Historical Films


Certain films can be called metahistorical because they offer embedded or explicit critiques of the way history is conventionally represented. Courage Under Fire , for example, employs multiple flashbacks from different points of view to piece together a disputed account of a female air force officer's death. Walker (Alex Cox, 1987) brings present-day objects from consumer culture into its collage-like narrative of the nineteenth-century adventurer William Walker, who declared himself emperor of Nicaragua. What these films have in common is the attempt to interrogate the process of historical representation, both written and filmed. JFK presents a provocative interpretation of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in a highly charged, polemical style that mixes idioms, splices together documentary and historical footage, and uses montage editing to disorient and "agitate" the viewer in a manner that calls into question accepted interpretations of the past. Hitler—ein Film aus Deutschland ( Hitler: A Film from Germany , also known as Our Hitler , Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, 1978) attempts to confront the German amnesia concerning Hitler by rendering the phenomenon of Hitler's rise as a disorienting operatic production, calling to mind the German fascination with and investment in this form. The film's extreme length (seven hours and nine minutes), its use of dolls, dummies, and caricatures—Hitler is portrayed variously as a house painter, Chaplin's Great Dictator, a Frankenstein monster, and Parsifal—underscores the way historical events and characters take on meaning through their representations in the media.

In a very different way, a series of films that Rossellini made for French and Italian television late in his career can also be seen as metahistorical works. In these "history lessons," Rossellini explored the lives and times of various historical personages in a studiously nondramatic, nonpsychologized way. His films La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV ( The Rise of Louis XIV , 1966), Socrate ( Socrates , 1970), and L'Età di Cosimo de Medici ( The Age of the Medici , 1973) were made with nonprofessional actors and avoid following the dramatic arc of most fictional historical films. Rossellini attempts to capture the dailiness of life in past historical times, bringing an almost documentary approach to the treatment of the past.

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