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Creating Historical Understanding through film - A Holocaust Case Study

Creating Historical Understanding through film - A Holocaust Case Study

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Published by Tim McCulloch

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Published by: Tim McCulloch on Jul 24, 2010
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The challenge of creating historical understanding through film is a large one. Thedifficulties for documentary films are just as pressing as for fictional representations.Historians who work in traditional written historiography have had a difficult time infirstly accepting history on film and secondly in developing means to effectively andcritically analyse such historical representations. Film is not a window on the past andit would be a mistake to expect that it be so. Much of one’s approach to history onfilm depends on how we define history and its role. It is important to realise thathistory is not an absolute truth waiting to be found but is created by those who work in either words or images. Historical film can certainly be an effective way of creatinghistorical understanding and it does so in different ways to traditional written history.We must be careful not to judge historical film by the same standards that we woulduse for written history but must also remain aware of some of the dangers thathistorical film can pose. Alan Resnais’s 1955 film
 Night and Fog,
is a reflection of the historical moment in which it was made. Steven Spielberg’s 1993 epic,
Schindler’s List 
is an interesting example of fictional film aiming to impart historicalunderstanding. They both raise the issue of how to depict an event that many consider to be ‘unspeakable.’Tony Barta raises the question in his article
Screening the Past,
what do we contributeto what we see?
1
To a certain extent each viewer takes from a film what he or she brought to it. Viewers have to make a continual effort when viewing historical film toremind themselves that what they are witnessing is not the past but a representation of it. Showing the past as it was is impossible.
2
 A film is not shot but is built in theediting room and what the viewer sees is a construction of the director. This is particularly true when looking at documentary films. The verisimilitude, or appearance of truth can convince a viewer that they are looking through a window onthe past. The images that we see are not unmediated and we do not experience theevents, as the original participants would have. The images are mediated by theintervention of the filmmaker. Rosenstone poses an interesting analogy of a shell firedfrom a ship, onto land, which then explodes. When we see this on film, it is importantto remember that the shell we saw fired is not the one that explodes as no cameracould follow that shell. What we see is a construction, which is not to say that the
1
Barta, T. “Screening the Past: History since the cinema”, in
Screening the Past: Film and therepresentation of History,
Praeger, 1998, p. 2.
2
Ibid, p. 4
 
shell does not explode, but that the audience does not see it.
3
Specific elements of filmcan be factual, but invention is always necessary to create the historical narrative thatis needed to hold the audience’s attention, otherwise a larger historical truth would belost.Abrash and Wolkowitz put forward the argument that history is a socially constructednarrative told from particular perspectives.
4
 They argue from a post-structuralist perspective that truth is a subjective position; essentially that each person’s concept of truth is drawn from their subjective position. History takes many forms, and none of these are innocent or objective.
5
Our aims in doing history affect how we represent itand this is true of history in writing and history in film.
6
 History itself is not absolutefact. When considering historical film it is important to realise that history is anargument, a debate between historians with differing views. History is not essentially journalistic in character.
7
Abrash and Wolkowitz argue that history on film need not be objective and that it should be created to counter the prevailing narrative.
8
Inconsidering end of history arguments like Fukuyama’s
 End of History
thesis, Landyinterprets this in terms of the notion that traditional historiography is now playingsecond fiddle to history created on film. What we may be seeing is not the end of history but the end of the traditional 19
th
century historical narrative.
9
 Spielberg’s film,
Schindler’s List 
has received criticism on the basis that it is notaccurate, that it eliminates data, distorts characters and mingles fact and fiction.
10 
Rosenstone puts forward the argument that we should not judge history by the samestandards that we judge written history.
By the standards of written history, whatappears on the screen can never satisfy the historian, as going from the page to the
3
Rosenstone, A. “History in Images/History in Words: Reflections on the possibility of Really puttinghistory onto Film”, in
The American Historical Review,
vol. 93, no. 5, 1998, p. 1179
4
Abrash, B. and Walkowitz, D. “Sub/Versions of History: a mediation of film and historical narrative”,in
 History Workshop Journal,
no. 38, 1994, p. 203
5
 
Landy, M. “Introduction”, in
 Historical Film: History and memory in media,
Rutgers UniversityPress, 2001, p. 2
6
 
Rosenstone, A. “Good fight: History, memory, documentary”, in
Visions of the Past: The challengeof film to our idea of history,
Harvard University Press, 1995, p. 110
7
 
Abrash, B. and Walkowitz, D. “Sub/Versions of History: a mediation of film and historicalnarrative”, in
 History Workshop Journal,
no. 38, 1994, p. 205.
8
Ibid, p. 213
9
Landy, M. “Historical Capital: mourning, melodrama and nazism”, in
Cinematic uses of the past,
University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p. 229
10
Landy, M. “Introduction”, in
 Historical Film: History and memory in media,
Rutgers UniversityPress, 2001, p. 12
 
screen changes the meaning the past. Raack argues that written history is too linear and narrow and that only film can ever hope to approximate real life.
But it would bea mistake to attempt to or expect a film to approximate real life. Rather empathy or  personal knowledge can be transmitted that can prompt further debate or facilitateinsight into certain topics. Jarvie on the other hand argues that film suffers from “poor information load” and “discursive weakness.”
History is not merely telling whathappened but should provide an insight into why and how. Jarvie argues that a filmcan embody this view, but how could the filmmaker “defend it, footnote it, rebutobjections and criticise the opposition?”
He goes on to argue that 24 frames per second is too fast to allow for reflection. But why can a film not be stopped, evidencechecked and the film restarted, like a written text? Finally, another criticism of filmedhistory is that film cannot convey enough information. 2 hours or even 10 hours of film cannot hope to rival a written text, but as Rosenstone points out, thinning of datadoesn’t necessarily make for poor history and length doesn’t determine accuracy.
15 
Film like any other medium has to utilise compression and omission to create acoherent narrative, but certainly film can be more susceptible to sacrificingcomplexity to action.As mentioned, history represents the historical moment in which it was made and thisis true of Resnais’s
 Night and Fog 
. The title itself refers to the ‘Night and Fog’decree, which stated that the victims were to be exterminated swiftly without anyevidence to remain.
The implication of this title as it relates to 1950s France is thefailure of France to confront its complicity in the ‘Final Solution’ under the Vichyregime. Essentially, by allowing the victims to pass out of history and memory, Hitler was allowed to achieve his aim. The words ‘Vichy’ or ‘Collaboration’ are not heard inthe film, but silence is the most powerful tool used. The Vichy government’scomplicity in the persecution of the Jews was extensive. In August 1940 a law banning press attacks on racial and religious groups was repealed. By mid 1941 allJews in France were subject to interment and by the end of the occupation 75,000 had
11
Rosenstone, A. “History in Images/History in Words: Reflections on the possibility of Really puttinghistory onto Film”, in
The American Historical Review,
vol. 93, no. 5, 1998, p. 1181
12
Ibid, p. 1175
13
Ibid, p. 1175
14
Ibid, p. 1175
15
Ibid, p. 1178
16
Rice, L. “Voice of Silence: Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog and collective memory in post HolocaustFrance, 1944-1974”, in
 Film and History,
vol. 32, no. 1, 2002, p. 23.

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