Historical film

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Shooting of Madame Nobel (2014) about the relationship between Bertha von Suttner and Alfred Nobel

Period films are feature films whose content is based on historical characters, events or movements. Fictional film narratives whose actions are set in a historical location are also referred to as historical films. This is not a genre defined by a relatively uniform textual practice that spans a wide range of films.

Genre question

Period films have a thematic relation to history . However, the depicted epochs, locations, characters and the development of the plot show considerable differences. On the one hand, the term historical film has established itself as a communication category between film producers and audiences that determines certain expectations for the reception of a film. With a pragmatic understanding of the genre , current publications therefore value the historical film as an independent, superordinate category. On the other hand, a more narrowly defined genre that concentrates on the “content-structural form of filmic group formation” leads to internal differentiation. However, due to the general vagueness of genre categories and the tendency towards genre syncretism, there is no uniform typology so far. Subdivisions are made, for example, according to props (e.g. coat-and-sword film ) or production effort ( monumental film ), and some established film genres are also assigned to the historical film category (e.g. war film , biopic ). The independence of the western as a classic Hollywood genre is, however, so firmly established in film theory that it is usually not seen as a sub-category of period films . But the transitions themselves to adventure films , fantasy films or homeland films are fluid . The forms of representation of the past vary considerably in historical films, as "motifs, characters and narration are organized according to the respective genre conventions."

Toplin's criteria and Burgoyne and Grindon's definition

In his 2002 book Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood , which he wrote together with the film scholars Robert Burgoyne and Leger Grindon , the historian Robert Brent Toplin set up a nine-point catalog of criteria for historical films , which he describes as "cinematic history". Not every historical film has to meet all the criteria. The criteria are:

  1. The historical film simplifies historical evidence and leaves out many details.
  2. The history film has a three-act structure: exposition, entanglement and resolution.
  3. The period film is partial as it clearly names the hero and villain.
  4. The historical film shows stories about the struggle of underdogs against higher powers that have a strengthening effect on morale.
  5. The historical film presents a simplified plot that focuses on a few characters.
  6. The historical film is aimed at the viewer in the present.
  7. The historical film often contains romantic elements that are not related to the actual historical event.
  8. The historical film creates a feeling of the past by focusing on details.
  9. The period film communicates with the viewer just as effectively through its images and sound as through its dialogues and actions.

This attempt at definition, which refers to the textual practice of period films , was criticized by Jonathan Stubbs , as some of the criteria, such as number 9, would apply to film as a medium or how the three-act structure would apply to almost all Hollywood films . This is due to the aim of Toplin's argument, which wants to show that films with historical material must follow mainstream conventions. For him, the genre is a formula that a film must follow in order to be understandable for the audience.

The two film scholars Robert Burgoyne and Leger Grindon also follow a textual approach to definition, which, however, turned out to be more differentiated than with Toplin. In his book Shadows of the Past: Studies in the Historical Fiction Film , published in 1994, Grindon uses romance and spectacle to differentiate between the ordinary modes of historical film. The former relates to personal experience, the latter to public life. Both would be related to each other and would express the connection between the individual and his environment. According to Stubbs, these two levels can also be found in many other films. In his book The Hollywood Historical Film from 2008, Burgoyne distinguishes five subtypes of period films : the war film , the film biography , the epic film, the metahistorical film and the thematic-historical film. The first three types are known, the last two were redefined by Burgoyne. The thematic-historical film would relate to a specific incident or period without integrating it into an overarching narrative. The metahistorical film, on the other hand, is supposed to criticize the historical representation itself. For Burgoyne, what connects these five sub-categories as period films is reenactment . However, Stubbs also rejected this criterion as too broad.

History of the period film

Cleopatra (1917)

Films have addressed historical themes since the early days of cinema. With its elaborate reconstructions of architecture, feasts and spectacles, the historical film legitimized the cinema as a new art form and gave it international cultural prestige. The origins of this development at the beginning of the 20th century are mainly in Italy: Sumptuous costume films such as The Liberated Jerusalem (1910), The Fall of Troy (1911) and especially Quo Vadis? (1913) also achieved great popularity on the American market. Following the Italian productions staged DW Griffith be mehraktiges Bible drama of Bethulien Judith , but his historical epic first (1914) The Birth of a Nation ( The Birth of a Nation , 1914-15) "exceeded all previous feature films in length and effort" .

In an effort to achieve the greatest possible authenticity, the period films of the 1910s and 1920s were based on the representation of the past in literature, theater and paintings. With the development of talkies, the classic Hollywood style emerged in the 1930s and 1940s . From then on, the focus was more on individuals whose psychological motivation is based on historical actions. In addition to the costume film, there was the biographical film (biopic), which combined the fascination of the spectacle with the fascination of heroic, mostly famous and powerful figures.

After the Second World War, the use of folklore and legends in feature films dwindled: Neorealism instead focused on the present, antiquarian or monumental history films were rejected. In competition with the new medium of television, however, the epic period film about antiquity experienced a renaissance on the screen at the beginning of the 1950s. The remake of Quo Vadis? (1951), Ben Hur (1959) and Spartacus (1960) are among the best-known films of this high phase of historical film.

In the late 1960s, there was a political rethinking of how history should be represented in film. European directors such as François Truffaut , Jean-Luc Godard and Pier Paolo Pasolini broke with the Hollywood conventions of continuity and apparent reality, which were replaced by fragmentary and reflexive narratives. In Germany, too, new forms of historical representation developed in the 1970s and 1980s through a new generation of filmmakers such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder , Volker Schlöndorff and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg , who aimed to film the Nazi past.

With films such as Malcolm X (1992), Forrest Gump (1994) and Titanic (1997), the return of the blockbuster historical film in the USA began in the 1990s . The commercial success of Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000) also reopened the field for earlier epochs. Since then, period films that "build up enormous show value with a huge budget [...]" such as Alexander (2004), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Elizabeth - The Golden Kingdom (2007) or The Popess (2009) have been booming .

Narrative strategies of the period film

Cinematic representation of the past always includes fiction. Props, characters and actions have to be “invented” in order to bring complex events into a plausible drama structure. According to Robert A. Rosenstone, conventional period films use certain narrative patterns to convey the past in a meaningful way:

  • History is told as a “story”, usually linked to a moral message and belief in progress.
  • History is told as the story of individuals.
  • Film presents history as the narration of a closed, complete and simple past. Historical processes are often explained linearly, (mono-) causally and uniformly.
  • Film emotionalizes, personalizes and dramatizes history.
  • Film creates a specific “look” of the past by reconstructing landscapes, buildings, clothing etc. - and also creates a feeling for the past by showing tools, weapons etc. in action.
  • Film shows history as a process by connecting all aspects of the past (economic, social, political issues; race, class and gender) in the shown lives of characters, groups and nations.

Period films as part of history culture

Period films are never images of a bygone era. Although some filmmakers go to great lengths to portray historical figures and events as authentically as possible, the perspective of past eras is inevitably tied to the present. The story told is also influenced by numerous factors:

“[F] eature films are created within a matrix of competing pressures - including the desire to be faithful to historical fact, as well as narrative considerations, economic pressures, genre conventions, political and regulatory pressures and so on - that may increase their vulnerability to historical inaccuracies when compared to scholarly written histories. ”

History films are primarily documents from the time they were made, which allow conclusions to be drawn about certain intentions and values ​​that are conveyed through the representation of history. The period film The Birth of a Nation (1914/15) , which is controversial because of its racism, was interpreted by DW Griffith as an ideological narrative to strengthen national identity and collective morality. Likewise, the Italian period films of the early 1920s can only be interpreted appropriately in the context of the emerging fascism .

Current cinema productions are also shaped by cultural norms and widespread ideas about the past. Popular period films are therefore part of the current history culture in that, on the one hand, they visualize how history is dealt with in society, but on the other hand, they themselves change and influence the viewers' awareness of history .

See also



  • Robert A. Rosenstone: Visions of the Past. The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of ​​History. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 1995, ISBN 0-674-94098-9 .
  • Roberta Pearson: The Cinema of Transition. In: Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (Ed.): History of the international film. Metzler, Stuttgart et al. 1998, ISBN 3-476-01585-8 , pp. 25-42.
  • Marcia Landy (Ed.): The Historical Film. History and Memory in Media. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick NJ 2001, ISBN 0-8135-2855-0 .
  • William Guynn: Writing History in Film. Routledge, London, New York NY 2006, ISBN 0-415-97923-4 .
  • Robert A. Rosenstone: History on Film, Film on History. Longman / Pearson, Harlow et al. 2006, ISBN 0-582-50584-4 .
  • Mike Chopra-Gant: Cinema and History. The telling of stories . Wallflower, London et al. 2008, ISBN 978-1-905674-59-6 ( Short Cuts 39).
  • Robert Burgoyne: The Hollywood Historical Film . Wiley-Blackwell, Malden MA et al. 2008, ISBN 978-1-4051-4602-9 ( New Approaches to Film Genre. Vol. 3).
  • Barbara Korte, Sylvia Paletschek (ed.): History Goes Pop. To represent history in popular media and genres . Transcript, Bielefeld 2009, ISBN 978-3-8376-1107-6 ( Historical lifeworlds in popular cultures of knowledge. Vol. 1).
  • Fabienne Liptay , Matthias Bauer (ed.): Film genres. History and costume film. Philipp Reclam jun., Stuttgart 2013, ISBN 978-3-15-019064-7 .
  • Jonathan Stubbs: Historical Film. A Critical Introduction . Bloomsbury, New York NY et al. a. 2013, ISBN 978-1-847884-97-8 .


  • Jon Solomon: The Ancient World in the Cinema. Revised and expanded edition. Yale University Press, New Haven CT et al. 2001, ISBN 0-300-08337-8 .
  • Martin Lindner (Hrsg.): Script history. The ancient world in the film . LIT, Münster 2005, ISBN 3-8258-8957-2 ( Ancient culture and history. Vol. 7).
  • Mischa Meier , Simona Slanička (ed.): Antiquity and the Middle Ages in Film. Construction - documentation - projection . Böhlau, Cologne et al. 2007, ISBN 978-3-412-24405-7 ( Contributions to the culture of history. Vol. 29).

Middle Ages and Early Modern Times

  • Christian Kiening, Heinrich Adolf (Ed.): Middle Ages in Film . de Gruyter, Berlin a. a. 2006 ISBN 3-11-018315-3 ( Trends in Medieval Philology. Vol. 6).
  • Nickolas Haydock: Movie Medievalism. The Imaginary Middle Ages. McFarland, Jefferson NC et al. 2008, ISBN 978-0-7864-3443-5 .
  • Kathleen Coyne Kelly, Tison Pugh (Eds.): Queer Movie Medievalisms. Ashgate, Farnham et al. 2009, ISBN 978-0-7546-7592-1 .
  • Annerose Menninger: Period films as mediators of history. Columbus and America in the popular feature film. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2010, ISBN 978-3-17-021667-9 .

Contemporary history

  • Rainer CM Wagner: Representations of history in film and television between documentation and dramatization . In: Peter Zimmermann, Gebhard Moldenhauer (Ed.): The divided sky. Work, everyday life and history in East and West German film . Konstanz 2000, pp. 19-42.
  • Detlef Kannapin: Dialectics of Images. National Socialism in German Film. An east-west comparison . Berlin 2005.

Web links

Commons : historical film  - collection of images, videos and audio files
  • Film and history , published by the cultural archive at the Hanover University of Applied Sciences in cooperation with the history seminar of the Leibniz University Hanover (history learning workshop), the Society for Film Studies e. V. and the Lower Saxony State Office for Teacher Training and School Development (NiLS).
  • Peplumania.com Film database with films set in classical antiquity.

Individual evidence

  1. Natalie Zemon Davis : Slaves on Screen. Film and Historical Vision. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA et al. 2000, ISBN 0-674-00444-2 , p. 5.
  2. Jonathan Stubbs: Historical Film. A Critical Introduction. Bloomsbury, New York NY et al. a. 2013, ISBN 978-1-847884-97-8 , p. 9.
  3. ^ Robert Burgoyne: The Hollywood Historical Film. 2008; Guynn: Writing History in Film. 2006.
  4. ^ A b Knut Hickethier : Genre Theory and Genre Analysis. In: Jürgen Felix (Hrsg.): Modern film theory . 3. Edition. Bender, Mainz 2007, ISBN 978-3-9806528-1-0 ( Filmforschung 3), pp. 62–96, here p. 65.
  5. ^ Robert Burgoyne: The Hollywood Historical Film. 2008.
  6. ^ A b Hilde Hoffmann: History and Film - Film and History. In: Sabine Horn, Michael Sauer (Hrsg.): History and public. Places - media - institutions . Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2009, ISBN 978-3-525-03716-4 ( UTB 3181 History ), pp. 135–143, here p. 136.
  7. ^ A b Jonathan Stubbs: Historical Film. A Critical Introduction, p. 14.
  8. ^ A b Jonathan Stubbs: Historical Film. A Critical Introduction, p. 15.
  9. Jonathan Stubbs: Historical Film. A Critical Introduction, p. 16.
  10. The Execution of Mary Stuart (1895) by Thomas Edison is considered the first period film in film history.
  11. ^ Roberta Pearson: The cinema of transition. 1998, p. 40.
  12. ^ Marcia Landy: Introduction. In: Marcia Landy: The Historical Film. 2000, pp. 1–22, here pp. 7–10.
  13. ^ Robert A. Rosenstone: Looking at the Past in a Postliterate Age. In: Marcia Landy: The Historical Film. 2000, pp. 50-66, here pp. 55-57.
  14. ^ Mike Chopra-Gant: Cinema and History. 2008, p. 8 f.
  15. ^ Richard Rongstock: Film as a source of the history of mentality. A view from a historical didactic perspective . Berlin 2011.
  16. ^ Roberta Pearson: The cinema of transition. 1998, p. 40 f.
  17. See Andrea Brockmann: Review of: Menninger, Annerose: Period films as a history mediator. Columbus and America in the popular feature film. Stuttgart 2010 . In: H-Soz-u-Kult , June 19, 2012.
  18. Cf. Katrin Hammerstein: Review of: Kannapin, Detlef: Dialektik der Bilder. National Socialism in German Film. An east-west comparison. Berlin 2006 . In: H-Soz-u-Kult , December 15, 2006.