German historians are proving to be a bit prudish. At their conference (Deutsche Historikertag) in Konstanz, where the theme is “the power of the image,” Norbert Frei and others called television documentaries “worthless viewing” and “historical pornography.” Pretending to satisfy the public’s “desire to know,” documentaries show series of images that may or may not correspond to the events described in the narration. Moreover, they are dominated by images of private life–peering into the intimate affairs of saints and sinners alike, without truly advancing the public’s understanding of events. (This is a sensitive subject after one show that featured films of Hitler’s private life and the Wehrmacht exhibit that took photos out of context.)

The problem goes deep. “Who produces the historical images in the present? … It is hardly ever the historian.” Yet historical documentaries dominate evermore the historical consciousness of the public.

Now, I can get a bit skeptical about how historians use visual media, especially in teaching. Films have little place for eras in which film did not exist, unless the film is making a particular point about the past or the question of how the past is imagined is put front and center. I have no use for costume dramas, and I would never use one of my favorite films, Children of Paradise, except to discuss the Occupation of France (not the Restoration, which is depicted in the Film.) Blazing Saddles, though, can lead to some good discussions about race and authority in frontier life.

Norbert Frei, however, should lighten up. Our historical subjects need to give good face. If our politicians must be photogenic, why not our great men and women? Indeed, the onset of virtual acting might allow us historians to makeover our subjects. Imagine presenting WWII as a season of America’s Next Top Model, ending in a dramatic fierce walk-off between season-long villain Stalin and surprise finalist Truman down the bombed-out streets of Berlin and Hiroshima.

Advertisements