The Truth About Lies: Representing History in Film

Paper by Van Haslett.

Since the mid-twentieth century, cinema has been the most widespread form of storytelling. Unlike a television show, films are able to play all around the world, and connect to a larger and international audience. With this amount of influence, a film’s topic and message can become extraordinarily impactful. What audiences see in a film usually dominates the image or understanding they had of the film’s topic prior to their viewing of the film. The true story of William Wallace is nothing like the film Braveheart, but the historically incorrect image of Mel Gibson shouting about freedom is the image the world is left with today. With this in mind, the question must then be asked: what responsibility does a filmmaker have when creating a historical film or story set in a historical period? Does the art speak for itself, completely out of control of the filmmakers, or do filmmakers hold responsibility for what they present on the screen? To answer this question, three period piece films will be examined, The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006), Downfall (Oliver Hirschbielgel, 2004), and JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991). These films represent three types of stories: complete fiction, non-fiction, and a blur of the two. Through analyzing their stories, the context in which the films were made, and the impact of these films, the answer to the question of the artist’s responsibility will become clear.

In order to discuss these films, it is important to know what each one is about. For The Lives of Others, the story follows a calculated and brutal Stasi officer, Wiesler, in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as he is assigned to follow a playwright named Georg Dreyman, and consequently Dreyman’s wife Christa-Maria. Over the course of his surveillance, Wiesler begins to sympathize with the rebellious ideology and ethics of Dreyman, and becomes obsessed with the lives of the couple. By the end of the film, Wiesler has betrayed all his beliefs in the state, and has actively helped the couple escape the Stasi agents. A tragic finale leaves both Dreyman and Wiesler broken, but an epilogue scene shows Dreyman learning of Wiesler’s actions to keep him safe, and a recognition and thanks to Wiesler through an inscription in Dreyman’s new book. Through this story, the audience gets a sense of how the Stasi operated in the GDR, even though the entirety of the story is fictional. There is no record of a Stasi officer helping the people they were surveying, in fact, the Stasi were even more effective than the KGB and notorious for being “masters of fear and psychological torture.”(Coulter, 2010).

On the opposite end of the spectrum from The Lives of Others, is Downfall. This film recounts the final days of Adolf Hitler and the people living with him in his Berlin bunker. The film seeks to achieve realism by following first hand accounts by Traudl Junge, Hitler’s personal secretary, and the book Inside Hitler’s Bunker. Through these sources, the film shows the audience a more objective and more human version of Hitler than they are used to. Audiences see the friendly and sometimes loving relationships Hitler had with his high-ranking officials, and their families, along with the fanatic power he held over them. By the end of the film, Hitler committs suicide along with most of his officials, as the Red Army obliterates Berlin.

Somewhere on the “historically correct” period piece spectrum, between these two films, lies JFK. It is neither realistic nor fictional. The story follows a Louisiana district attorney Jim Garrison, who arrests and tries a man named Clay Shaw for conspiring in the assasination of President John F. Kennedy. Garrison believed President Kennedy had been assassinated in a conspiracy involving the FBI, the CIA, and the mafia because of his desire to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam. During the trial scene, Garrison walks the jury through the paradox of the “magic bullet” concluding that there must have been several gunmen and that Kennedy was a victim of the industrial military complex. This is all true, insofar that the trial really did happen and that these were the arguments made by Garrison. Where the film blends the line between fact and fiction is in the presentation of Garrison’s argument for the conspiracy. The film shows visuals of Garrison’s proposed conspiracy, not as something in his mind, but as fact. It falsifies events in the investigation to convince audiences of Garrison’s argument making the film a work of fictional-history. In reality, Garrison was not an american hero working to bring justice to the president’s murder, but was in fact “an abusive, out-of-control prosecutor” (Boot, 2021), but how would an audience be expected to know this when most of them have never heard of Jim Garrison prior to the film?

For a film to have any power over an audience on its authenticity, it must appear realistic. To convince the audience of its realism, Downfall uses recreations of historical photos, such as the last known photo of Hitler, creating the illusion of being historically accurate. Furthermore, the story follows the final days of Hitler through the eyes of Traudl Junge, making Hitler the subject of the film, rather than the main character. This choice creates a documentary atmosphere in the film, where audiences observe Hitler from an outside or “objective” point of view. Bruno Ganz, the actor who plays Hitler used “a five-minute tape recorded in 1942 in Finland, where Hitler, uniquely, was recorded speaking in a “normal conversational tone of voice,” (Haase, 2007) to mimic Hitler’s unique speech pattern. Adding to this documentary effect, the film begins and closes with actual film of Traudl Junge in an interview talking about her experience as a nazi and living with Hitler. By book-ending the film with documentary footage, audiences become convinced that what they saw on screen is what happened in the bunker.

Similar to Downfall, The Lives of Others uses the mise-en-scene to convince the audience of the world the story builds. Although the story itself is fantastical, the setting is real, and this is shown in the set design: tall blocky Soviet-era buildings, bleak washed out colors, minimalist decorating, and the dreary weather of eastern Europe. The film takes the mise-en-scene one step further than Downfall however, and achieves a heightened sense of reality. The world of the inhumane Stasi officer Wiesler is organized, his apartment is clean and orderly, almost too orderly, and he is always on time for work like a machine. Contrasted to this is the humanistic and artistic life of Dreyman, his apartment is cluttered with books, paper, and artwork. He dresses in bright colors, and dances to music. Not only does the mise-en-scene in this film ground the audience in a particular historical time, but also works to relay information about the story to audiences, a technique typically used in Hollywood films. Today’s audience is used to this idea of heightened realism in films, and knows that what is presented on screen is most likely fantasy.

These techniques of documentary-style filmmaking for a historical film and the heightened realism of a fictional film work perfectly on their own, however the mixture of the two is controversial. This is the style Oliver Stone chose to use in JFK. The film begins with President Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation warning about the Industrial Military Complex, followed by a narration of Kennedy’s presidency over documentary footage of his inaugural speech, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War. At the end of this montage, a recreated black-and-white scene of a dying woman, supposedly a witness to the conspiracy, claiming “these guys are serious, they’re going to kill the president,” is cut in just before the actual Zapruder film is played which shows Kennedy’s assasination. This mash-up of real documentary footage cut in with completely fictional scenes is used throughout the film, making it difficult for any audience member to distinguish between the two.

Each of these films are convincing in their storytelling, drawing in audiences for an intriguing, and entertaining experience (if Downfall can be considered “entertaining”) but as mainstream or first cinema, they do not require audience members to think critically. For instance, Downfall is easy to believe due to its “realistic” take on Hitler, and it backs itself with historical source material. A viewer of The Lives of Others may believe the story has elements of truth in it, but overall there is no reason to believe the events of the film actually took place. JFK however uses its blend of fact and fiction to convince the audience of its authenticity using the well known Zapruder footage of the assasination, and then delivers false information on the events which it presents as facts. All three of these choices were made with a clear goal in mind, which is dependent on the director’s message, and the surrounding circumstances of the film.

So why was Downfall made? The film was and remains to this day a highly controversial film. It depicts Hitler not as a super villain, but as a human being, with flaws, dreams, and the capacity for love. The realistic look at Hitler’s final days allows us to “’get beyond guilt,’ for there and only there lie ‘the facts’” (Bathrick, Magshamrain, 2007). In other words, by portraying Hitler as a human, the audience understands that Hitler was not a historical anomaly, but a set of circumstances that can easily happen again.

Rather than searching for the historical truth, The Lives of Others uses the story of a Stasi agent to explore an emotional truth of being human. The film uses the mass oppression of the GDR as a way of explaining the inhuman conditions of a world where expression is a crime, the artists are silenced, and those who fight the system are tortured and executed. This story could have been set in a dystopian future, but choosing the GDR as the setting makes the film more accessible and relevant, while allowing von Donnersmarck to draw from his past. By making the film a period piece, the story is also grounded in a reality the audience understands. Even though the events of the film are fictional, and may mislead some audience members to a watered-down version of history, the film delivers on a truth of the human experience which is universal across all time periods. Where Downfall is a film about historical events and objective truth, The Lives of Others is a film about artistic truth and meaning; the meaning of art, empathy, and their impact on life and humanity.

To search for meaning is a human trait, but there is no inherent meaning in the world, and this is precisely the issue with conspiracy theories. An event like the assasination of a beloved president by a lone marxist gunman is devoid of any meaning, but the idea of a conspiring government fills that void and desire for meaning. This is the mental trap Oliver Stone has fallen into, believing and claiming that “conspiracy theories are now conspiracy facts”(Boot, 2021).

So why did Stone make JFK? The film ends with a dedication which reads: “Dedicated to the young in whose spirit the search for truth marches on.” Clearly, Oliver Stone truly believes the contents of his film. He believes that like Hirschbielgel, he was giving an objective look at the truth. However, every official document has shown that Lee Harvey Oswalt acted alone in the assasination, and every point of evidence of conspiracy in the film, such as the “magic bullet,” have been disproved. If Stone believes the film exposes the truth of the assasination, he did not make the film to search for an artistic truth like The Lives of Others. Since this is the case, JFK is a film without any historical truth or artistic truth. With his previous films of Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, it is no surprise that Stone holds strong anti-war beliefs, and making JFK at the start of the Iraq war, Stone felt “[‘JFK’ is] about war, and the preparation for war,”(Hornaday, 2021). With this in mind, JFK is purely a reactionary film of Stone’s personal beliefs and theories, disguised as historical truth.
So far, the discussion has consisted of the artist’s perspective on truth, and how that is expressed through their filmmaking, but what about the film’s impact on the audience? Whether a film searches for objective truth, artistic truth, or none at all means nothing if an audience is unaffected. For The Lives of Others, it is difficult to determine how the film swayed audiences on its message, since it is not objective, but it is easy to imagine it had a significant impact on audiences due to its academy award for best international film. Even though the artistic message each audience member takes away may differ, the image of East Berlin is more universal among the viewers, many of whom have never seen East Berlin depicted before. The recreation of East Berlin and the Stasi is significant in this case since it may be the only time the audience grapples with this part of history, or to put it more eloquently, “In terms of abusing history von Donnersmarck has done nothing exceptional but his film does point to a distressing aspect of the times in which we live, when the reach of a filmmaker far extends that of the best historians”(Coulter, 2010). Although this raises other concerns about an educated public, when a historically accurate film is made it takes on an important role in educating.

The release of Downfall was full of controversy, with many people believing that a film showcasing Hitler as a person would have an overall negative impact around the world. This brings a fair debate on the importance of the film’s message: is it important to understand Hitler as human, or in other words does “…contextualizing the man involve the risk of relativizing his deeds, according to the old adage ‘to understand every- thing is to forgive everything’?” (Bathrick, Magshamrain, 2007) Those who argue for viewing the film note that understanding Hitler leads to finding “ the ultimate truth of the Third Reich …, nestled in the bunker story.”(Bathrick, Magshamrain, 2007) Regardless of this debate, the fact is that there was not a spike in nazi sympathisers related to the viewing of the film. For the director Hirschbiegal, the film was a form of understanding Germany saying “When all is said and done, we have all not grappled enough with our history. But this is precisely what we must do if we are ever again to
say without shame or peculiar aftertaste: ‘I am proud to be German.’” (Bathrick, 2007)

Although these two films were significant and impactful in their own ways, JFK was a cultural phenomenon. There have been only a handful of films to have a larger impact on their audience. From the reputation Oliver Stone had made for himself with his earlier films, and the enormous list of stars, Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Joe Pesci, Tommy Lee Jones, and Kevin Bacon, the film was bound to be a box-office success. The assisination of President Keendy was already a cultural fascination, and for audience members who were not already hooked on the conspiracy theories surrounding the murder, the “images were so convincing, and infiltrated viewers’ imaginations so thoroughly, that the film morphed from one filmmaker’s alternative interpretation of events into the events themselves.”(Hornaday, 2021) The impact of this alternate history was so strong that in a response to the film’s release, Congress decided to release new documents of the assasination to the public. The film was undeniably the largest recruiter for Kennedy conspiracy theorists of its time.

It is clear now what consequences and effects a film can have on the collective understanding of history for a population. Understanding this, we can now ask what responsibility is held by artists for representing truth in their artwork? How much of the film’s impact on society falls on the filmmaker, or does it all rest with the audience themselves? Truth matters, both objective and artistic. An artist’s job has always been to show the world or humanity the way they see it, through painting, music, words, or film. This artwork comes from the artist with the intent of affecting an audience. That effect is directly related to the artist’s vision, regardless if the effect is the one that they intended to impose on the audience. When creating a period piece, the filmmaker always runs the risk of altering the facts and “rewriting” history, so they clearly hold a great responsibility. As shown in JFK, the abuse of altering facts clouds the public’s conception of truth, paving the way for more lies. When people can no longer agree on the truth, elections fail, wars are waged inconsequentially, and democracy falls apart. This was true in Nazi germany as shown in Downfall, the GDR as shown in The Lives of Others, and JFK ironiccaly exposes this happening within the United States.

Works Cited
Bathrick, D. (2007, November 3). Whose hi/story is it? the U.S. reception of ‘downfall’. Whose Hi/story Is It? The U.S. Reception of “Downfall”. Retrieved April 14, 2022, from
Boot, M. (2021, December 21). Opinion | Oliver Stone just can’t stop spreading lies about JFK’s assassination. The Washington Post. Retrieved April 14, 2022, from g-lies-about-jfks-assassination/
Coulter, G. (2010). VISUAL STORYTELLING AND HISTORY AS A GREAT TOY – THE LIVES OF OTHERS. Retrieved April 14, 2022, from -great-toy-in-the-lives-of-others.pdf
Haase, C. (2014, January 6). Ready for his close-up? representing Hitler in der Untergang (downfall, 2004). Studies in European Cinema . Retrieved April 14, 2022, from
Hornaday, A. (2021, December 22). ‘JFK’ at 30: Oliver Stone and the lasting impact of America’s most dangerous movie. The Washington Post. Retrieved April 14, 2022, from ry/

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