Which historical films are underestimated?

The subject of “film as a historical source” is a broad field. However, contemporary historians have not dealt with this enough - even though film depictions can enrich future projects with regard to research on the history of mentality and approaches to didactic history.

The first milestone in the discussion about opportunities and risks in dealing with “history films” or “history in film” was set by the workshop “Film narratives between contemporary historiography and popular cultural appropriation” held on October 17 and 18, 2013 in the Historical Museum in Hanover. The interdisciplinary event was itself a result of the projects of the “Inner German Border” research group at the University of Hanover and was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation.

In his introductory lecture, GÜNTER RIEDERER (Wolfsburg) discussed the relationship between history and film with reference to the example of “Rommel” (2012, director: Niki Stein). The TV production about Hitler's Wüstenfeldherrn, which the ARD broadcast in early November 2012, was already accompanied by a great media hype and a (media) staged conflict about the authenticity of what was shown. In the run-up to the broadcast, a TV plot quickly turned into a “drama about the sovereignty of interpretation”, which raised immediate questions for research and the mediation of history: How far can the plot of a film simplify what happened? How strictly does it have to orientate itself to historical circumstances or how far can it move away from it? Finally: What consequences does this have for the scientific handling of films as source documents and what does this mean for the conveyance of history?

Contemporary historical research has long been aware of the need to deal with the medium of film as an ephemeral and emotional channel of conveying historical contexts - especially when it is asked how films contribute to the collective formation and consolidation of images of history. So far, however, historians and filmmakers have largely avoided each other. But a change is slowly becoming apparent here, and films with historical content are also arriving in the field of history. As an attractive field of research, they open up a multitude of highly specialized fields of activity, from the investigation of transference and mediation practices through change and limits of what can be shown to the production of contexts of meaning through films, which are themselves not only the result of an industry, but mentality, hopes, norms and reflect the longings of societies.

The first panel built on Riederer's remarks and discussed the opportunities and risks of film as a historical source. First, CHRISTOPH CLASSEN (Potsdam) took a critical look at how the medium has been used up to now. For a long time, historical historians ascribed at most a compensatory, illustrative value to film, with the “cultural turn” the perspective and interest in the influence of the mass media on cultural memory and the perception of history shifted. Today, there are increasing numbers of studies that deal with media history, but largely originate from film and media studies. Media history as a field of contemporary history is recognized in historical studies, but still without its own institution with few interdisciplinary approaches. A particular problem is the difficult access to the media archives of public broadcasters and private broadcasters: there is no law in Germany that prescribes archiving of sources. In addition, researchers are often denied access to the archives.

In his lecture, RICHARD RONGSTOCK (Nuremberg) made it clear that films must be "read" as a source of mentality history by accepting their construction or taking into account their historical origins. Rongstock underpins Riederer's statements that film always works in two directions: On the one hand, it has to find its audience in order to be affordable and to adapt as much as possible to the changes in the intellectual climate of a society. At the same time, he picks up trends, reinforces stereotypes and shapes orientation patterns in the audience. Film analysis can help to evaluate the mentality-historical background of a film - among other things, if you look at which clichés the plot uses, which actors play which roles and what that says about the prevailing zeitgeist. Three things have to be taken into account here: the means of creation, the (technical) history of the film and the historical context from which it arises.

In her lecture, ANNETTE DORGERLOH (Berlin) examined the role of spatial creations (set images, film decorations) as actors in the film scene. Using the furnishings of rogue apartments in the DEFA film of the 1950s, she demonstrated how the backdrop and spatial setting in the film unconsciously guide the viewers' impressions and constructions of meaning and deepen them in the direction of a certain statement. In this way they develop effective power in the sense of an interpretative authority. Especially in the context of the 'Cold War', the productions presented by Dorgerloh in “Berlin, Ecke Schönhauser” (1957, directed by Gerhard Klein) or “Visiting from the Zone” (1958, directed by Rainer Wolffhardt) subtly served as a specific enemy image to solidify in the audience.

Panels 2 and 3 were devoted to the topic of “contemporary history in cinematic narratives”. The focus was on how historical content was previously presented in films and what echo it found in the collective memory. CHRISTIAN HELLWIG (Hanover) looked at (West German) productions from the 1950s and 1960s on the topic of the inner-German border and referred in his lecture to the agenda-setting, commenting and interpreting function of the medium with regard to the contemporary historical context. Although many of these films are largely neglected today, they played an important role in shaping opinions about the division of Germany in their time. The central narrative in films such as “Sky Without Stars” (1955, director: Helmut Käutner) is the failure to flee, usually through shots at the border. In addition, the message is clear: not only does the film make the division visible on the basis of the inner-German border; it is also accused and condemned as inhuman.

PHILIPP WILLE's (Leipzig) lecture was the only completely cinematic contribution to the workshop. In his essay based on cuts from scenes from “Polizeiruf 110”, Wille scrutinized the portrayal of socialist moral concepts in the GDR crime film. He also dealt with the intended message that was to be brought to the audience: In crime, those behaviors that deviate from the socialist norm manifest themselves. Deviance and abnormality are therefore “bad” behaviors. Those who do not take a clear “class standpoint” and are all too easily impressed by the sheen of “quick money” are susceptible to the “crooked path”. In contrast, the film stages solidarity with one another in a collective, so that the actual plot does not represent the crime itself, but the individual conflict of conscience between the communist ideal and one's own self-serving actions. In addition, the "Polizeiruf 110" episodes also deal with conflicts about the actual living conditions in the GDR in the 1980s and can at the same time be understood as an effort to make the state organs (above all the People's Police) more interesting.

In a comparison of the youth films “Insel der Schwäne” (1983, director: Herrmann Zschoche) and “Christiane F. - We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” (1981, director: Ulrich Edel), BIRGIT SCHAPOW (Berlin) analyzed the cinematic image of the divided city of Berlin from the perspective of two children who moved from the country. In both films, moving to the city is described as a largely “non-place” for the early adolescent development of the protagonists. In the West German production "Christiane F." the large housing estate is shown as anonymous and unidentified, as an eternally dark sleeping city, West Berlin as a bare, night-time neon jungle with no space for individual lifestyles. In the DEFA film “Island of the Swans”, the criticism of the concrete sleeping cities in the film was almost inevitably politically charged: because the SED saw it as an affront to its housing policy, the film was only allowed to be shown two years after its completion. The staging of the East Berlin district of Marzahn as an unfinished settlement with many construction sites stands for the sharply limited development opportunities for young people. In addition to the pictures, however, he also addresses the generation conflicts between the planners of these cities and their children who will ultimately inhabit the prefabricated housing estates.

On the next workshop day, KATHRIN NACHTIGALL (Berlin) gave an insight into the image of America in DEFA feature films from the 1950s. Using examples such as "Ernst Thälmann - Son of His Class" (1954, director: Kurt Maetzig), Nachtigall presented the GDR's anti-American stance in the 'Cold War'. By mixing historical facts with fictional details, the film conveys a clear message: Everything negative that happens to the protagonists is more or less due to American influence. The films examined by Nachtigall usually assign the character appearing as an American to the attributes of a large industrialist with a luxurious lifestyle, whose personality is not further explored, but remains abstract, superficial and in the background of what is happening. From there the figure pulls the strings of world affairs. In “Council of the Gods” (1950, director: Kurt Maetzig), comparisons between National Socialist and American politics are not only drawn subtly.

JULIA WEBER's (Leipzig) lecture focused on the representation of the GDR in film productions from 1989 to the present day. Weber examined 47 TV productions that ran on public broadcasting at prime time. Weber stated that the Soviet Zone / GDR past has become a promising content for TV movies of the post-reunification period in recent years. The prototype of these films is a docudrama that depicts the moments of crisis in German-German history as a private family conflict. The (fictional) constellation of the characters is usually designed in such a way that one family member (the father) is an employee of the Ministry for State Security (MfS), another family member (the mother) does not come to terms with the circumstances in the GDR and expresses thoughts of fleeing. The children are drawn into the conflict between the two - innocently. Films like “Die Frau vom Checkpoint Charlie” (2007, director: Miguel Alexandre) or the series “Weißensee” (since 2010, production: Regina Ziegler) aim for authenticity in depicting everyday life while at the same time interpreting the GDR as a dictatorship of the MfS and the border regime.

Using the film example “Der Turm” (2012, director: Christian Schwochow), BJÖRN BERGOLD (Magdeburg) examined the reception of GDR history on television among young people. After analyzing several guided interviews, Bergold comes to the conclusion that the young people do not perceive the film as a film that conveys historical processes, but rather tells a fictional story. In contrast, young people seem to ascribe more authenticity to contemporary witnesses because - in contrast to films and contemporary historical literature - they give them an undisguised, personal view of what happened.

The fourth and final panel was devoted to practice: the use of audiovisual media in science, museums and popular culture. When using audiovisual media in exhibitions, JAN KINDLER (Dresden) spoke about the compromises that have to be made in terms of content, the type of presentation and the context in which films are made. Exhibitions always include simplifications of complex historical contexts, but visitors should know what they are seeing and where it comes from. This applies to both the classic object and the films shown. These can be used in two ways: as a description and background for other exhibits or as stand-alone exhibits. The latter also means the need for evidence and contextualization. In addition, they are always related to the overall exhibition architecture.

LUTZ SCHRÖDER (Hamburg) dealt with history games as a powerful medium for conveying history. This has so far been largely ignored by contemporary historians, although digital games have been taking up historical topics for around 50 years. Schröder presented the strategy game "World in Conflict" (2007, developer: Massive) in detail. This sketches a counterfactual scenario of a Third World War that broke out in the early 1990s with simultaneous reference to actual historical events (collapse of the Soviet Union). Games like "World of Conflict" have the potential to impart historical knowledge to the player, but also to put him in the position of earlier protagonists in decision-making scenarios and conflicts of action. The consequences of one's own actions (experienced in the game) enable a more intensive examination of the historical context than if it were only viewed “from the outside”.

RALF RATHS (Munster) was the last speaker to report on his positive experience of using Facebook as an active and passive medium for conveying history. Raths is director of the German Tank Museum in Munster, which has built up a small and loyal Facebook fan community over the last few years. Facebook is an ideal means for a museum to increase reach and thus the number of visitors, although its potential as an instrument for conveying history is still underestimated. It is true that maintaining a Facebook page is very time-consuming: Comments have to be moderated around the clock and in the shortest possible time. But from a marketing strategy perspective, it is particularly relevant that communication via Facebook is free and serves to quickly make things known, set topics, discuss them and at the same time find out what makes the target group “tick”.

The résumé of the workshop was almost unanimous: films and audiovisual media in general are to be seen as a modern corpus of sources that will have a major impact on research. It is therefore important to deal with them more intensively than before. A variety of approaches and possibilities are offered here: from the approach to the history of reception and technical aspects to the illumination of novel methods of generating knowledge and conveying history. The film analysis, taking into account the means of creation, the technical development process and the historical context of a film, will be the tool with which the contemporary historian must learn to identify films as sources. It is also about breaking down reservations and boundaries between individual disciplines, namely history and film studies.

Conference overview:

Welcome and introduction (Carl-Hans Hauptmeyer, Thomas Schwark, Christian Hellwig)

Opening lecture

Günter Riederer (Wolfsburg): A house with many rooms. On the current state of the relationship between history and film

Panel 1: Film as a historical source
Moderation: Lu Seegers (Hamburg)

Christoph Classen (Potsdam): Film = truth 24 times a second? Highlights of the relationship between contemporary history and film

Richard Rongstock (Nuremberg): Film as a source of the history of mentality

Annette Dorgerloh (Berlin): Dangerously Attractive West: Rogue Apartments in DEFA Feature Films of the 1950s and 1960s

Panel 2: Contemporary history in cinematic narratives I
Moderation: Annette Dorgerloh (Berlin)

Christian Hellwig (Hanover): Extradited - kidnapped - shot: escapes at the inner-German border in West German films from the 1950s and 1960s

Philipp Wille (Leipzig): Morals in "Polizeiruf 110" and in GDR society

Birgit Schapow (Berlin): Christiane F. and Stefan K. - City and youth in divided Berlin in the early 1980s

Panel 3: Contemporary history in cinematic narratives II
Moderation: Christoph Classen (Potsdam)

Kathrin Nachtigall (Berlin): A constructed enemy image - America in the DEFA historical film

Julia Weber (Leipzig): The GDR in the feature film

Björn Bergold (Magdeburg): “The Tower”: On the reception of GDR history on television by young viewers

Panel 4: Audiovisual media in science, museums, popular culture
Moderation: Ben Thustek (Teistungen)

Jan Kindler (Dresden): More than “colorful pictures”. Historical footage in the museum

Lutz Schröder (Hamburg): History games as an opportunity for the science of history

Ralf Raths (Munster): “Wehrmacht? I like it! “Facebook as a communication tool