Cinema and History: Leisure Meets Politics
Although the value of film as a primary historical source has long been recognised, especially in light of progress made in digitization techniques, such material is often overlooked in favour of ‘traditional’ documents. With the growth of cinema as a popular leisure time activity from the beginning of the 20th century onwards, films provide a valuable insight into the social, cultural and political climate in which they were both produced and received. However, the use of film as an historical source raises some important questions. Can a ‘morally’ compromised film be art without also serving as political propaganda? Can such a ‘document’ still serve as a useful historical source?
Used as a historical source, film blurs the boundaries between the cultural and the political. In the case of Nazi Germany, it is debatable as to whether primacy should be given to the intention or the effect of the films produced. Leni Riefenstahl, producer of two of the most infamous Nazi propaganda films, ‘Olympia’ (1936) and ‘Triumph of the Will’(1934), has since claimed that, although her films document, and arguably celebrate, the Nazi regime, her intentions were primarily artistic. Riefenstahl’s work is often held up as a piece of artistic excellence, a celebration of the beauty and elegance of the human body which uses pioneering camera and editing techniques. Reifenstahl, in reference to ‘Triumph of the Will’, claims ‘it is history. A pure historical film… it is film-vérité. It reflects the truth that was then in 1934, history. It is therefore a documentary. Not a propaganda film.’ But the product of her work cannot be ignored: her films served as powerful tools of political indoctrination for a dictatorial regime which would later embark on a programme of systematic extermination. Can a film associated so closely with such harrowing events be art, without also being propaganda?
Whilst my research focuses on films produced by, and under the supervision of a dictatorial regime, the blurred boundary between art and propaganda also prevails in the cinema of democratic regimes during war time. On the direction of Franklin Roosevelt in 1943, the US produced ‘Mission to Moscow’ (1943), a film intended to illustrate the similarities between the US and the Soviet Union, and thus to convince US audiences that Stalin was a sound and useful ally to have. It is therefore simplistic to equate ‘art’ with the cinema of democracies, and ‘propaganda’ with that of countries lacking democratic political structures. Especially during periods of war and international conflict, national cinema served as an important tool of political propaganda for democracies and dictatorships alike.
The films that Hollywood produces today aren’t without political implications, further illustrating the blurred boundary between the ‘cultural’ and the ‘political’. The film ‘American Sniper’ (2014) arguably fulfills the criteria of a ‘propaganda’ film, politically charged in nature through its celebration of American militarism and intervention in Iraq. An example that is perhaps less explicit can be found in Marvel’s ‘Avengers’ franchise. The latest film, ‘Captain America: Civil War’ (2016), explores the struggle between the will of international institutions and that of the individual citizen. In the film, Iron Man and Captain America argue about the appropriate extent of supranational control over the actions of the Avengers, a discussion reflecting contemporary disagreements about the powers and roles of supranational governing bodies, such as the European Union.
The task of using films as historical sources becomes even more complex for the historian when films adopt historical narratives. For example, in 1941 the Nazis produced their own dramatization of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Historians thus have to view these films not as accurate narratives of historical events, but as products of their time. The Nazi Titanic film attributes the sinking of the ship to the greed of British capitalists, thus demonising their liberal, democratic values in comparison to the principles of German National Socialism. This perspective is embodied by the one German officer on board who tries to warn that the ship will inevitably sink. Thus, the films that become useful to us as historical sources often employ the motif of historical narrative and ‘truth’ themselves. This use of ‘truthful’ historical narratives in cinema is of particular salience in dictatorial regimes, which tend to leave little room for any other ‘version’ of history to be discussed openly.
Whilst I am yet to draw any concrete conclusions from my research, my project has fundamentally altered the way I watch films and which historical sources I privilege. Whilst ‘official’ documents and written sources cannot be disregarded, their selection over other media often stems from a false distinction between the ‘cultural’ and ‘political’. Films, and the act of their reception in the cinema, are useful to the historians both as an important reflection of the past, and as tools used to actively shape it.