The Filmmaker As Historian

Rasmus Falbe-Hansen

Today historians recognize that film and TV contribute greatly to people's historical consciousness. Still historians have had difficulties in deciding what to do with history communicated in fiction films. For a long time the reaction has been to ignore historical feature films entirely. Now, however, historians are gradually realizing that films need to be treated seriously, because it is evident that the pictures and stories unfolding on the screen have such a strong effect on the viewer that historians who take themselves seriously need to ask the question: How can and do films communicate history and how can historians make good use of popular films?

Poetic speculations about the past
The objections of many historians are based on the fact that so-called historical films are often made without consulting any actual historians. Filmmakers and film companies often care more about a dramatic plot than any historical accuracy and sense of the past. Few have second thoughts when changing history if it suits the story. Naturally this tendency has been the source of considerable reluctance in the historian towards accepting films as serious representations of history. The fact that historians do not participate in the making of feature films, however, is exactly a point that should make the historians deal with them as viewers and recipients.

Traditionally when historians deal with fiction films, they tend to approach them simply as reflections of the periods in which they are produced. Theorists such as Pierre Sorlin, K.R.M. Short and Marc Ferro concurrently regard a fiction film as a window on the time during which it was produced. They see a film as a product of its time. When regarded in this light, JFK says more about 1991 than it does about the murder of John F. Kennedy.

Today, however, historians and film theorists alike find it increasingly rewarding to approach fiction films as reflections of the past. In the post-modern understanding the boundaries between film and history are disappearing. The historians have become receptive to narrative strategies and fictive elements in the writing of history and the film theorists are watching the barriers between fiction and documentary disappear. Both tendencies are characterised by phenomenological traits. From a phenomenological point of view there is no division between the inner and the outer. It sees the truth in the meeting between the viewer/reader and the text. In the words of Maurice Merleau-Ponty: 'film isn't thought, it is perceived'. [1] It is the experience of reality that is central, not the look of reality. This is a radical change of thought, especially if held up against the traditional historical understanding of the manner in which to communicate history. And the subjectivity, which is implied in the phenomenological approach to history on film, requires that historical films not be treated simply as traditional written history, but on their own terms.

In general, historians have treated historical films as they would traditional written history. This has had the consequence that the greater part of what historians have produced about films has been concerned with historical inaccuracies in them. This approach to historical films does not provide much knowledge and is of little use to anyone. If the films were accepted on their own terms, however, they would have a lot to offer as communicators of history; they have a different potential from that of written history and thus offer a different range possibilities. The historical film should not be seen as a substitute for written history, nor simply as an illustration of written history, but as a supplement and an extension, which adds depth to traditional written history.

But how can subjectivity and the transformations of the fiction film be dealt with when we approach films as serious communicators of history?

Accepting subjectivity in fictive representations of history is not a new development. Since Aristotle there has been a division between logic and rhetoric, between historical research and historical writing. One theorist who has pursued this theme is the Danish positivist historiographer Kristian Erslev, who stated the following about the writing of history:

  1. All writing of history must be clear, it must create pictures, give the reader an experience.
  2. The writing of history must contain a living description of a person, that is 'personify' and
  3. The writing of history shall be art, the presentation must be dramatic and be done with life and imagination. [2]

This is not far from the way modern theorists attack the way the feature film communicates history. This new approach to the historical film sees the films as interpretations of the past and not as objective descriptions of the facts of the past. Robert Brent Toplin sees historical films as poetic speculations about the past, and thinks that manipulating the historical film is a way of communicating a broader truth - the overall interpretation is more important than the detail.

The theorist most dedicated to approaching the feature film as a serious work of history is Robert A. Rosenstone who argues that the fictive elements of the historical film should be seen as ways of symbolising, summarising and making things more complex. Carsten Tage Nielsen says that films should be judged in terms of the director's subjectivity or interpretation. Roman Polanski's The Pianist, to take a current example, should be judged on it's success with regard to interpreting the experience of a single man in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War. It should not be judged solely in terms of factual accuracy nor should it be repudiated simply because of inventions or changes of events or settings.

The historical film must be taken seriously on its own premises - as an interpretation of the past and as a poetic speculation on the past. Approached like this the historical film can be read as offering an equally and sometimes even more illuminating representation of history than that of written history. The historian Hayden White mentions atmosphere, feelings, war etc. According to White the historical film has its own discourse which harbours unique abilities. But not all historical films use these abilities properly. A distinction between serious and unserious historical films is necessary, and it needs to be considered what the traditional narrative conventions mean for the abilities of the filmmaker to act as historian.

Historical mainstream films versus historical art films
In order to determine, which possibilities the historical film habours, we should begin by defining the characteristics of the historical film. If the historical film is to be taken seriously, some films taking place in the past need to be omitted. Accordingly Leger Grindon only treats the films that take themselves seriously as historical representations. Films whose portraits present problems in the setting of the past are not interesting as history. If current issues are presented in the frame of the past it is not communication of history but entertainment. What is interesting in this connection, however, is a film which presents the past for us in the present. It is the past in the present which has our focus, not the present in the past. This division can be problematic, but on the other hand historians, as well as all other academics, usually do not hesitate to leave out all texts that are found unserious and unacademic. So this choice is legitimate.

It is important to recognize that the historical film is not a genre. Even though many historical films have much in common, the plots in these films can play out within a broad range of different genres. Think of the difference between Saving Private Ryan and Charlie Chaplin's The Dictator, both of which are historical films. The one thing that all historical films have in common is their reference to the past. Nielsen and Sorlin both argue that the historical film is thus defined in relation to the historical knowledge which is situated outside the visual media and the institution of the cinema.

Robert A. Rosenstone has written several books on the nature of the historical film and he takes narrative conventions as the starting point of his research. He indirectly assumes David Bordwell's definiton of various historical narrative modes. However, he only uses two of Bordwell's categories: the classical mainstream film and the art film. This constitutes a natural starting point since it is obvious that the different ways of telling a story have different possibilities of expression.

According to Rosenstone the traditional or classical film communicates history as drama. It is based on cinematic realism, which creates in the viewer the illusion that nothing has been manipulated. There is a beginning, a middle part and an end, which leaves the viewer with a moral and a sense of relief.

The classical film usually places the individual at the centre, which is a cinematic tool that emotionalises, personalises and dramatises the (hi)story. It presents a closed, complete and simple past. Furthermore it presents a view of the landscapes, buildings and artefacts of the past. Finally Rosenstone argues that the classical historical film presents history as a process. As opposed to written history, which separates different aspects like economy, politics, race etc, the classical historical film depicts history as: '…a process of changing social relationships where political and social questions - indeed, all aspects of the past, including the language used - are interwoven'. [3]

Combined with the view of the past and the individualized point of view, the view of historical films as process oriented creates a sense of the past, which the written history seldom, if ever, can achieve. The one-sidedness, the simplicity and the sense that nothing has been manipulated, which are central ingredients in this narrative mode, may also cause problems, however. Even though alterations and manipulation should be understood metaphorically too much simplicity and one-sidedness can be dangerous. If the story of Holocaust becomes too simplistic and one-sided, we may come to regard the Nazis simply as personifications of the devil that has nothing to do with us or our civilisation. The most important thing to tell about the Holocaust, however, is that the potential for genocide exists and that many Nazis were ordinary men. It is important that history is communicated many-faceted and openly so that we do not forget what we have seen. Furthermore it may be problematic that traditional historical films by means of continuity editing are so skilfully made as to hide the fact that they have been manipulated - i.e. edited. They create the illusion of objectivity and disguise the subjectivity. In order to treat historical communication the position of the subject is very important.

This subjective position is one of the strengths of the art film. The artistic or experimental historical film is characterized by its reference to itself (meta level) - that is, it bares the very process in which the past is created instead of simply depicting the past. Generally this type of film is characterized by being in opposition to the mainstream film, which tends to settle for the simple meaning and instead it tries to communicate a complex view of the past. It is typically abrupt, fragmented, de-dramatised, can be collectivistic and attempts to be open-ended. More often than not it involves a multitude of voices and plays with different points of view, times and places. The art film can tell the stories of the past with more complexity and differentiation than the mainstream film. Judged by traditional historical standards the art film is better able to communicate the past properly and seriously than its mainstream big brother. The disadvantage with the art film, however, is that it has a tiny audience! Furthermore the art film is often at risk of losing the coherence which is an integral part of the classical film's process-oriented way of showing the past. The most obvious advantage, however, is the art film's ability to tell a story on different levels and with many facets to it.

A kind of conclusion on filmed history
As suggested above, an important point of departure for dealing with the historical film is to accept it on its own terms. This in turn means that norms appropriate to written history should not be blindly projected onto the historical film. Furthermore a critical approach is fundamental as it is with all other history. The historical film must be accepted as a vehicle for communicating those aspects of the past that written history cannot. From a phenomenological point of view, it could be said that it is the feeling of the past, a sense of the past or a poetic speculation on the events of the past, which is the main strength of the historical feature film.

Alterations and manipulations should in serious historical films be seen as metaphorical ways of communicating an overall interpretation of the past as the director sees it. How this interpretation can be communicated depends on the narrative mode. The classical film holds advantages in the process-oriented, dramatized and individual way of communicating the past. The art film has more to offer with regard to complexness and different points of view. But it should be remembered that the narrative modes are contrasts without well-defined boundaries. Many films are situated in-between the two narrative modes, and theoretically there is nothing to prevent serious, balanced and many-facetted historical films. Claus Bryld concludes that the goal must be to find a balance between the traditional film's narrow and undialectical representation and the broad and dialectical approach of the art film (and traditional written history).

The filmmaker obviously has a lot to offer as communicator of the past. In order to be accepted as a historian, however, he needs to accept responsibility concerning his treatment of the past by presenting the past not just as the setting for a good story but in the perspective of a serious interpretation of past events. On the other hand historians must accept the historical film as simply another way of representing the past than that of written history. If these principles were followed, historians could begin using historical films to a much larger extent in their teaching and research.

When we talk for instance of D-Day, even the most conservative historian would have to admit that images from Saving Private Ryan pop up in our mind and that they are more concrete and easier to relate to emotionally than are the images we create when we read about the same event. Images on the screen can make us feel and sense the past to a much greater degree than is possible for traditional written history.

1 Merleau-Ponty, 1993, p. 22 (my translation).

2 Bryld, 1996, p. 54.

3 Rosenstone, 1995b, p. 61.


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Ferro, Marc: The use and abuse of history, or, How the past is taught, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.

Grindon, Leger: Shadows of the Past - studies in the historical fiction film, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1994.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice: Filmen og den nye psykologi, in Philisophia - Tidskrift for filosofi, Århus, Årg. 22, nr. 3-4, 1993, pp. 11-24.

Nielsen, Carsten Tage: Kulørt Historie - krig og kultur I moderne medier, Roskilde Universitetsforlag, 1998.

Rosenstone, Robert A.: Revisioning History. Film and the Construction of a new Past, Princeton University Press, 1995a.

Rosenstone, Robert A.: , Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1995b.

Short, K.R.M.(ed.): Feature Films as History, London, Croom Helm, 1981.

Sorlin, Pierre: The Film in History. Restaging the Past, Blackwell, Oxford, 1980.

Sørensen, Nils Arne: "Om film og historie - nogle metodiske reflektioner," in Historie, 2001:2, pp. 322-351.

Toplin, Robert Brent: History by Hollywood : the use and abuse of the American past, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1996.

Vonderau, Patrick (ed.): Film as history / History as film, Berlin, 1999.

White, Hayden: Historiography and Historiophoty, in American Historical Review, vol. 93, 1988, pp. 1193-1199.

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