Can the Past Be Changed? The Responsibility of Historical Accuracy in Films

Paper by Danika Bursvold.

Many dramatic films use historical events to support the time period a film takes place. Historical events in films are not just documentaries, there are many dramatic Hollywood films that focus on telling the story of a historical person or event. Examples of these films include Downfall (2004), The Lives of Others, and Hidden Figures. The goal of these films is to educate an audience about these events through emotional connections with characters. In Downfall, Hitler is portrayed as the crazy dictator he was, but his softer, almost fatherly side is also seen in this film, slowly allowing the viewer to feel pity and compassion for him. In The Lives of Others (2006), the viewers are uncomfortable yet intrigued by the characters, especially as Captain Weisler of the Stasi begins to long for the warmth and love of Dreyman and Sieland’s life together. By the end of the film, the audience is heartbroken over Sieland’s suicide yet is moved by Weisler’s rebellion of disposing of the evidence that would have ruined Dreyman’s life. Finally, in Hidden Figures (2016), the audience is brought along the journey of African Americans Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn as they fight for their places at NASA. The audience is stunned and angered over the blatant sexism and racism these women face on a daily basis yet is inspired by their refusal to give up. However, as effective as these emotional tolls are on the viewer, historical facts are often lost in Hollywood films. In films like The Lives of Others and Hidden Figures, there are often falsities that are not supported by historical events. It is possible, though, that the filmmaker does take the responsibility of historical accuracy seriously and produces a precise film as seen with Downfall. Unless historical accuracy is the purpose of the film, the emotional connection with the characters is often the feature that takes over, and the responsibility of the filmmaker to create factual movies is forgotten. The validity of the film will influence how history is not only perceived but also how it is remembered. If an event is inaccurately recounted, the audience will remember it wrong.

The most common type of inaccuracy seen in films are ones where the props do not agree with the year(s) films take place. These period inconsistencies include companies, cars, streetlights, public transportation, and others. While these are minor details, especially if they mostly remain in the background, they still have the possibility of pulling the audience out of the experience the film is trying to portray. Every film has its mistakes, such as small props moving between cuts, drinks changing their fullness, little human mistakes, but historical inconsistencies are the ones that threaten the legitimacy of the film. It can be seen that, if looked under the “Goofs” section of IMDb, there are numerous inconsistencies throughout Hidden Figures. As inspiring as this film is, there are almost 100 anachronisms and factual errors in it. For example, there are multiple prop errors in the opening scene alone. During this scene, Mary Jackson, Katherine Goble (later changed to Johnson), and Dorothy Vaughn are broken down on the side of the road on their way to work at NASA. As the women are bickering back and forth, the camera cuts to show a state trooper coming up over the hill to see why the women are stuck. In that shot, the audience can see that the car is a 1964 Ford Galaxie, yet Mary states the year is 1961. The license plates on every car in the film, including Dorothy’s and the state trooper’s, are inaccurate as well. “Virginia plates for 1961 has black blocky characters, usually just consisting of six numbers and a dash in the middle. The plates seen in the movie use blue serifed font used on Virginia license plates issued since the early 1990s” (IMDb). When looking at the officer who had come out of the state trooper car, his uniform appears to be incorrect. The patch on his arm looks to be from the Hampton Police, not Virginia State Trooper.

There are many fewer anachronisms in The Life of Others than seen in Hidden Figures, according to IMDb. The majority of The Life of Others took place in 1984, yet there are inconsistencies in the background of the film that do not agree with that year. The first are numerous cars shown to be from the early 2000s rather than ones from the early 1980s and prior. While Weisler’s car is shown to be closer in date than the others, it is seen from the way his taillights are shaped that it is from the late 1980s, again, after the film takes place. It is also noted that the roundabout that Weisler takes on his route home has red bike lanes, a feature that did not exist in the GDR (IMDb). When streetlights are used in The Lives of Others, they give off a white light, yet the streetlights used in the early 1980s would have given off an orange light due to the different chemical composition (IMDb). These kinds of inconsistencies in the time period that is represented in the film pull apart the legitimacy of these films. They are including cars and public pieces that would not have existed during the event the film is trying to capture. If the crew were able to change the streetlights from the white bulbs to the orange ones, it would have influenced the mood portrayed to the audience; there would have been a creepy feel to the night scenes. Orange light does not illuminate its surroundings as brightly as white, making the audience feel as though there is something around the corner waiting for them.

Of the three films, Downfall has the least amount of anachronism errors. Many of the errors noted in IMDb are due to using post-war versions of props. For example, the flask used to poison the Goebbels children had a logo on it, Schott Mainz. This company had not been established in Berlin until late 1951 to early 1952. Similarly, the teleprinter used by Goering is a post-war model as well. The types of teleprinters that would have been available during 1945 would not have been able to use upper- and lower-case letters like the one shown in the film. Other props that don’t fit in during the 1945 set include soap dispensers, maps, and an alarm clock all made post-war (IMDb). Minor props like these that are “out of date” may not have an effect on the plot of the film, but it does discredit the overall historical accuracy. Unless a filmmaker can eliminate these props, a film cannot be entirely historically accurate. While that sounds harsh, it is true; a film cannot be historically accurate if the characters and scenes include items that did not exist during the time the film is portraying.

The bigger concern with historical accuracy is with the actual scenes and events being portrayed in the films. When these events are shown differently than they occurred, the meaning and integrity of the film are lost. While the use of incorrect props for the time period causes the film to be less reliable, changing the way history occurred for the purposes of entertainment causes films to be inaccurate. The alteration of history in the world of cinema contributes to history being remembered incorrectly by audiences. This happens by filmmakers deciding that the role they play in retelling history is not as important as the role they play in creating a successful Hollywood film. The responsibility of accurately telling history is lost.

While Hidden Figures is an inspirational film, it has many historical downfalls. The biggest issues include the events being shown not chronologically and showing events that have been dramatized or inflated. If there are historical events being shown as a part of the setting or context, then how closely they follow minor details is not as important as having a film be based solely on these events. Since Hidden Figures was based on a biographical book following these women’s journeys at NASA, historical accuracy is much more important. The filmmaker has a much larger responsibility to at least tell the events chronologically.
A major scene in Hidden Figures is when Katherine is asked why she spends so much time away from her desk during the workday by Head of Space Task Group Al Harrison. She explains that the only Colored Ladies Room is in the West Area Computers Unit half of a mile away from the Space Task Group. “I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself!” she exclaims (Hidden Figures). Katherine walks out of the room, assuming to go on her lunch break since she grabbed a paper bag but left all of her work on her desk. The camera cuts and shows Harrison outside of the Colored Ladies Room with a crowbar. At first, the audience assumes he is angry at Katherine for needing to go to this restroom, but by the time the sign is taken down, Harrison speaks. “There you have it. No more colored restrooms. No more white restrooms. Just plain old toilets…Here at NASA, we all pee the same color.” (Hidden Figures) This is a powerful scene; it shows Katherine standing up to the racism she faced on an everyday basis while trying to keep up with her work for NASA and shows Harrison’s faith in her. If he did not feel that he needed her in the Space Task Group, he would have discontinued her assignment and sent her back to the West Area Computers Unit. However, as powerful as this scene is, it is not entirely true.

According to James I. Deutsch in The Journal of American History, the desegregation shown in this scene actually occurred three years prior on May 5th, 1958. Even if NASA had not been previously desegregated, John F. Kennedy would have called for it during his inauguration in January 1961; NASA would have been desegregated before the timing of this scene, assumed to have fallen between Yuri Gagarin’s orbit on April 12, 1961 and Alan Shepard’s flight on May 5, 1961 (Deutsch). Author Margot Lee Shetterly writes in Kirkus Reviews; Austin that Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 in 1941; this order desegregates the defense industry including NASA, or NACA as it was known before its name change in 1958. Knowing that this order was signed the examples of more extreme segregation seen in the film, such as the two coffee pots, the bathrooms, and the West Area Computers Unit, would have been unnecessary in the film. Of course, these women would have still faced quiet discrimination: subtle yet back-handed comments, side-eyes, raised eyebrows, but according to Shetterly and Deutsch it was unlawful to put up the discriminating signs in NASA.

Another example of a chronological discrepancy like this is when Mary Jackson goes back to school to earn her master’s degree in engineering. Sticking with the timeline in the film, she went back to school in 1961. Without her master’s degree, she was unable to become an engineer at NASA and would remain a computer. The only place to offer such classes was Hampton High School, a school she claimed to be segregated. In order to attend these classes, Mary has to appeal to the court to allow her to attend such classes. In the film, she appeals to the white judge’s emotions and he permits her to attend the night classes at Hampton High. While segregated schools were still the norm in 1961, the first school in Virginia was desegregated back in 1958 and slowly that desegregation was spreading across the state (DOVE Timeline). However, in real life, Mary had to appeal to the court system because she was seeking out to take classes in 1956, 5 years prior to Hidden Figures and 3 years prior to the desegregation of schools (Deutsch). If the film were to have followed the events chronologically, Mary would have already had her master’s degree in the film.

Similarly, The Lives of Others had its historical discrepancies as well. The overall film remained accurate with the practices of the GDP, but the main issue viewers had with this film was the fact that there is no record of a “good Stasi” to have existed. The film recounts life in the GDR during 1984 with the Stasi watching everyone, yet the filmmakers chose their main character to be someone who had never existed. If the filmmakers truly wanted to educate their audience about the GDP, they should have followed the life and work of an actual Stasi man; if the filmmakers wanted to create a new character, they should have picked a more accurate representation of a Stasi man. By not selecting an accurate representation of the Stasi, the viewers are given a false impression of what the Stasi were like. Viewers who have little to no background information about the Stasi or East Germany will leave the film believing that the most repressive police force in modern history wasn’t actually that bad because this historical drama showed a good Stasi.
An unfortunate side effect of giving filmmakers the responsibility of historical accuracy is that it is up to the filmmakers to fulfill that responsibility. Gerry Coulter in the journal Widescreen states that a work of mass distributed fiction will outweigh any sort of factual story about the Stasi. Works like The Lives of Others use visual storytelling to appeal to the audience through color and Weisler’s mirroring of Dreyman and Sieland. While the coloring is plain and grey, the scarce warm tones and lighting keep the reader drawn in. The pity the viewers feel for Weisler will always be the hook for audiences with little GDP knowledge to believe that every aspect of The Lives of Others was true. It was the filmmaker’s responsibility to create an accurate portrait of the GDP, but unfortunately due to their choice in the main character, “fiction now trumps history and plays with it at will” (Coulter).

Downfall had a different set of reviews in it for its authenticity. Hitler was portrayed by Bruno Gantz, an actor who embodied his character by imitation. David Bathrick notes in Whose Hi/story is it? The U.S. Reception of Downfall that Gants observed and replicated how patients with Parkinson’s Disease moved, as Hitler was diagnosed with this disease, he replicated Hitler’s speech patterns and his tone of voice from one of the only recordings of Hitler speaking normally. Everything Ganz portrayed is confirmed, historically documented, and absolutely authentic (Bathrick). This type of genuine recreation that lies as close to history as possible received resounding praise from the United States. The American viewers loved the payoff of the film’s research into Hitler’s behavioral patterns to give an authentic, captivating character; a version of Hitler that allows the audience to understand how Hitler gained such a mass following. However, the film’s German viewers gave a predominately negative review of the authenticity of this film.

A moral question asked in German filmmaking is how authentic of a person can they allow Hitler to be? Many Germans fear giving Hitler a humanized perspective because that opens up the option for understanding and possibly forgiving him for countless horrendous acts he committed while alive. In Ready for his close up? Representing Hitler in Der Untergang, author Christine Haase notes that the purpose of this film was to investigate how Hitler gained such a following, his manipulation, and charm as well as how and why his people developed such a fascination with him. Yet, this project received much criticism due to its attempt and success at authenticity. Haase quotes a of couple reviews from German film critics, calling the film’s “authenticity” a lack of imagination (Knörer). A second, similar review against this accuracy claims that the obsession the filmmakers had to create the most realistic, historically accurate version of Hitler prevented any creativity to enter the film. The version of Hitler Germans watched in Downfall was not anything they had not seen. It was a “mere illustration of facts that are known well enough” (Shlömer).

Although the perception of historical accuracy may change from person to person, generation to generation, and country to country, every filmmaker holds the responsibility of creating a historically accurate film. Every historical drama will educate its audience in some way and by not making it accurate there is misinformation spread and the knowledge of history is changed. Soon enough, the audience does not know what really happened during these historical events. Facts typically are not what holds the audience’s attention, however, and that is when the historical accuracy typically fades out a bit and the filmmaker drops some of the responsibility. When this happens, gaining an emotional response from the audience trumps telling an accurate story. Films like Hidden Figures, where there are many historical errors, still create an inspiring story yet they give the dramatic, fictitious version of an event or person. On the other hand, films like Downfall that stick as closely to history as possible give factious recounts of historical events. Films created like Downfall are the ones whose historical events will be remembered most accurately.  

Works Cited
Bathrick, David. “Whose Hi/story is it? The U.S. Reception of ‘Downfall’” New German Critique, no. 102, Fall 2007,
Coulter, Gerry. “Visual Story Telling and History as a Great Toy – The Lives of Others.” Wide Screen, vol. 1, no. 2, June 2010,
Deutsch, James. “Movie Reviews: Hidden Figures” The Journal of American History, June 2018, pg. 232-233.
DOVE Project. “Timeline.” Old Dominion University, 2010,
Downfall. Dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel. Constantin Film, 2004. Film.
“Downfall.” IMDb,,
Haase, Christina. “Ready for his close up? Representing Hitler in Der Untergang (Downfall, 2004).” Studies in European Cinema. January 2014,
Hidden Figures. Dir. Theodore Melfi. 20th Century Fox, 2016. Film.
Hidden Figures.
Kirkus Media LLC. “Hidden Figures” Kirkus Reviews; Austin, August 2016.
The Lives of Others. Dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Sony Pictures Classics, 2006. Film.
“The Lives of Others.” IMDb,,

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