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"Reel Germans": Teaching German (And World) History with Film

Richard Byers


     In 1980, historian and film scholar Eric Rentschler, writing in celebration of New German Cinema, noted that German film makers have provided and continue to offer singular views of Germany that significantly influence foreign images of that country. He went on to emphasize the importance, indeed the necessity, of using film with other forms of educational material when teaching about the German past. Rentschler noted that if teachers of German history ignored this medium, they risked disregarding a seminal form of German cultural and historical production. His essay also reinforced the close relationship between the development of modern cinema in both Germany and Hollywood, particularly in the formative first few decades of the twentieth century. "(German) Image makers in the 1920's, directors of the expressionist classics… revolutionized visual language. They enjoy a significant place in every history of world cinema. German minds likewise have had a lot to do with shaping American images; during the twenties and thirties, just about the entire mainstream of the German film community moved or fled to Hollywood, making an indelible mark on American films while continuing to practice cinematic codes developed abroad."1 This hybrid nature of German cinema helps explain its appeal as a teaching tool in undergraduate German History classes. It also makes a case, as just one of dozens of possible examples, for expanding the use of international film as a teaching tool more actively into other undergraduate courses, including, perhaps primarily, introductory surveys of World history. For the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in particular, film represents a crucial teaching tool as the "eye of the century," as it both reflected and helped shape the representation of the era's historical past.2 Today, film has become the supreme medium for the public transmission of historical experience, and our students bring into our classrooms a historical consciousness shaped almost entirely by visual, particularly cinematic, experiences.

     In his recent work, History on Film, Film on History, Robert Rosenstone argued that film and other visual media form crucial links between our sense of past and present identity. His thoughts are worth quoting at length. "The desire to express our relationship to the past by using contemporary forms of expression, as well as the desire to appeal to a contemporary sensibility, sooner or later has to point us in the direction of the visual media. First the motion picture, and then later its electronic offspring, television, became sometime during the twentieth century the chief medium for carrying the stories our culture tells itself – be these set in the present or the past, be they factual, fictional, or a combination of the two. Blockbuster history films, mini-series, documentaries, docu-dramas, historical "reality" shows – all these genres are increasingly important in our relationship to the past, and to our understanding of history. To leave them out of the equation when we think of the meaning of the past is to ignore the way a huge segment of the population has come to understand the events and people that comprise history."3

     It is a fair bet to argue that the vast majority of our students, by the time they enter our classrooms, have seen far more historical information through visual media than they have ever read, and as a result, bring what knowledge they have of history from these sources. It follows therefore that integrating film as a prominent component of curricular material, if time and scheduling allow, only makes sense.

     I first used films in my German history classes as a graduate student instructor. Student reactions were positive, and I resolved to continue to expand the offerings next time the course was offered. I received great assistance in these early efforts from Christine Haase, a faculty member of the University of Georgia Germanic and Slavic Languages Department, who provided film suggestions and oriented me toward the appropriate literature. Drawing from this experience, the lesson for us as historians is clear; if we want to expand our use of film as a teaching tool, we should reach out across disciplinary lines to our colleagues in film, language and fine arts departments, many of whom already use film in similar ways. Most of our colleagues would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with us, particularly in Learning Communities and other inter-disciplinary formats that are becoming more attractive due to current financial circumstances.4

     The opportunity to teach German history with film re-arose in 2003 at North Georgia College & State University during second Summer session, a six-week block of two 210 minute classes per week. As unsuited as this schedule is for traditional instructional formats, it is ideal for a film intensive course, as it allows, even with a break, for at least 45 minutes of discussion time prior to or after the film. Weekly evening classes of 120 minutes or longer also provide an appropriate forum for film-intensive courses. Students viewed the films twice; once in class, followed by a classroom discussion, then again on their own. Discussion related to the film occurred both immediately after the classroom screening, and then during the following class session. Based on both anecdotal classroom evidence and formal evaluative data, students indicated that having additional time to think about and consider the film, as well as being required to view the film twice, helped them develop their analytical skills and concentrate on the more technical aspects of their critique. For assistance in developing critical analytical skills, they received an assessment rubric that included definitions and explanations of cinematic techniques (See Appendix B below).

     The course begins with a discussion of German historical origins, which includes understanding the importance of the coterminous nature of the dawn of Imperial Germany and the dawn of the Film Age (this is also true of many of the world's newer nations, most of which came into existence during the cinematic era). A recent Dutch documentary film, Majestät Brauchen Sonne (Majesty needs Sunshine) (2000), examines the symbiotic rise of Germany's film industry and the life of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who grew up to become Germany's first film star. Many of his public appearances were filmed, and he came to adore the public attention and adulation the camera delivered. After his abdication during the Weimar era, German filmmakers became world leaders in experimental and conventional film, particularly expressionism, and produced some of the classics of twentieth century silent and sound cinema, such as F.W. Murnau's Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) (1920) and Nosferatu (1922), Fritz Lang's many masterpieces including Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), G.W. Pabst's Westfront 1918 (1930), and many others. When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, many of Germany's finest filmmakers and producers left for the United States, where they played enormously important roles in building modern Hollywood. At the same time, German filmmakers willing to work under the Nazi regime, such as Leni Riefenstahl, contributed greatly to the formation of National Socialism's bombastic aesthetics, and also played important roles as transmitters of the regime's ideological agenda. Collaboration between the American and West German film industries strengthened and grew after World War Two, with German directors, producers, and technicians regularly working with and alongside their Hollywood counterparts.5 At the same time, East Germany developed its own unique cinematic style and approach. Today, in the post-Unification era, German cinema is alive and well, with many films, including Good Bye Lenin (2003) and Downfall (2005), receiving critical acclaim and reaching global audiences.

     Teaching a history course using foreign cinema requires giving students appropriate tools and materials to work with that help develop their analytical skills, as well as instructor recognition that an extended student learning curve will occur. Most American college students come into German history classes, or any foreign history class, with little or no exposure to non-Hollywood cinema. Most have rarely watched subtitled film, or been exposed to any other styles of film other than Hollywood narratives. As a result, some adjustment to the medium should be expected, generally over the first two or three film screenings. The technological gulf between early twentieth century film and the contemporary variety requires additional adjustment. Usually by the third film, however, students have accepted the format, and are prepared to critically engage with the films. Instructors should also use pre- and post- screening discussions to emphasize the historical context that produced the film. Encouraging students to view the film as a historical event provides additional contextualization and opportunities for class discussion. When students learn the actor cast as Nosferatu the Vampire in F.W. Murnau's 1922 classic film of the same name was a homeless drifter who disappeared almost immediately after the film ended and was never seen again, they gain new appreciation of the historical context of the film itself, and begin to appreciate the act of making and producing the film as history, rather than just an example of history.6

     Another aspect of German film – and much global cinema - new to American students is the overt use of political ideology. From the 1920s onwards, German filmmakers have used the medium as a political platform, and have employed it to powerful effect, such as in Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda masterpiece Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) (1935), or later in the collaborative venture Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn) (1977), released as a response to the West German government's takeover of all media outlets after the murder of Daimler-Benz executive Hans-Martin Schleyer by Baader-Meinhof terrorists in 1977. The film begins with Rainer Werner Fassbinder casting himself as a man gripped by paranoia and fear, who retreats into alcohol and drugs, quarrels with his lover, and finally refuses to allow a stranger to sleep on his couch. Interspersed with this narrative is footage of a furious argument between Fassbinder and his mother about emergency powers of government and the meaning of democracy. Students are always initially shocked to see Fassbinder completely nude for several minutes, but later recall the impact the generational debate had on them, as Fassbinder's elderly mother, when pushed by her son, admits preferring Nazism to social disorder. German film thus can be used as another form of evidence that can be brought to bear in analyzing modern German historical development, and can be seen and employed as a critical mirror of its context and milieu.7 Instructors can enhance students' critical thinking skills in this regard by drawing connections between historical themes posited in both scholarship and cinema by constructing assessment exercises that encourage such a comparative analysis; one example used in class employed Anna Funder's work Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall together with Floria von Donnersmarck's 2006 film Das Leben des Anderen (The Lives of Others) to critically examine the role of the East German secret police, the Stasi, in East German society, and help students understand the experience of living in a repressive police state. Similar examples could be drawn from across world historical scholarship and cinema to examine and explore historical themes and perspectives.

     Another way of prompting students toward a greater appreciation for German film, and all foreign film, is to draw connections between it and Hollywood cinema. With German directors such as Roland Emmerich prominent as makers of Hollywood blockbusters, students should already be familiar with some of the cross-cultural connections that link America and the rest of the world. (Indeed Emmerich's latest eipc blockbuster, 2012 (2009), which weaves together Mayan prophecy and contemporary global anxiety, could be used as a wonderful example of the globalization of ideas.) A way to press this point home to students is to make them aware of IMR (Institutional Modes of Representation), a term first coined by French film critic Nöel Burch, that have been in use in global cinema since the 1920s.8 These features of filmmaking are employed across national and regional boundaries, and awareness of the similarities between American and world cinema through technical knowledge gives students a series of tools they can employ to understand and evaluate German, American and world cinema. A sample rubric to educate students on IMR is included below (See Appendix C).

     Between 2003-2007, during the course rotation, student evaluations of the class format were very positive. Over eighty percent of recorded evaluations included positive appraisals for the film component of the course, and students generally agreed they preferred the format in a 210 minute block compared to traditional lecture or lecture/hybrid formats. They also noted that the assessment techniques and exercises gave them opportunities to develop new, more critical approaches to study both film, history, and the convergence of the two creative genres.

     Opportunities to use film constructively as a teaching tool in history classes extend beyond upper-division or regionally-specific course offerings. World history surveys offer an excellent forum to utilize a similar approach, where time and content management circumstances permit. The rich diversity and creativity of twentieth and twenty first century world cinema should be interwoven into these courses, to give all undergraduates access to different languages of cinema along with written narrative. Today's global film industry, and its audience, represent two crucial, symbiotic components of global historical knowledge transmission. The number of recently-made and older international films available in the United States continues to grow, and accessibility, both physical and electronic, continues to improve.9 Developing critical thinking and information literacy skills through use of film in the classroom rank among our most important tasks as historical educators in the twenty-first century, and encouraging our students to view visual media as historically influential "texts" in their own right is, due to their ways of learning, essential. Consider this paper a call to action for world historians to talk with each other and outside our disciplines as widely as possible about how this can be accomplished.

Richard Byers is a Professor of History at North Georgia College and State University. He can be reached at


Appendix A. Advice for Teaching with film:

- Use an accompanying text that helps the students understand and re-imagine film as a distinct type of historical source, such as Robert Rosenstone's History on Film, Film on History, or Mike Chopra-Grant's Cinema and History: The Telling of Stories.

- Provide students with a set of review guidelines that allow them to develop proficiency in "seeing" and analyzing film beyond the plot and narrative, similar to the one included below as Appendix B.

- Encourage extended discussions and comparisons of different films as the class continues, and challenge students to identify links and themes across those films. One example of this "cross-pollination" is the recurring use of the train as a contextual background in films such as Berlin: Eine Symphonie einer Großstadt (1927), Mein Krieg (1990), Das Versprechen (1995), and Nachtgestalten (1995).

- Develop assignments that encourage students to write comparative reviews of more than one film, and make their case for connections and continuities. Encourage students to evaluate films on technical rather than narrative and "blockbuster" criteria, and develop assessment assignments that encourage comparative analysis of scholarship and cinema.

- Foster a sense of appreciation for the important differences between film's use of history and that of historical sources in traditional historical narratives. Make students aware that the context, particularly the financial context, of a film's production and distribution often outweighs the demands of scholarly precision, but that film's ability to inspire public interest in historical events cannot be understated. Indeed, as Robert Rosenstone suggests, it must be considered, along with television programming such as The History Channel and the Internet, as the most widely-used medium for historical knowledge in the United States and across the world today.

Appendix B. Film Assessment Rubric Guide for Students


Use this form as a guide for constructing your film reviews. You may choose to fill it out as you watch the film, or complete it afterward or during a subsequent viewing.

Film Title:                                           Director:                                  Duration:

Reaction to the film (First Screening):

Very Positive:              Positive:          Negative:         Uncertain:

Reaction to the film (Second Screening):

Very Positive:              Positive:          Negative:         Uncertain:

Emotional Response:

What were your expectations? Were they confirmed or disappointed? Explain.

In your opinion, what was the aim/purpose of this film?

How does the film use the following techniques?

1. NARRATION (story, dramatic appeal, motivation, closure, point of view)

2. MISE-EN-SCENE (set, selection, arrangement, composition, design, lighting, appearance & movement of cast: acting, costume, make-up; titles, frames)

3. CINEMATOGRAPHY (camera focus, angle, movement, framing, color, tinting)

4. SOUND (direct/indirect noise, music, silence, language, narrator, sound effects)

5. EDITING (continuity, smoothness/ 'jumpiness', rhythm, shot-to-shot relations: narrative, cuts, order, duration)

How does the film make its case? (through emotional appeal, alienation, manipulation of point of view, documentary authority, symbolism, etc.) Give examples. Is it persuasive?

Appendix C. Institutional Mode of Representation (IMR) Guide

Classical Hollywood Style / Institutional Mode of Representation (IMR)

1. Classical Narrative Structure (Storytelling)

2. Class Codes of Narrative Cinema (Continuity)

1. Classical Narrative Structure

- Cinematic style focuses on creating verisimilitude (mise-en-scene, sound, etc.)

- Events follow the basic structure of order/disorder/order restored

- The narrative follows a basic linear pattern (flashbacks must be clearly articulated)

- Events are linked by cause and effect

- The plot is character-led, thus the narrative is psychologically (and individually) motivated, usually towards the attainment of some goal or desire

- The role of the hero(ine) is central (also: 'star' system)

- The narrative must have closure

2. Classical Codes of Narrative Cinema

- Individual shots are ordered according to the temporal sequence of events making up the story

- Editing techniques maintain the appearance of 'continuity' of space and time (allows us to 'read' a film without any conscious effort because the editing is made to seem 'invisible') [Continuity Editing

- Establishing shots (two or three-shots) to establish setting

- 30 degree rule (min. for camera movement between shots)

- 180 degree rule (max. for camera movement between shots)

- use of shot/reverse shot

- dissolves used to signify temporal/spatial jumps

- voice-over narration used to bridge spatial and temporal gaps

- point of view shots used to engage the spectator through identification with the look of a character

Appendix D. Resource Suggestions:

(The following list is not comprehensive; it reflects the texts used in conjunction with the development of this course)

On Film and History

Joseph Boggs and Dennis Petrie, The Art of Watching Films (Mountain View,

Ca.: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2005)

Mark Carnes, Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, (New York: Henry Holt, 1996)

Mike Chopra-Grant, Cinema and History: The Telling of Stories (London: Wallflower Press, 2008)

Robert Rosenstone, History on Film, Film on History (New York: Pearson Longman, 2006)

On German Film

Lotte Eisner, The Haunted Screen (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969)

Thomas Elsaesser, New German Cinema: A History (New Brunswick and New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1989)

Thomas Elsaesser, Weimar Cinema and After: Germany's Historical Imaginary (London: Routledge, 2000)

Christine Haase, When heimat meets Hollywood : German filmmakers and America, 1985-2005 (Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2007)

Sabine Hake, German National Cinema (London and New York: Routledge,


Anton Kaes, From Hitler to Heimat, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989)

Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (New York: Princeton University Press, 2004)

Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film (New York: Princeton University Press, 1997)

Eric Rentschler, The Ministry of Illusion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996)

Stephan K. Schindler and Lutz Koepnick, (eds.) The cosmopolitan screen : German cinema and the global imaginary, 1945 to the present (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007)

On Teaching German Film

Thomas R. Nadar, "Teaching Literature, Cultural History, and Language with Film: Some Reflections and Suggestions," Die Unterrichtspraxis 22 (2) (Autumn 1989): 153-157.

Jennifer Marston William, "Images of Europe from Abroad: The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Teaching German Cinema in America," Die Unterrichtspraxis 39 (1-2) (Fall 2006): 91-99.

Appendix E. Suggested Films:

I have used all of the following films in my courses; there are of course many other ideal choices from the vast library of German cinema; consult a reference guide such as The BFI companion to German Cinema, edited by Thomas Elsaesser, with Michael Wedel (London, British Film Institute Publishers, 1999).

These are in the order I have screened them. All are available from vendors in the U.S. with subtitles. Many are also available via online services such as Netflix (

Effi Briest (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)

Majestät brauchen Sonne (Majesty needs Sunshine)(Peter Schamoni, 2000)

Westfront 1918 (G.W. Pabst, 1930)

Berlin: Symphonie einer Großstadt (Symphony of a Great City)(Walter Ruttmann, 1927)

Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972)

Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935)

Mein Krieg (My War) (Harriet Eder and Thomas Kufus, 1993)

Stalingrad (Joseph Wilsmaier, 1992)

Der Untergang (The Downfall) (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2005)

Die Mörder sind unter Uns (The Murderers are Among Us) (Wolfgang Stäudte, 1946)

Das Versprechen (The Promise) (Margarethe von Trotta, 1995)

The Baader-Meinhof Complex (Uli Edel, 2008)

Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn) (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jürgen Syberberg, et. al., 1977)

Das Schreckliche Mädchen (The Nasty Girl) (Micheal Verhoeven, 1990)

Die Leben des Anderen (The Lives of Others) (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)

Nachtgestalten (Night Shapes) (Andreas Dresen, 1995)

Goodbye Lenin (Wolfgang Becker, 2003)

Sophie Scholl: die letzten Tage (Sophie Scholl: the last days) (Marc Rothemund, 2005)

Die Fetten Jahre sind Vorbei (The Edukators) (Hans Weingartner, 2005)

Gegen die Wand (Head On) (Fatih Akin, 2004)


1 Eric Rentschler, "Reopening the Cabinet of Dr. Kracauer: Teaching German Film as Film," The Modern Language Journal, Vol. 64, No. 3, (Autumn 1980), p. 318.

2 This phrase is taken from Francesco Casetti's new work The Eye of the Century: Film, Experience, Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008). In her recent H-German review of Casetti's work, Sabine Hake noted the following: "Describing what he calls a "synchrony" between film and the twentieth century, Casetti identifies three main characteristics of the film's gaze: "the ability to communicate, the power to shape or define, [and] the drive to negotiate" (p. 3)." For the rest of Hake's review, see the following link; .

3 Robert Rosenstone, History on Film, Film on History ( London: Pearson Education, 2006), p. 3.

4 At North Georgia College & State University there have been Learning Communities since 2006 that offer these cross-disciplinary, team teaching opportunities. During 2007 I taught a course with a Political Science colleague entitled "America in World History" to incoming freshmen that proved very successful, and incorporated a number of films such as 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), The Last of the Mohicans (1992), The Good Shepherd (2006), and Syriana (2005). Student discussions afterwards focused on the role played by these films (and others) in shaping both domestic and international perceptions of American history. For more information on Learning Communities, see the resources located at

5 For more information, see Sabine Hake, German National Cinema, (New York: Routledge, 2002), especially chapters 2 and 3.

6 For an interesting, although fictional, interpretation of this history, consider assigning E. Elias Merhige's film Shadow of the Vampire (2000), starring Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich, which explicitly encourages students to explore the links between history, film, and representation.

7 For further assistance and relevant material, see Robert Reimer and Reinhard Zachau, German Culture through Film: An Introduction to German Cinema (Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishers, 2005).

8 Nöel Burch, Life to Those Shadows, Trans. and Ed. Ben Brewster (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

9 Valuable recent additions to this list include Kate Gamm, Teaching World Cinema (London, BFI Education, 20040, John Hill and Pamela Gibson (eds.), World Cinema: Critical Approaches, (New York, Oxford University Press, 2000), Stephanie Dennison and Song Hwee Lim, eds., Remapping World Cinema: Identity, Culture and Politics in Film (London, Wallflower Press, 2006), and Mike Chopra-Grant, Cinema and History: The Telling of Stories (London, Wallflower Press, 2008).



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