Teaching History Through Feature Films

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Teaching History through Feature Films

Historian Robert Rosenstone has mused that commercially made feature films have become “the chief conveyor of public history.”[1] Consequently, today’s college students will most likely know more about recent German history from movies like Das Leben der Anderen and Good Bye, Lenin! than from books or other traditional scholarly sources.   Anglo-American historians like Rosenstone have been eager to promote the study of feature films as a valid source of historical knowledge.[2] Recent pedagogical studies such as those edited by Alan Markus (Celluloid Blackboard, 2006 and Teaching History with Film, 2010) offer concrete suggestions on how to use film effectively in secondary schools,[3] but there are few practical resources for college-level teaching.[4] How can we teach our students to read critically what Hayden White has called historiophoty, “the representation of history and our thoughts about it in visual and filmic discourse”?[5]

Generally, scholars have moved beyond the question of how factually accurate feature films are or can be.  Few reject the feature film outright as falsification of history due to its conventional devices of collapsing time, merging characters, inventing dialogs, and focusing on individuals over events and processes.  Yet one of our primary challenges as educators is to provide students with basic historical knowledge and a frame of reference so that they can learn to distinguish between fact and fiction.  Moreover, we are faced with a balancing act between teaching students how to develop analytical skills, acquire comprehensive historical knowledge, and appreciate the unique manner in which cinema engages with the past.

I would like to address several on-going areas of scholarly debate that can be productive material for teaching history via the movies.  Firstly, how does one incorporate a nuanced discussion on the very nature of historiography in a course devoted to cinema (in practical terms: how much Hayden White can a Freshman digest in an introductory film course?)  Secondly, does the perennial question on the merits of art-house versus mainstream cinema contribute to a preference toward “serious” and “experimental” films or can we learn important history lessons from conventional B-movies or even movies that “get it wrong”?[6] Finally, I would like to conclude with some remarks on how we can encourage students to move beyond passively consuming history and help them to become active arbitrators of what the past means to us today.  What should students be doing before, during, and after watching a movie?  What activities can help students to recognize the constructed nature of historical analysis and the need for multiple perspectives?

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