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Deficiencies: Unfortunately, the article on this central film genre has so far hardly been documented with sources. This is particularly noticeable in the inadequate introduction, which gives a dubious definition. See also the article discussion page - Zulu55 ( discussion ) ignorance 14:52, Jul 15, 2014 (CEST)

As documentary are all non-fiction - or Factual Films called.

The term, first mentioned in 1926 in a review of the film Moana by John Grierson , was supposed to underline a special quality of authenticity. This did not contradict recognizable narrative reshaping of reality and staging interventions in the existing “factual material”. Documentary filmmaking authenticity is to be understood primarily as a reception effect and not as a specific impression of reality.

There is a wide range of different types of documentary film, ranging from trying to create a document that is as pure as possible, to docu-soap and docu-drama .

Truth and authenticity

A documentary film claims to be authentic . The viewer's expectations of a documentary film are different from the expectations of a feature film. In the case of fictional films, the viewer expects a made-up narrative - in the case of documentaries, the viewer expects a narrative that is based on reality.

“For me it doesn't really matter what means a film works with, whether it's an actor's film with staged images or a documentary. A good film is about the truth, not the reality. "

The artistic documentary film often differs formally from many more journalistic documentary formats in that it lacks an omniscient commentary.

The experimental documentary film as a sub-genre of the experimental film playfully uses elements and conventions of the documentary film.



Rudolf Poch

By definition , the first moving images were documentaries: individual shots that captured moments from life on film ( the arrival of a train at the station in La Ciotat , the docking boat , workers leaving the Lumière works , see Lumière brothers ). In early films at the end of the 19th century, the representation of events still dominated. Most of the time, due to technical limitations, hardly any stories were told: the large cameras only had space for little film material.

One of the pioneers of documentary film is the Austrian ethnographer Rudolf Pöch , who from 1901 to 1906 captured sensational images of the indigenous peoples of New Guinea in sound and image.



In 1922 Robert J. Flaherty produced the full-length documentary Nanuk, the Eskimo (1922), in which Flaherty also used staging as a cinematic medium. The amateur actors “played” parts of the plot for the camera . Among other things, Flaherty insisted that no rifle be featured in the film, even though his protagonist owned a rifle. He had half an igloo built so that the camera could film life inside the igloo. Flaherty was criticized at the time for his semi-fictional way of working, which mixed observations and staging without comment.

Cultural film

In Germany, cultural film is one of the oldest documentary film genres. Already in the time of the Weimar Republic , the dealt Ufa , which had its own culture film studio in Berlin-Steglitz, d with the production of educational and instructional films. H. popular science films about animals, nature, medicine and travel that were shown in the accompanying program of the cinemas. Under the direction of Wolfmar Junghans and his successor Ulrich KT Schulz , this special studio developed into the best of its kind in the world in the following years.

City theme

The European realistic tradition focused on urban environments in films such as Rien que les heures (1926) by Alberto Cavalcanti , Berlin: The Symphony of the Big City (1927) by Walter Ruttmann and The Man with the Camera (1929) by Dsiga Wertow . However, with their highly artificial, sometimes expressionistic or alienating approach, these early forms transcend the later genre boundaries of documentary film.

1930s and 1940s

Newsreel and propaganda

The newsreel tradition is an important tradition in documentary film. The events filmed for the newsreel were also often re-enacted, but rarely invented. For example, many battle scenes were re-enacted as the cameraman usually didn't appear until after the battle. Dsiga Wertow , who founded the documentary film group Kinoki in 1921 , produced the monthly Russian event show Kino-Pravda from February 1922 . Frank Capra's Why We Fight was a seven-part film series commissioned by the US government to convince domestic audiences of the need to wage war.

National Socialism

Some of the most famous German propaganda films - e.g. B. Leni Riefenstahl's film Triumph des Willens and Fritz Hippler's The Eternal Jew - were made as documentaries under National Socialism. Documentary film production received more support after 1933 than before and was expanded in a targeted manner. The Ufa operational in Potsdam-Babelsberg mid-1930s under the direction of Nicholas Kaufmann two Culture film studios with special equipment for underwater filming and for the then brand new microphotography. The production of non-fictional, v. a. educational films outnumbered feature film production by far. Apart from the films by Leni Riefenstahl and Walter Ruttmann , most of these cultural films are hardly interesting in terms of film history today.


In the 1930s documentary filmmaker and film theorist John Grierson argued in his essay First Principles of Documentary that Robert Flaherty's film Moana (1926) had "documentary value" and established a set of principles for documentary film. According to Grierson, the cinema's potential to observe life could lead to a new art form; the 'original' actor and the 'real' scene are better suited to interpret the modern world than fiction, and the raw material is more real than what is played. In this respect, Grierson partly agrees with Wertow's contempt for the 'bourgeois' feature film. In his essays, Dsiga Wertow had advocated showing life “as it is”; H. the unobserved or surprised life. After his film Drifters (1929), Grierson established himself as the leading documentary filmmaker of the British documentary film movement of the 1930s and headed the GPO Film Unit .

Since the Second World War

Direct Cinema and Cinéma Vérité

The films Harlan County, USA ( Barbara Kopple ), Dont Look Back ( DA Pennebaker ), Lonely Boy ( Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor ) and Chronique d'un été (1960) ( Jean Rouch ) are counted as Cinéma vérité and Direct Cinema . Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there are important differences between Cinéma Vérité and American Direct Cinema, whose pioneers include Richard Leacock , Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles Brothers. The directors take different positions as far as the level of intervention is concerned. Kopple and Pennebaker, for example, prefer a minimum of interference - the ideal case would be pure observation - while Rouch, Koenig and Kroitor consciously intervene and provoke reactions.

In Germany, Klaus Wildenhahn was particularly influenced by Direct Cinema.

Documentary and feature film

Cinéma Vérité shares with Italian neorealism a tendency to film laypeople in their original locations, and the French Nouvelle Vague made frequent use of off-script dialogue and hand-held cameras and synchronized sound.

Documentary and Politics

In the 1960s and 1970s, the documentary was often seen as a political weapon in the fight against neocolonialism or capitalism in general, especially in Latin America. La Hora de los hornos (1968) The Hour of Fire by Octavio Getino and Fernando E. Solanas influenced an entire generation of filmmakers. Political documentary films still play an important role today, be it the films by the Austrian director Hubert Sauper or the films by the German film producer Kathrin Lemme , whose documentary Eisenfresser (director: Shaheen Dill-Riaz ) u. a. won the Grimme Prize in 2010.

nature and environment

The behavioral researcher and animal filmmaker Heinz Sielmann was already working on his first documentary animal films during the Second World War . After the war he made internationally acclaimed films. He received his first award in 1953, the German Film Prize with the film ribbon in silver , for directing Quick - the squirrel . He also worked as a photographer on the semi-documentary film The Hellstrom Chronicle , which won an Oscar in 1972 for best documentary film .

The first documentary films of the underwater world were made by the French marine researcher Jacques-Yves Cousteau , as well as the Austrian diving pioneer, marine and behavioral researcher Hans Hass , who also made underwater films in the 1940s with a self-developed “ diving lung ”. The film Pirsch unter Wasser was made as early as 1942 and, in particular in the 1950s and 1960s, various highly regarded underwater films and, from the 1960s, also sociological-critical observations in the television series Wir Menschen .

The 1952 film Lights Under Water is the world's first colored underwater film.

In 1953, James Algar made one of the most successful animal films with The Desert Lives . The demanding artistic preparation through editing and music established this genre as a full-length family film .

The producer Hans Domnick traveled with his wife Maria from North to South America from 1958 to 1961 and shot the documentary Panamericana - Traumstraße der Welt , which became so extensive that it had to be split into two parts. The film received the Silver Bear at the 1961 Berlinale.

The zoologist Bernhard Grzimek became even better known , who first shot the film No Place for Wild Animals with his son Michael Grzimek in 1956 and was the first German to receive an Oscar for the documentary Serengeti Must Not Die (1959) after the Second World War. Michael Grzimek had a fatal accident during filming.

Some animal documentaries work with trained animals. This is not documentation in the strict sense of the word. Often, however, the shooting team also consciously influences the scene, e.g. B. by provoking the animals. The character of a documentary is only preserved here if this is made transparent to the viewer or if it undoubtedly corresponds to a typical event (appearance of a prey). In a notorious negative example, the 1958 Academy Award film White Wilderness , engineers from the Walt Disney Company constructed a snow-covered spinning table to create the impression of wildly wandering lemmings who then plunged themselves over a cliff into the sea. The deception shapes the popular understanding of lemmings to this day. In fact, they move in swarms at times, but refrain from mass suicide.

Special subgenres

Compilation movie

Compilation film refers to a film that consists of newly assembled archive film material, interviews and game scenes. The pioneer was Esfir Schub with The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927). More recent examples include The Ordinary Fascism by Mikhail Romm , Point of Order (1964) by Emile de Antonio on the McCarthy Hearings, and The Atomic Café , which was created entirely from material that the US government had produced for the population via atomic 'Elucidate' radiation. The soldiers were z. B. declares that nothing can happen to them even if they are irradiated as long as they keep their eyes and mouth closed. The Last Cigarette (1999) combines testimony from managers in the American tobacco industry with archival material promoting the benefits of smoking.

Essay film

Essay film is a borderline form of non-fictional film . The voiceover banned in Direct Cinema returns, but loses its semi-official, authoritarian, pseudo-objective character. Major essay filmmakers include Guy Debord , Chris Marker , Raoul Peck, and Harun Farocki . Feature film director Dominik Graf also occasionally moves on the terrain of documentary essay films, at least since 2000 with Munich - Secrets of a City .


A mockumentary is faked documentation that is used for entertainment purposes or to shake people up so that they don't believe everything that is shown to them.

Scripted Reality (pseudo-documentation)

Scripted Reality is a simulated documentation in which the documentation is not parodied but imitated.

Commercial win

Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11 made film history in June 2004: never before had a documentary made it to the top of the US box office charts. The previous film by Moore, Bowling for Columbine (2002), achieved record results in the USA. The film Fahrenheit 9/11 has approximately $ 222 million in cinemas worldwide . recorded. This makes it the most financially successful documentary of all time. The second most financially successful documentary is currently The Journey of the Penguins, with revenues of around $ 127 million.

Overall, the success of Fahrenheit 9/11 has prompted the big studios to bring documentaries back to the big screen and make money with them. Examples are The Journey of the Penguins , Our Earth - The Movie and An Inconvenient Truth .

Legal Aspects

Documentary film and television reports on current events regularly deny the level of creation required for copyright protection as a work. Such reports are protected under ancillary copyright law as moving images according to § 94 and § 95 UrhG .


Documentary films are shown both at general festivals such as the Berlinale and at special documentary film festivals.

German speakers

International (selection)

A comprehensive list is available here:


Documentary film prizes are mainly awarded on the fringes of general film festivals. Well-known awards for documentaries are


German speaking

Distribution channels

In addition to the traditional sales channels such as film clubs , film festivals , television, cinemas , film libraries , video cassette and DVD in recent years increasingly on-demand video offers come in which documentaries emerged for a small fee (as with the European from a collaboration festivals - Site DocAlliance) or completely free of charge (such as at UBUweb).


(in chronological order)

  • Rüdiger Steinmetz , Helfried Spitra (ed.): Documentary film as "a sign of the times". From watching reality on television. 2nd Edition. Ölschläger, Munich 1992, ISBN 3-88295-154-0 .
  • Erik Barnouw : Documentary. A History of the Non-Fiction Film. 2nd revised edition. Oxford University Press, New York NY u. a. 1993, ISBN 0-19-507898-5 (English).
  • John Barnes among others: Beginnings of the documentary film. Stroemfeld, Basel / Frankfurt am Main 1995, ISBN 3-87877-784-1 .
  • European Documentary Film Institute (Ed.): Texts on documentary film. Vorwerk 8, Berlin since 1996, ZDB -ID 2240279-2 .
  • Eva Hohenberger (Ed.): Images of the Real. Texts on the theory of documentary film. (= Texts for the documentary. Volume 3). Vorwerk 8, Berlin 1998, ISBN 3-930916-13-4 .
  • Peter Zimmermann (Hrsg.): History of the documentary film in Germany. 3 volumes. Reclam, Stuttgart 2005, ISBN 3-15-030031-2 .
  • Monika Grassl: The essence of the documentary film. Dramaturgy and design options. VDM, Saarbrücken 2007, ISBN 978-3-8364-0104-3 .
  • Heinz-Bernd Heller , Matthias Steinle (Hrsg.): The reality of the documentary film. 50 questions about the theory and practice of the documentary. Schüren, Marburg 2012, ISBN 978-3-89472-728-4 .
  • Matthias Leitner et al. (Ed.): The documentary film is dead, long live the documentary film. About the future of documentary work. Schüren, Marburg 2014, ISBN 978-3-89472-822-9 .
  • Olaf Jacobs , Theresa Lorenz: Science for television, dramaturgy, design, forms of representation. Springer VS, Wiesbaden 2014, ISBN 978-3-658-02422-2 , pp. 49-109.
  • Thorolf Lipp : Varieties of the documentary. Introduction to the history and theory of non-fictional film. 2nd, revised edition. Schüren, Marburg 2016, ISBN 978-3-89472-928-8 .
  • Thomas Bräutigam : Classics of the German-language documentary film. Schüren, Marburg 2019, ISBN 978-3-7410-0322-6 .

Web links

Commons : Documentary  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Documentary  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Definition of factual in English. In: Offord University Press, accessed January 22, 2019 .
  2. a b Heinz-B. Heller: Reclam's dictionary of the film . Ed .: Thomas Koebner. 2nd Edition. Philipp Reclam jun., Stuttgart 2007, ISBN 978-3-15-010625-9 .
  3. Nanuk, the Eskimo. arte tv, accessed on May 31, 2018 .
  4. The documentarist Albert Maysles is 80 years old , Berliner Zeitung of November 25, 2006.
  5. ^ Zapp ( Memento from June 18, 2010 in the Internet Archive ), ARD broadcast from June 9, 2010.
  6. Fahrenheit 9/11
  7. March of the penguins .
  8. ^ KG Berlin, judgment of March 28, 2012 , Az. 24 U 81/11, full text.
  9. ^ Film Festivals - Documentary Film Festival Listings, Announcements, Documentary Film Festival Directories, Films. Retrieved February 20, 2019 .