The power of the silver screen: Hollywood’s ability to rewrite History

Paper by Winston Hewes.

Hollywood is known for adding and changing storylines in order to reel in their audience. Filmmakers see the opportunity to change a narrative as a way to set new box office numbers and to better their reputation, as well as to increase their pocketbooks. But many times, without them realizing, along with the audience, the changes they create lead to lasting effects amongst the public. Political films such as Hirschbiegel’s Downfall (2004), Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006), and Cameron’s Titanic (1997) alter the representation of historical events that deviate from the truth to create narratives that appeal more to the masses for entertainment purposes. Through the dramatization of a narrative, the addition of fictional characters/storylines to a historical event, and the biases of the director’s political point of view, filmmakers construct a partially fictional tale that changes the collective memory of an audience in relation to the events that actually occurred. According to the analyses of image-weaponry, the construction of a collective memory, and the misuse of history/fantasy of storytelling will work together to confront the past and provide a reworking of history in order to deconstruct the way in which filmmakers have a responsibility to depict historical events as a way for their audience to recognize fact vs fiction.

Filmmakers have the responsibility to accurately represent the historical events in which they show on screen. Through the dramatization of their narratives, filmmakers are able to change the ways in which their audience perceives historical events by using various cinematic techniques such as using ar 15 parts and accessories with image weaponry. Image weaponry is a politically infused, striking image used for political, cultural, or societal change. Image weaponry is often seen as raw and emotionally evoking as it brings the audience’s attention to a certain idea or theme which is highly controversial in nature. One film that capitalizes on the use of image weaponry is Downfall as it is littered with intense and emotionally evoking scenes. Downfall depicts Hitlers final days in his bunker at the end of WWII. The audience follows those closest to Hitler as his mental and physical state deteriorate. Questions of individual guilt and responsibility arise in response to the Nazis’ crimes against humanity. One of the most arguably inhumane scenes which doubles as an image weapon is the one in which Goebbels’s wife (Goebbels being an extremely high-ranking officer under Hitler) poisons their children. His wife states that she “does not want her children growing up in a world without socialism.” The scene acts as an image weapon as it highlights the ruthlessness and inhumanity that the Nazi’s possessed as they were unwilling to accept their defeat. As powerful as this scene is, it is still dramatized. When Mrs. Goebbels goes to murder her children, she first forces them to drink poison. Then once they are knocked out, she gives them what is presumed to be cyanide pills. The aspect of the scene which is dramatized is the part in which the children make noises when they are given the pills. It sounds like their teeth crack when the pill is administered along with their bodies being contorted. The loss of innocence is exacerbated in this scene. Likewise, Hausse in “Downfall Ready for his close-up Representing Hitler in Der Untergang” explains that “Downfall conceptually simplifies and streamlines a complex and largely inconceivable reality. It thus implies the existence of a logic, order, and reason that belies the nature of the Nazi regime and its atrocities.” Within the over dramatization of events, the film actually oversimplifies the Nazi regime and the events that surround Hitler in his final days.
Similarly, in The Lives of Others, image weaponry is used as a mechanism in some ways as to accentuate the drama within the film. The film focuses on the censorship of German citizens by the use of fear tactics, surveillance, and blackmail in order to keep them exploring their individuality. After Christa-Maria exposes her husband due to the pressure from the Stasi, she runs home and hides the typewriter in which Dreyman exposed the GDR. As a result of her guilt, Christa-Maria runs into the street, only to be hit by a truck, ultimately ending her life. This scene is extremely powerful and acts as a political statement because of how horrific it is. The camera pans in on Christa-Maria’s lifeless body, while there is a stark contrast between the white snow on the ground and her blood which stains it. Perhaps this depicts the contrast between her innocence (the snow) and the blood the socialist party has spilled. This is a political punch as it brings the audiences’ attention to the idea that the government has control over personal, state, and church affairs as “the chief irony arises from the fact that two characters most devoted to the ideals of Communism- as state-sanctioned playwright and the Stasi agent assigned to spy on him- find themselves compelled by personal integrity to revolt against the state” (Bernstein 47). The idea that someone would rather commit suicide than rather living in world in which life was dictated by the few is extremely overwhelming. Having a choice is a major issue in this case.

Finally, in Titanic, James Cameron dramatizes the sinking of the Titanic in its entirety as he exaggerates the way in which the events occur as the ship descends into the icy waters of the north Atlantic. In the film, Cameron depicts the scene as total chaos. The ship initially hits the iceberg and immediately, the audience is shown the boiler room where hundreds of men are drowned as the flood gates shut. As the chaos ensues, and the ship becomes heavier as it fills with water, the ship rises into the air, and eventually breaks in half. But all the while, passengers are doing everything in their power to stay out of the water and secure a spot on a lifeboat. The scene in which women and children are being placed in the lifeboats is profound. First of all, the ship had an inadequate amount of lifeboats for guests, leading to the chaos. James Cameron highlights this issue as he shows the disarray of people throwing themselves onto the lifeboats as they descend, people pushing one another in line, and the separation of families. This is crucial to the image weapon that he creates as the tension climaxes when one of the ship’s officers shoots himself after Callahan bribes him with cash in order to secure a spot in the lifeboat. This is an obscure, but well-telling image weapon as it focuses the audience’s attention to issues such as: gender biases, socio-economic instability, and morality. Seeing a leading officer shoot himself in the middle of all the lawlessness is hard for the audience to watch. His death was an option, while the other people onboard were fighting to stay alive. The officer’s realization that we had broken his own moral code, allowing a man to take a place on a lifeboat, which was reserved for women and children, broke him. In essence, the officer’s suicide goes against the social norms at the time as he tries to amend for his decision to help the wealthy, instead of the poor. In “Displacing “Titanic”: History, Spectacle, and Hollywood,” Lim emphasizes this dramatization as “the minimal use of point-of-view shots is not significant enough to render a sense that the narrative is subjective. Instead, such instances personalize particular moments within the overall objectivity of the film’s narration, causing the melodrama of the scene to overwhelm the drama of the action itself” (47).

Through the construction of the collective memory, filmmakers have the opportunity to influence the way in which their audience interprets historical events oftentimes by the addition of a partially fictitious narrative in order to appease the audience’s need for entertainment. The addition of a narrative and or storyline to a film in which highlights an important historical event has the ability to change the way the audience views that particular piece of history. What the filmmakers put on screen is what many people believe as they leave the theatre. Filmmakers must take into account the leverage they possess while distributing their media. Changing a historical event in order to appease the audience leads to a revision in the audience’s collective memory of history. The collective memory is a composition of the memories of people who came before and their personal accounts. These memories are kept and shared with new generations so that the youth may learn from them. Oftentimes, these memories are a combination of historical events, accounts from older generations, and those who lived through and documented various events. Collective memory is used by younger generations to build upon their own memories and to learn about the people and events that preceded them. Changing the collective memory becomes a problem in part by the addition of a dramatic, romantic, or even comical storyline that is interwoven into the historical narrative itself. As a result of the addition of partially fictitious narrative, the audience becomes indifferent to normally serious and appalling events.
In Downfall, the film opens with an interview from Traudle Junge taken from the film Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (Heller and Schiderer, 2002). The audience is introduced to Traudle as she gives her account of what occured when she worked for Hitler. As soon as the interview ends, the film moves to a recreation of Traudle’s interview process with Hitler. The scene shows a waiting room in which several women await Hitlers arrival. When he does so, the women follow him into another room where he asks each woman a bizarre set of questions such as “where are you from,” and “What’s your ethnic background.” This initial scene is important because it may not be entirely true. The filmmakers depict the interview process as a swift and casual one. One in which Hitler chooses a woman based solely on surface level appearance and elementary level questions. The audience will never know if these events actually occurred, but it may linger with them, changing their perception of Hitler and Traudle. Having placed the interview before this scene, it makes the storyline appear more real. Using Tradule’s testimony convinces the audience that this interview is actually part of the film. Therefore, following up this interview scene with a partially fictitious account of Hitler’s final days intertwines fiction and fact. Similarly, as the film ends, the film shows Traudle escaping the grip of the Soviets with a young boy. This scene is solely added for the purposes of wrapping the film up and to engage the audience’s emotions. Both the woman and child whom the audience have come to like are able to leave all the worries of war and death behind them as they ride off into the woods. This obviously never happened and is not spoken of in Tradule’s account. This scene is added to the storyline to tie up loose ends. The audience feels ‘better’ seeing a somewhat ‘happy ending rather than Traudle being captured or the little boy being killed. This changes the audience’s memory of Traudle and her involvement with Hitler as she is seen somewhat as a hero “And precisely there lies the dilemma of a historical representation of historical figures. For a historically authentic treatment of the bunker family means not only a minutely detailed dramatization of individual behavior at a moment of crisis but, at the same moment, a portrayal of another deeply anchored complicity to the bitter end of this same Hitler clique” (Bathrick and Magshamrain 14). In the audience’s eyes her crimes against humanity may be overlooked as she was able to take this young child with her. However, in reality, this isn’t the case as the film ends with another shot from her interview where she comes to terms with what she did.

The sinking of the Titanic, as the world knows it, is highly influenced by James Cameron’s rendition of the fateful events that occurred on April 14th, 1912. Cameron adds the romantic narrative of Jack and Rose to the story of Titanic in order to hook the audience. The film acts like a documentary as the story of the ship’s sinking is told by Rose in her elderly age. Much like Downfall, Cameron uses an interview-like setting to open and close the film. Rose recounts her time on the Titanic with Jack, along with the other members of high society. In reality, Jack and Rose never existed. There is evidence that proves their names were never on the passenger manifest. Howells in “One Hundred Years of Titanic on Film” emphasizes the fictitious plot that Cameron creates as he states “Master Spedden’s spinning top may have been historically authentic, but Jack, Rose, their star-crossed romance and the priceless Heart of the Ocean necklace are complete inventions. Lest there be any remaining doubt: there was no such person as Jack Dawson aboard the real Titanic.” Cameron uses the public’s attraction for romance and drama in order to increase box office sales. Titanic to this day still ranks one of the highest grossing films in cinematic history. As a result of this added storyline, Cameron changes the way in which the public remembers the Titanic and the events leading up to its sinking. The collective memory of the Titanic and the tragedy that surrounds it no longer stands as most people automatically think of the romance between Jack and Rose. Ultimately, Cameron’s account of the Titanic with the addition of the infamous characters of Jack and Rose is what will become of the future collective memory.

In a similar fashion, The Lives of Others is based on the Ministry for State Security, otherwise known as the Stasi during the time of the German Democratic Republic. The Stasi were government workers who spied on the public through the use of informants, bugged phones, and surveillance systems. They were used to ensure that democratic opinions, ideas, and behaviors wouldn’t corrupt the socialist state. In the film, Wiesler, a high-ranking Stasi, spies on Dreyman and his wife Christa-Maria as they try to expose the horrors of the GDR. However, as Wiesler spends more time following their lives, he becomes soft, and develops a liking towards them. As a result, he modifies his reports, making them appear innocent when they were indeed guilty. Unlike the Stasi in real life, Wiesler disobeyed the chain of command and ended up helping his new friends. The Stasi were a real and feared presence in East Germany. People were afraid to speak out publicly and privately in fear that they would be caught and sent away. The Stasi were very secretive and were not easily exposed. According to actual records, there is no proof that any Stasi actually helped citizens escape punishment. Bernstein in “The Lives of Others: An Emotive Surveillance Thriller Set in Communist East Germany” quotes Timothy Garton Ash claiming that “It would take more than the odd sonata and Brecht poem to thaw the driven puritan we are shown at the beginning.” The Stasi made sure this couldn’t have happened because power was divided amongst officers and routine rotations were performed. In the film, Wiesler monopolizes the surveillance over Dreyman and his wife. Rarely, does Wiesler switch shifts with his colleagues. When he does switch shifts, he ensures that the report reflects nothing important. The image that Henckel von Donnersmarck creates is one that softens the Stasi and their image. Creating a narrative in which the Stasi had a weak link is dangerous because it alters the collective memory of their reputation. The idea that the Stasi could have helped people is the opposite of what they did. Once again, the filmmakers create a sense of hope, in these films in order to better connect with the audience. Future generations down the road will see this film and think that the Stasi weren’t all that bad and that the history textbooks are wrong.

The ability for filmmakers to rework history is at the pinnacle of how the public will perceive historical events and their understanding of political themes. When creating films, filmmakers incorporate their political biases which are reflected on screen. Specifically, films in which depict historical events are twisted in order to serve the needs of the director. Cinematic tools such as the history and fantasy of storytelling are used in order to aid in the director’s expression of their political biases. History telling and the fantasy of history work together to confront the past by creating a stronger emotional connection for the audience, while allowing the filmmakers to make edits to better fit their political agenda. Filmmakers do this so that they can add some more ‘dilemmas’ to the history to make it more interesting or to highlight issues in which they find important. If the movies were straight fact, then they would be considered documentaries and these are inherently boring to the general public. The fantasy of history and the way it’s told is what pulls people in and allows the directors to express their beliefs. If the history that is being told has a fun or interesting aspect to it, then people will sit down and listen.

A prime example of the history/fantasy of storytelling lies within the plot of Titanic. The story of the Titanic has been passed down for generations and has stuck with the population ever since it occurred. A ship that size with it’s reputable reputation was guaranteed to not sink. The idea that the ship does sink along man’s pride has stuck with the public. James Cameron benefits from the public’s fascination and is able to incorporate a political argument embedded within a dramatic romance. Cameron makes a clear statement about high society during the early 20th century, along with comments about class structure, and gender roles. Cameron uses the fantasy of history telling of the Titanic in order to expose these issues. Terry-Chandler in “Vanished Circumstance: Titanic, heritage, and film” explains that the “Titanic perpetuates the irresistible myth of a past that can be not only retrieved but relieved, and that something broken, over, and lost can be reconstituted.” Filmmakers realize the draw that the audience has in relieving the past and they utilize this in order to share their political beliefs. In this fashion, Cameron is able to influence his audience by making political commentary on the issues stated above. One issue in particular that is highlighted is class and social structure. Cameron makes a definitive statement about the role that men play in early 19th century society as Terry-Chandler explains “there is a conscious promotion of maleness which expresses a besieged contemporary masculinity. The conduct of virtually all male characters in the crisis is depicted as admirable, as is their ethos of women and children first.” The use of a strong male presence within the fictional narrative grants Cameron’s the ability to make his political statement. The contrast between male and female presence in the film is strong. Through the fantasy of the Titanic and the class and gender that still persist today, Cameron infused his political predispositions.

Furthermore, Henckel von Donnersmarck uses the history/fantasy of storytelling in order to share his political biases through the reworking and portrayal of historical events. Through the stark contrast between democratic and socialist values, Henckel von Donnersmarck is able to make a political statement about the lives of those in East Germany. The reworking of history illustrates the unhappiness, sadness, and fear that people experienced in East Germany under the GDR. Bernstein in his article “The Lives of Others: an Emotive Surveillance Thriller Set in Communist East Germany” explains that “Donnersmarck has succeeded in realizing a harrowing portrayal of life in the dystopia that was the GDR and the slippery slope by which one bad man changes.” Having the ‘bad guy’ realize that he is wrong and that everything his party stands for is suffocating, is crucial to the way in which the audience perceives the history of the socialist party and its values. The bias towards a democratic system is seen through the narrative and the construction of Dreyman and Christa-Maria. Their focus on the humanities and the experience of individuals is telling of how Donnersmarck views socialist East German life and its effects on its people. Donnersmarck further expresses his political bias through the narrative as the “power of art and artists to transform lives, the Stasi agents and government officials, for all their powers of surveillance, are utterly ignorant of and oblivious of the virtues of the arts and artists, and human nature” (Bernstein 31). The constant tension between the individual and the state is key to the narrative and to the reworking of the audience’s perception of the Stasi and the GDR. The individual vs state has been an issue for generations and Donnersmarck benefits from the idea as it resonates with people. Although the individual was a small voice, that very voice may have a large impact on the greater public. This is illustrated when Dreyman writes his article on the amount of artist suicides that occur every year under the socialist government. Donnersmarck is able to express his political biases for a democratic government and the expression of the individual through the audience’s love of the retelling of history.

Lastly, the history and fantasy of storytelling is optimized with the deconstruction of Hitler in Downfall. Ever since WWII, people have become oddly entranced by the idea of Hitler and the Nazis. The public is interested in learning about how Hitler amassed such a following even though he was an extremely cruel and crazy man. Hirschbiegel, in his film Downfall, utilizes the public’s fascination and employs the use of storytelling in order shed some light on the personal side of Hitler. In the process, Hirschbiegel’s political point of view is exposed as he creates a side of Hitler that the world has never seen. Hirschbiegel uses the fantasy of storytelling order to humanize Hitler. Hitler is humanized as the audience is shown his favorite hobbies, favorite meals and drinks, and his relationship with his wife. By exposing this, Hirschbiegel risks the chance that he may be reworking history as he depicts Hitler as somewhat ‘normal.’ This is dangerous because it walks a fine line as to not idolize him or romanticize his ability to persuade people and create a following. In “Whose History Is It? The U.S. Reception of Downfall,” Bathrick and Magshamrain highlight the idea that there is a “fairly clear distinction in the film between absolute evil and the seemingly non- or not-so evil others not only prevents any understanding of the gray zone of the Nazi everyday but also, as the story progresses, makes most of the followers, whether bystanders, fellow-travelers, SS soldiers, generals, assistants, or ministers of the Reich into war victims.” The film causes the audience to question who the victims and the perpetrators of the war were. As a result, this changes the way the audience may view the Nazis and those involved in the war crimes they committed.

Political films such as Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, and Cameron’s Titanic change the ways in which history is remembered. Filmmakers are able to rework history in favor of their political biases through the dramatization of a narrative and the addition of fictional characters/storylines to a historical event. As a result, this alters the collective memory of an audience in relation to the events that actually occurred. The analyses of image-weaponry, the construction of a collective memory, and the misuse of history/fantasy of storytelling uncover the way in which filmmakers have a responsibility to depict historical events. Images that Hollywood creates stick with the audience more easily, making them forget the actual historical events that have occurred. Each time Hollywood creates an inaccurate representation of a historical event, it quite literally changes history. People adapt to what they see and feel more inclined to believe what’s on screen because it resonates with them. This creates a loop where reality no longer exists. Fiction trump’s history, meaning that history no longer exists. Images contaminate reality, effectively blurring the lines between truth and fiction.

Work Cited
Bathrick, David, and Rachel Leah Magshamrain. “Whose Hi/story Is It? The US Reception of”Downfall”.” New German Critique 102 (2007): 1-16.
Bernstein, Matthew H. “The Lives of Others: Matthew H. Bernstein on an Emotive Surveillance Thriller Set in Communist East Germany.” Film Quarterly 61.1 (2007): 30-36.
Haase, Christine. “Ready for his close-up? Representing Hitler in Der Untergang (Downfall, 2004).” Studies in European Cinema 3.3 (2007): 189-199.
Howells, Richard. “One Hundred Years of the Titanic on Film.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 32.1 (2012): 73-93.
Lim, Edna. “Displacing” Titanic”: History, Spectacle, and Hollywood.” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 5.1 (2003): 45-69.
Terry-Chandler, Fiona. “Vanished circumstance: Titanic, heritage, and film.” International journal of heritage studies 6.1 (2000): 67-76.

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