What is the most satisfying film?

“Film recordings as a time machine?” - Review of the first summer school

Trenches from the First World War, the Winter Palace in October 1917, the Warsaw Ghetto, the Nuremberg courtroom, a GDR bedroom: historical film recordings take us into bygone worlds. They suggest eyewitness and develop an effect, even if the viewer knows that the event was staged and that the documentary appearance of the material was created artificially. So what can historians do with such moving images? How can they be deconstructed in terms of their creation process, their design, their effect and at the same time used as historical sources for past societies? The summer school revolved around this question Historical film recordings as a time machine?, which took place from August 28 to September 1, 2017 at the Justus Liebig University in Giessen. The Department of History Journalism at the Historical Institute and the Center for Media and Interactivity (ZMI) had invited. The master’s and doctoral students from Gießen, Berlin, Jena and Vienna were offered a program that presented very different approaches to historical research on and with films.

Thomas Lindenberger
After Ulrike Weckel and Christina Benninghaus had welcomed the participants and presented the concept of the summer school, Thomas Lindenberger used his opening lecture for a concise overview of the potential of historical work with films. Lindenberger distinguished between questions of social history, archival science and historical culture, three dimensions that played an important role for the rest of the summer school. As Lindenberger pointed out, the beginnings of film and the development of cinema owe to technical innovation and the socio-cultural situation of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Early screenings were part of a commercial entertainment culture that was always shaped by the interests of the audience. There was no lack of contemporary criticism. The information services initiated in particular by the church as well as state censorship measures produced materials that today represent important historical sources for early film and its perception at the time. With reference to Siegfried Kracauer, Lindenberger stuck to the basic idea that the analysis of feature films, their creation and reception enable insights into the state of affairs of the respective society, that especially in commercially successful films, existing fears and desires and shared, contemporary, self-evident ideas are revealed. From a socio-historical point of view, films and their reception represent an absolutely indispensable source for the 20th century. This is particularly true for documentary film recordings in which - beyond the construction intentions and perspectives of the filmmakers - a non-film reality has left traces.

The fact that films are also an important medium for the presentation of history was demonstrated by the film presented by Thomas Lindenberger in a workshop Oktjabr (October) by Sergei Eisenstein clearly. Eisenstein's film is a reconstructed version of the masterpiece of the silent film era. Although the film, made on the 10th anniversary of the overthrow of the Provisional Government, obviously uses elaborate cinematic means and offers an artistically composed narrative, parts of the film recordings have been misunderstood as documentary recordings up to the present day. This is understandable insofar as Eisenstein carefully re-staged some historical events - such as the shooting at the insurgents on Petrograd Nevsky Prospect in July 1917 - using photographs. At the same time, however, according to Lindenberger, with the storming of the Winter Palace, which is the focus of the film, he created a myth that is still effective today. Based on John Reed's dramatic description Ten days that shook the world Eisenstein created a visually stunning depiction of the storming of the Winter Palace, which did not exist in this form, since the replacement of the Provisional Government by the Bolsheviks in October 1917 was more of a less spectacular coup in which the revolutionaries instead of barricades overcome, were able to penetrate through open back doors into the Winter Palace.

Forms of authentication used by Eisenstein - shooting at original locations, working with actors who look similar to the historical protagonists, re-enacting historical photographs - are still important elements of historical feature films, as is currently e.g. in Dunkirk or The star of India lets watch. As Lindenberger pointed out, such films always address the audience at the time they were made and are necessarily seen in the light of the current problem constellations. Historians, according to Lindenberger, are in demand as experts when it comes to the historical correctness of the film, but what is more important is their expertise in historical politics and the culture of remembrance. Since films often have a strong influence on historical consciousness, the interpretation of history they offer needs to be critically discussed. Not the correctness in detail, but the quintessence that the film offers, its interpretation of what happened back then and the perspective chosen should be the focus of the discussion. Feature films want and have to reach their audiences. Accusing them of condensing historical processes, inventing fictional characters or creating tension or melodrama doesn't get us very far. However, it can be asked whose story is told from which perspective, to what extent hidden interpretations are offered and who is actually assigned the power to make history and change reality.

Anja Horstmann (2nd from left)

The question of ideological goals and their implementation in cinematic narratives is particularly important for propaganda films. Anja Horstmann dedicates her dissertation to the film fragment ghetto from the spring of 1942. In the film material, a certain view of life in the Warsaw ghetto is constructed, working with a mixture of staged and found situations. Certain aspects - such as the work in the ghetto workshops in contemporary photographs - were excluded. As Horstmann showed, the recordings were obviously shot and assembled for propaganda purposes. The film was supposed to prove that the Jews crammed into the ghetto were incapable of solidarity with one another and had instead built an inhuman class society in which wealthy Jews lived a comfortable life while people starved to death on the streets of the ghetto.

Much is known about the making of the film recordings from the diary entries of the "Jewish elder" Adam Czerniakow. However, it is unclear why the film was not completed. Coincidences or a lack of resources may have been responsible for this. Perhaps - according to Horstmann - it was no longer needed because the deportations from the Reich had already been completed and the regime did not want to feed the rumors about the fate of the deportees. Or maybe there were doubts about the convincing power of the film. It could only function as a propaganda film if the audience succeeded in eliminating all sympathy for starving Jews. Other Nazi films like Victim of the past called for people with mental and physical disabilities to be viewed with disgust. Would this - supported by montage, text and music - have also been successful for looking into the eyes of people close to starvation? A comparison suggested by Horstmann with 1941 in the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung published photographs shows that the narrative of the rich Jews incapable of humanity was also served there. The disturbance that the film triggers in today's viewer, for which the faces of the dying remain in the memory, has no equivalent in the small-format images from the BIS. The film, one could argue with reference to Marc Ferro quoted by Lindenberger, opens up perspectives and insights that the filmmakers could only control to a limited extent. Perhaps that was another reason why the film was not completed.

Michaela Scharf (left)

Films are made for an audience. In the case of the ambitious amateur films that Michaela Scharf from the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for History and Society in Vienna analyzes for her dissertation project, this audience consisted of family and friends and possibly also members of a film club. The social practice of recreational filming was complex. It developed on the basis of changed technical possibilities - the changing supply of (affordable) cine film cameras - with recourse to instructions and in the context of discourses and viewing habits, which in turn were presumably influenced by commercial film and professional documentary film. By ambitious amateur films, Scharf understands those films that have been post-processed, i.e. by editing, sound, text panels, animated film elements, etc. and thus show that a presentable end product should be created here. Such films are thematically devoted to one's own family, the residential area or the company, they show trips and current events. But there are also amateur films with fictional characters and actions. In their documentary quality, the films invite a double historical reading. On the one hand, they show images of an unassailable past material reality. On the other hand, they have to be seen as compositions in which - influenced by contemporary discourses and instructions - very specific excerpts of this reality were recorded on film material from a specific perspective. From the point of view of the film amateur, the practice of filming has opened up new possibilities for self-portrayal since the 1920s: as a sober chronicler, as a stroller, observer of nature, lover, educator, etc. The type of self-presentation could also take decidedly political forms, such as for example in the film presented by Scharf Vacation 1938, in which a middle-class Austrian couple presents themselves as convinced National Socialists: Fascinated by the grandeur of the Reichsautobahn and bridges, which are filmed in detail, and on a visit to Berchtesgarden, the car adorned with a small swastika flag.

Christina Benninghaus and Ulrike Weckel

Communication intentions go hand in hand with the production of films. They can inform, indoctrinate, entertain, disturb, touch, and fire the imagination. However, whether they achieve the intended effects is another matter. For many years, Ulrike Weckel has been interested in how the audience can be examined in media-historical works. Her workshop was about films that showed recordings from liberated concentration camps and were used by the Allies in the immediate post-war period to confront Germans with the atrocities of the Nazi era. As the movie The death mills Was shown for a week in the 52 cinemas of the American sector in Berlin at the beginning of 1946, the apparently low interest of the residents caused outrage. Only a minority of Berliners watched the film voluntarily. In an article launched by the American military government in Daily mirror According to one estimate, around 75% of the adult Berlin population who had not watched the film were accused of still adhering to National Socialism and of being “afraid of the truth”. Letters to the editor showed that the motives were diverse and there were different reasons why people did not want to watch the film. Just like contemporary film reviews in the press, these letters to the editor prove to be far more informative than the surveys of the cinema audience that were also available and were carried out by the American side with the help of questionnaires. Above all, the latter show how hopeful the Americans were that the filming would lead to a rethink. Historical reception research, as Weckel's case study could perhaps be generalized, always takes place in a tense relationship. Apparently neutral survey instruments also reflect the expectations of opinion researchers, whose prejudices are probably not hidden from media users. And the historian's view of the historical material is also influenced by her knowledge of later developments and her own viewing habits.

Anja Laukötter

This tension was also evident in Anja Laukötter's workshop, who was interested in the film Man and woman intimate from 1984 dedicated. Part of a large body of sources for sex education in 20th century film, this film is extraordinary in that it was produced at considerable expense in the late phase of the GDR and was widely received and discussed. According to contemporary survey results, the audience largely rated the film as successful, even if the interviewed viewers in no way felt they needed information on sexual matters, and although many would have preferred an even more revealing representation of the sexual relationship. The cinematic thematization of possible problems in a modern couple relationship tended to pick up on already familiar, milieu-specific convictions, namely that satisfactory sexuality requires open conversation between the partners. This could easily be linked to more general considerations on the connection between media use and changing values. Similar to Weckel, Laukötter also works with contemporary opinion polls, which, however, only allow indirect conclusions to be drawn as to what effect the film actually had. But they at least show the expectations placed in the film and the endeavor to delimit a specifically socialist form of fulfilled couple relationship from Western conditions.

Affects today's viewer Woman and man intimate strange and antiquated, which does not exclude the intellectual preoccupation with the questions raised in the film as well as being touched by the erotic passages at the end of the film. During the discussion it quickly became clear that the spontaneous reception of the film is heavily dependent on individual expectations, perhaps also on viewing habits, which must be reflected in the historical analysis. Contextualization via contemporary materials on the making of the film and on audience reactions on the one hand, and comparison with other contemporary educational films on the other, proved to be necessary and effective historical work steps in order to arrive at an intersubjective interpretation of the film and its effect.

In contrast to texts, which in published form are based on the work of publishers and editors, but the vast majority of which can clearly be ascribed to an author, films are to a large extent joint products. They arise under cost constraints and time pressure and make compromises necessary. Films benefit from the creativity and intelligence of a group of filmmakers and reflect necessary negotiation processes. The workshop with Jan Peter, his mini-series, offered fascinating insights into professional practice in today's television productions 14 - World War I Diaries to be counted among the best of what history television currently has to offer.

Jan Peter

The series, the continuation of which is in preparation for the interwar period, presents the First World War from a historical perspective. The focus is on the lives of an international, generational and socially mixed group of diary writers. A mixture of artfully collaged historical film recordings and re-enactment shows how the First World War inscribed itself in people's lives. Their fates, their actions, interpretations and experiences are at the center of the presentation. Personalities were selected who, even under the conditions of the war, retained the ability to design themselves as a knowing, often also acting subject.

In an impressive mixture of reflexivity, self-confidence and openness, free of any self-infatuation, Jan Peter gave the participants of the summer school insights into the conceptual considerations, the work processes and decisions that led to the development of 14 - World War I Diaries underlie.Two comparisons proved to be extremely fruitful in order to better understand how the series tells history and deals with the historical material - the first-person documents and the historical footage from feature and documentary films: The German and English versions of the series work with different ones Narrative forms. While the German viewers are introduced to the respective historical situation by a narrator through short cuts of historical material, the BBC version manages without such explanations at all. A second look, however, shows that here, too, it is not only quoted directly from historical personal testimonies, but that the diary writers are given explanations that seem necessary for today's audience.

A second comparison, namely between passages from Ernst Jünger's war diaries and the literary representation of his experiences in In steel thunderstorms and the corresponding film scene showed how the filmmakers transformed self-portrayal and memory into feature film scenes and thereby condensed several passages into one scene. The result is a portrait that, as authentic as it may appear to the viewer, is precisely that: a portrait created with filmic means that bears the handwriting of the person portraying and - as well thought out as it may be - an always questionable interpretation of the historical figure offers.

Historical work with and about films depends on sources. Preserving them is anything but a matter of course. As Ines Bayer from the Deutsches Filminstitut Frankfurt explained, the first film archives came into being when, at the end of the 1920s, the switch was made from silent to sound films, which made silent films commercially worthless. A similar development can currently be observed, insofar as analog films can no longer be shown in many cinemas. However, the digitization of the film heritage of the 20th century is still a long way off. As became clear during a tour of the film archive in Wiesbaden, there are tons of films, some of which are available as negatives, others as copies (several copies that may differ in quality and editing). How many of the older films are actually still available is difficult to determine, especially for German-speaking countries, as there is no central film archive. While films were systematically collected and kept in the GDR, there is no compulsory deposit in the Federal Republic of the kind that has existed for books since 1913. Important holdings are stored in the Federal Archives, in the Deutsche Kinemathek and in the German Film Institute (DIF). Its film and estate archive was the destination of an excursion that completed the summer school. In conversations with Michael Schurig and Isabelle Bastian, it became clear under which conditions these archives work. The aim of the DIF is on the one hand to preserve the film heritage. Not only feature films are kept, but also documentary film material, amateur films and commercial films such as advertising films. The film archive also collects key materials for research on film history that relate to the making, marketing and consumption of films. This includes the estates of actors and directors, documents from production companies, cinema posters and advertising booklets, film magazines and star postcards as well as costumes, models and other three-dimensional objects. When talking to the archivists, it quickly became clear that there are still many treasures to be found here. Even during the discussion, the first ideas for screenings of unknown films and for research projects emerged.

The summer school concluded with a visit to the Filmmuseum in Frankfurt, where the curator Stefanie Plappert introduced the concept of the permanent exhibition. Film mediation - through showing films in the in-house cinema, through film rental and festivals, and through a fascinating permanent exhibition - is one of the core tasks of the DIF. The participants in the summer school were enthusiastic about the exhibition on cinematic storytelling.

In conclusion, the summer school offered a multifaceted picture of working with and about film. All speakers agreed to provide insights into their own scientific practice and also to discuss difficulties in dealing with the historical source material. In addition to interesting film examples, the students were also given access to archival sources that were important for the respective research project.

Digitization makes it possible today not only to analyze films as historical material in the archive, but also to present them in lectures and publications using film stills or excerpts. This makes it much easier today to work on films that are unknown and therefore not present to the audience. A complete reconstruction of past visual universes is not possible, but it is precisely through contextualization and comparison that the viewing habits of the past can be reconstructed much better today than they were a few years ago. In historical research it is thus possible to describe the people of the 20th century more clearly than ever Eye animal To be understood: informed, entertained, shocked, bored and moved, sometimes also shaped or at least influenced by moving images.