Last year, likely in anticipation of the 2020 Summer Olympics, The Criterion Collection released a standalone edition of Kon Ichikawa’s 1965 film Tokyo Olympiad, one of the greatest sports documentaries of all time. Of course, the 2020 Tokyo games did not happen but are slated to start in a few weeks on July 23, 2021. This year, again likely in anticipation of the big event, The Criterion Collection has released another standalone edition from their mammoth Olympics box set, Visions of Eight, the 1973 documentary about the 1972 Munich Olympics, one of the official Olympic films that attempted to mix things up. Where Tokyo Olympiad, and most of the other Olympic films, was a long vision from a single director, Visions of Eight, as its title suggests, presents the work of eight filmmakers from around the globe: Juri Ozerov, Mai Zetterling, Arthur Penn, Michael Pfleghar, Kon Ichikawa, Miloš Forman, Claude Lelouch, and John Schlesinger. Each was given a budget and, with great help from cinematographers and editors, presented their vision in a completed film that clocks in at just over one hour and forty-five minutes.
The premise is interesting, and having so many world-class directors working on a film is a major draw. Producer David Woloper knew this. Before we see any image in the film, we get this scrolling text:
Sunflowers are familiar to millions, yet no one ever saw them the way Vincent Van Gogh did.
So with the Olympics: a recurring spectacle familiar to people around the world. This is no chronological records, no summary of winners and loser.
Rather, it is the separate visions of eight singular film artists.
Then the last stretch of the torch relay and the lighting of the Olympic cauldron.
While these images play out on the screen, the names of the eight directors, along with their country of origin, cross the screen. Each of the eight segments begins with a montage of black and white stills of the director whose section we’re about to see. It’s an interesting choice to highlight so prominently the eight directors involved in the film. For some it might be too much, removing the focus from the sports themselves. For others — and I’m more in this category — it feels more like a celebration of another world-wide collaboration brought on by the games.
Is it a successful collaboration? I don’t think so, but first let me say that I enjoyed it from beginning to end. Each of the filmmakers manages to capture highs and lows and quiet moments in between:
But there are two primary reasons why I don’t think it works.
First, when the film announces a grandiose scheme, calling attention to eight “visions,” I would expect more divergence from what we’ve seen before and from what each of these directors presents. Indeed, that is the reason the film was created in this way. Wolper and Willi Daume, the president of the XXth Olympics, felt like a fresh approach could help differentiate the official Olympic documentary from the day-to-day coverage of the games. The eight directors were given license to do what they wanted. Apparently there were originally going to be ten — including Franco Zeffirelli and Ousman Sembene — but other commitments kept them away. Another filmmaker who was originally slated to work on the project was Federico Fellini, who considered doing his part through the eyes of a small girl lost in the Olympic Village. Forman originally intended to spend his twelve minutes on the slow squeeze of a rifleman’s trigger finger. The risk of misfire and failure are clearly inherent in this kind of project, but the producer and the Olympic committee went with it. Forman chose a different path, a safer one, though his segment, with its blend of culture and sport and comedy, stands out as unique. It seems to me, though, that safety ruled the day. We still get a pretty run-of-the-mill Olympics documentary.
I won’t deny it: I’m always intrigued by footage of an athlete just prior to an event or just after, win or lose. Or by slow motion shots of split second athletic maneuvers. A shot like this one here, in Kon Ichikawa’s segment “The Fastest,” is always nice:
But it’s also exactly what we’d expect — even when it proceeds in slow motion. In fact, it would have been surprising had this look at “the fastest” not been in slow motion. It is interesting to me that in his very positive Sports Illustrated review, from 1973, George Plimpton does not see this as a bad thing:
Almost all of the film makers were intrigued by the same sort of visual shots Ichikawa achieves in his segment: few of them, whatever subject they selected, could resist a head-on view, taken with a telescopic lens, of a runner moving through the shimmer of heat waves toward the camera, his speed slowed so far down that one sees on the screen what strain does to the human body, especially the face, where the cheeks and lips go slack and seem to flutter and flop loosely away from the bones and teeth.
It works, of course. These directors succeed in capturing the spirit of the games (at least, in any other year — more on that in a moment when I get to the second reason I don’t think this works), but, other than a few minor details I found it hard to see what unique vision any of them brought to the table. Still, and I really want to underscore this, I love this kind of stuff, and I’ll be rewatching this often. The issue is one of a promise made — prominently — but unfulfilled. Given what we know about a couple of the discarded ideas, maybe this is not as bad as it sounds.
The other issue that causes the film to fall short is harder for me to place squarely on the film itself. The 1972 Olympic games will forever be overshadowed — appropriately so — by the tragedy that occurred in the second week, the Munich Massacre, in which the terrorist group Black September kidnapped and murdered eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team.
This horrible event is bigger than the 1972 Olympics, of course. It casts its shadow back in time and forward in time, and it darkens the film as well. I cannot blame the film that it cannot contend with such a tragedy. It never could. The impulse to try to focus on the games themselves is also one I understand. But it must be noted as we watch the film because the tragedy is too important to put aside: Visions of Eight touches on the tragedy only slightly and only in the final part, John Schlesinger’s “The Longest.”
Schlesinger focuses on the marathon and in particular on the long preparation of British runner Ron Hill. Schlesinger’s focus on Hill starts before the games. In Lancashire, Hill would run to and from work every day for a total of 20 miles (sometimes he would run home for lunch too). Schlesinger’s focus on Hill is nicely done. When Hill is running the marathon itself, we get lovely, almost dreamy flashbacks to his training.
Schlesinger also, though, intercuts into this segment footage of the Munich Massacre. Schlesinger actually wanted to shift his entire part to the Massacre, but Wolper told him “absolutely not.” Schlesinger said he didn’t think he could finish his part if he couldn’t bring some of it in. Clearly they worked it out. And so in this part Schlesinger intercuts his footage of Hill with footage of the Munich Massacre. Hill keeps going on, keeps running, even while the tragedy plays out. The idea to portray it as such came to Schlesinger when talking to Hill:
Hill was quite articulate about it, and certainly horrifingly frank. “It’s affected me,” he told me, “in that the tragedy has put off my race for a day. If I allowed myself to think about what had happened, I would have become emotionally involved and thus not able to run.”
Well, that’s what I made my film about — that statement.
Some might see perseverance in this, the will to go on and not let tragedy control you. That’s there, I suppose, but I think the tone in Schlesinger’s piece is more in line with my takeaway: to do this you have to be somewhat shut off and lonely. That’s not the best way to contend with the tragedy, but it is all we have in Visions of Eight.
All in all, then, while I think the film has these two failings, it’s still fascinating for two reasons: first, as I said above, it still works to give us some lovely footage of sport, with some segments getting a bit more personal and offering that interesting element. Second, it’s got a fascinating origin and place in history that make it worth contending with for artistic and historical reasons. I’m thrilled Criterion released it as a standalone.
There are two main supplements on the disc. First, you can watch the film with a new commentary track by a group of podcasters from The Ringer: Amanda Dobbins, Sean Fennessey, and Chris Ryan. I have not done this yet, so I cannot comment on whether it’s good. I hope so! The next time I watch the film will be with these voices. The other large supplement is a 55-minute documentary Munich ’72: The Making of Visions of Eight. This documentary has many people coming together, including two who were directly involved in the film itself, director Claude Lelouch and supervising editor Robert K. Lambert. There’s a lot of good information here, and it does a lot to contextualize the film and contend with its art and history, which, as I said above, is very worthwhile.
Accompanying the disc supplements are two promotional pieces from the film’s release, a 7-minute and 3-minute trailer. In the package there is also a booklet with the 1973 Sports Illustrated article by George Plimpton, some excerpts from producer David L. Wolper’s 2003 memoir, and a “reflection” by Sam Lipsyte.