movies and forty-one editions of the Olympic Summer and Winter Games, this one-of-a-kind collection assembles, for the first time, a century’s worth of Olympic films—the culmination of a monumental, award-winning archival project encompassing dozens of new restorations by the International Olympic Committee. These documentaries cast a cinematic eye on some of the most iconic moments in the history of modern sports, spotlighting athletes who embody the Olympic motto of “Faster, Higher, Stronger”: Jesse Owens shattering sprinting world records on the track in 1936 Berlin, Jean Claude-Killy dominating the slopes of Grenoble in 1968, Joan Benoit breaking away to win the first-ever women’s marathon on the streets of Los Angeles in 1984. In addition to the work of Bud Greenspan, the man behind an impressive ten Olympic features, this stirring collective chronicle of triumph and defeat includes such landmarks of the documentary form as Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia and Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad, along with lesser-known but captivating contributions by major directors like Claude Lelouch, Carlos Saura, and Miloš Forman. It also serves as a fascinating window onto the formal development of cinema itself, as well as the technological progress that has enabled the viewer, over the years, to get ever closer to the action. Traversing continents and decades, and reflecting as well the social, cultural, and political changes that have shaped our recent history, this remarkable marathon of films offers nothing less than a panorama of a hundred years of human endeavor.
Disc 5 of Criterion’s 100 Years of Olympic Films box set presents another film covering the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics: Wilhelm Prager’s The Olympic Games, Amsterdam 1928. The film is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on a dual-layer disc and given a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. There are no specific notes on the restoration but the notes suggest the film was either restored in 2K or 4K resolution.
As mentioned in my coverage for disc 4 of this set the Dutch government had originally employed the Italian film company Istituto Luce to create a film for the Olympic games but when the distributors objected to Luce’s connections to Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime the government pulled out, took the footage that was shot, and handed it over to German filmmaker Prager to create other films, including this one. Disc 4 presented the Italian version while this disc presents this German/Dutch version. Both films, though they pretty much cover the same events, did in some cases use different footage or angles covering the events so different material does appear in each film. This all proves fairly fascinating but unfortunately this version is in noticeably worse shape than the Italian version, which was near-pristine. For this version the opening restoration notes mention reel one was severely deteriorated while reels 5 and 8 were lost. Though the film is rougher in comparison that’s not to say restoration efforts weren’t employed, as they obviously were (severe print damage like stains and marks are still not an issue), but the footage can have a real dupey quality to it a lot of the time, as though this was sourced from later to far-later generation prints whereas the Italian version was more than likely scanned from the negative, or at the very least a generation from that. That film is so unbelievably sharp, amazing for its age, while good portions of this film looks fuzzy and very grainy, with a coarser grain than the Italian version that can lead to less detail in sequences. These problems are actually far worse during the first section of the film, but there are noticeable shifts in quality throughout the rest of the film, with varying levels of deterioration. At the very least the digital presentation handles it well and doesn’t add problems to it.
Where the footage was the same between the two films it appears the restorers took the footage from their restoration for the Italian film so there are moments where it will jump from the dupey footage or “not as sharp” footage to the far cleaner and much sharper footage. They also have apparently used footage from the Italian version to fill in gaps that existed here. So in the end what you get is a sort of hodge-podge of different source qualities, jumping from one to the other.
The digital encode itself is again solid, like every other presentation so far in this set, and the footage taken from the Italian version looks as sharp and clean as it does on that disc, while it does what it can for the rough footage exclusive to this film. Though grain is heavier it is still handled well, but contrast and gray scale are nowhere near as good as what is found in the Italian one, more than likely an issue with the original source.
It’s a shame but it’s obvious the restorers did everything they could with it and I’m still very impressed with what they were able to accomplish with this.
Criterion includes a new silent film score yet again performed by Maud and Bart Nelissen, and it’s presented in lossless PCM 2.0 stereo. Like the previous score it works, has some good range, and never comes of distorted or harsh. It also has the addition of some vocal effects, which sound fine, as do other effects like with the marching band. It again fills out the environment well and works accompanies the film perfectly.
The only disappointing aspect to this set is that there are no on-disc special features to speak of. The set does come with an incredibly thorough 216-page hardbound book, featuring material on the restorations by Adrian Wood along with essays covering the films, all written by film scholar Peter Cowie. It also filled with photos from the various events. Cowie writes an essay covering the 1928 games, with comments about this film and the Italian version found on disc 4, noting the reason why two lengthier films exist. (The grade given here refers to the supplements for the set as a whole, which, in this case, is just the included book.)
It’s a bit rough in comparison to the staggeringly sharp presentation of the Italian version but it’s obvious a lot of work was put into it to get as close to the original version as possible. It’s still a very impressive and commendable job.