Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.12.23

Martin Lindner, Drehbuch Geschichte. Die antike Welt im Film. Antike Kultur und Geschichte, 7.   Münster:  LIT Verlag, 2006.  Pp. 176.  ISBN 3-8258-8957-2.  €14.90 (pb).  



Reviewed by Ilja Kuschke, Georg-August-University, Göttingen (kuschke.goettingen@t-online.de)
Word count: 2023 words

The volume, Drehbuch Geschichte. Die antike Welt im Film, includes eight lectures given by film-makers and scientists of various fields on the occasion of a colloquium at Mannheim University, Germany, on January 7th and 8th, 2005. The intention of this colloquium to look at the treatment of the history of the Ancient World in the medium film from many and diverse perspectives is also the theme around which the book revolves. The contributions can be divided into four categories: two each deal with universal film theoretics, with popular reception of antique subject-matter in films, with comparison of narrative structure and motif and with modern traditions of presenting antique themes in films.

In "Geschichtsbilder -- Der iconic turn als re-turn zu archaischen visuellen Erlebnisweisen", Margot Berghaus looks into the basic question whether and to what extent film is suited to pass on history. She does not examine the ancient world in films but the ancient world as conveyed by film in general and by each film respectively. Starting from the contemplation of static pictures, she describes the modern tendency to depict history by way of animated pictures (iconic turn) as a return (re-turn) to archaic structures of perception. In this respect films, through their visual manifestation, stimulate the attainment and memorization of historical events that we have formerly come across in spoken or written form. Because film as a product for entertainment combines in its composition historical events with non-historic basic motives such as love and hatred, the plot is accessible even to an audience without any historical background. After her critical examination Berghaus comes to the conclusion that film, because of its combination of linguistic and pictorial modes, is quite suitable for the conveyance of knowledge in the field of Classical Antiquity. A major problem is that the audience may sometimes attribute too high a degree of reality to these non-historic complements elements.

In the second essay ("Krakau mit kleinem Licht, und den Henker mach' ich selber -- Zur Praxis historischer Fernsehdokumentation"), the historians Klaus Reichhold and Thomas Endl report from their practice as documentary film-makers working for a German TV channel. On the basis of one of their own productions about a German palsgrave (Ottheinrich von der Pfalz) in the 16th century they describe the making of a historical documentary, from the search for subject-matter to the first airing. They give valuable information about possibilities and pragmatic concessions needed to make historical themes understandable to a large audience via this medium. Unfortunately all their examples come from an area outside the limits of the "antike Welt" (ancient world) imposed by the book´s title. Nevertheless their observations and experiences appear to be applicable to a documentary about a classical topic as well.

In the third essay ("Mythos Alexander") Ruth Lindner examines Oliver Stone's Alexander film (2004) with regard to its reception of the ancient Alexander myth. The main focus of her study is on the contemplation of the "cosmos" of pictures and icons in Stone's film as well as on the question of how much importance should be attributed to authenticity. She examines Stone's idiosyncratic world and his pictorial language, and additionally draws comparisons with one of Stone's other films (The Doors), with works of director Youssef Chahine and with possible models for the visual creation of the film. Subsequently she draws detailed parallels to the Alexander film production of 1956 (director: Robert Besson) and traces single scenes and sequences in the representation of both films back to their sources (Diodorus, Plutarch, Iustinus), bestowing particular praise on Stone's representation of the dubious value of classical sources in the framework plot of the film--aged Ptolemaios dictates his memoirs to his scribes, making deletions and alterations at various points, which must appear like a distortion of history to the spectator. Although little attention is given to criticism of Stone's Alexander adaptation, Lindner offers an accurate and captivating analysis by which Stone's work is convincingly appreciated from a scholarly angle.

In the fourth essay ("Zwischen Anspruch und Legitimation. Legitimationsstrategien des Antikfilms"), Martin Lindner investigates strategies for legitimation, which he divides into four categories. 1. The role of objective culture: in classical films relics and artefacts (e.g. buildings and vase-paintings) are often shown in the title sequence, introducing the plot as a sequence of historical events; on the other hand, the film has to fill in gaps in tradition (e.g. clothing and choice of colours). 2. Acoustics: whereas orchestral background music is often used to emphasize a film's epic quality, the classical film usually presents contemporary instruments (such as lyre or harp) which also help to underline historical authenticity. 3. Plot: to legitimate the presentation there are often references to classical authors already included in the film's credits, even if the plot itself is only indirectly influenced by them via Shakespeare, G.B. Shaw or historical novels (e.g. Cleopatra, 1963). Additionally, for information, a brief outline of the historical situation is often given at the beginning of the film, either in the form of a written text (time line) or narrated by a voice-over in a voice-of-God fashion. Finally Lindner discusses external factors such as making of films and epic books on films, and he concludes that all these features are regularly used by film-makers in order to convince their audience of the significance and authenticity of the historical events shown.

In the fifth essay ("Heidnisches Rom und christlicher Glaube in Quo Vadis? -- Zu den Erzählstrategien des Romans von Henryk Sienkiewicz und der Verfilmung von Mervyn LeRoy"), Ulrich Kittstein compares the narrative structure of a historical novel to that of the film version of the same subject-matter. The basis for his study is the historical novel "Quo Vadis?" by Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz (1895/96) and its best-known film version by Mervyn LeRoy (1951). First of all Kittstein brings out differences in narrative structure. While in Sienkiewicz' novel the focus on the historical period of radical change from Paganism to Christianity serves to credit Christianity with authenticity and, based on this, to legitimize Catholicism in ancient Rome, with the relationship between a pagan Roman and a Christian woman existing only as a sub-plot, the film re-accentuates the plot, placing the love-story in the centre and avoiding statements about Catholicism. This leads to an entirely different narrative structure: While in the novel the two competing religions and their antagonism are eventually elucidated from each other's perspectives, in the film there is an omniscient narrator who introduces the audience to the dilemma. In a study convincing both in scope and argumentation Kittstein works out parallels and differences, taking into account the respective time of origin. In his conclusion he reaches an even-handed appreciation of both the novel and the film, which pursue different intentions through application of different narrative structures, avoiding a plain structure by using various breaks.

In the sixth essay ("Achämenidische Flügelstiere als Apokalyptische Reiter und Trojanische Pferde -- Zur postmodernen Rezeption einer antiken Kunstgattung am Beispiel von James Cameron's True Lies"), Regina Heilmann examines the reception of a classical art form and its usability as a symbol for a whole cultural complex in the medium film. Centre of her study are the Achaemenid winged bulls that were first discovered during excavation in Khorsabad in 1843. As a symbol for the Assyrian empire with a high potential for recognition they have continually found their way into motion pictures. Heilmann meticulously reconstructs the use of this symbol, ranging from splendid decoration as a sign of the mystical Orient during the "assyromania" of the silent era to the cliché of negative stereotyping of the Oriental in the cinema of the 1960s, where Babylon is shown in contrast with the Christian-Jewish system of values. Afterwards she examines how in present-day cinema (James Cameron's True Lies) the winged bull as obligatory accessory is used for the now negatively connoted representation of the Orient -- in this case the oriental terrorist -- changing its original meaning of "protector" to "warrior", who as "Trojan horseman" finally even hides nuclear bombs. With a wide-ranging but consistent string of arguments, Heilmann thus demonstrates the transformation of a cultural monument into a mere iconof a world culture through detachment from its actual origin and meaning, and finally, with reference to the present, into a symbol for a different society, resident in the same geographic area.

In the seventh essay ("Von kindlichen und komischen Kleopatras"), Diana Wenzel conducts a survey on the presentation of Queen Cleopatra VII. in the movies between 1899 and the early 1960s. She describes the changing image of Cleopatra in film, starting with the selfish vamp of the fin de siècle and the silent era. The 1930s, affected by a changed image of woman in this epoch, portrayed a different Cleopatra, who -- in contradiction to history -- appears immature and naiïve and mainly interested in her physical well-being. Through this infantilization she loses the aura of power that she possessed in the silent era. It is not until the film of the 1950s and 1960s (particularly comedy) that Cleopatra is depicted as powerful femme fatale once again, though this impression is markedly diminished by an exaggerated caricaturing towards the ridiculous. Additionally her presentation as a female oriental potentate receives a clearly negative marking. Wenzel´s rich explanations end with the Universal production of 1963 (with Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra), which also introduced a turning-point in the presentation of Cleopatra. For continued studies on filmic reception of Cleopatra see Wenzel´s dissertation Kleopatra im Film. Eine Königin Ägyptens als Sinnbild für orientalische Kultur (published 2005).

In the eighth and final essay ("Vor Troja nichts Neues? -- Moderne Kinogeschichten zu Homers Ilias"), Anja Wieber examines the latest film productions about the Troy myth, particularly the feature film by Wolfgang Petersen (2004). Wieber's attention is focussed on the question whether and in how far this reception presents a new way of dealing with the myth compared to earlier movies. For this Wieber first sketches the hitherto existing filmic receptions, transmissions and adaptations of the Troy theme since the silent era and compares these with Petersen's film. This shows that certain developments within the film productions of the 1960s such as historicization of the myth and removal of the world of ancient gods are consistently continued in the latest production, particularly the omission of the realm of gods (with the exception of Thetis who appears in one scene of the film). Wieber's examination leads to the conclusion that the myth of Troy has undergone a thorough modernization, primarily aimed at a young audience. Thus the film shows a distinct effort for authenticity and realism and presents the protagonists as images of modern mentalities. Anachronisms such as the use of coinage may not be noticed by an audience devoid of historical education and may therefore not run counter to the intended effect as the presentation of the Olympic gods would do. Clothing and hair-style of the protagonists seem rather modern, though, and as appealing to a young audience as the motif of youthfulness that runs through the film. In her study, which also offers numerous starting points for a more thorough pursuit of the filmic reception of Troy, Wieber supplies a careful, detailed and informed appreciation of a popular historic film as a new approach to an ancient myth.

Drehbuch Geschichte offers readers interested in film studies and history plentiful insights into "cinematic philology": from general theoretical and technical considerations via examinations of narrative structure and strategies for legitimation of classical films all the way to exemplary studies on cinematic reception and transmission of classical subject-matter or works of art. A detailed presentation is not intended here, but has partially been accomplished in the contributors' (Lindner, Wenzel, Heilmann) monographs already published or still in the press. Because of the variety of the contributors and their contributions, the individual essays (particularly that by Reichhold/Endl) touch upon more topics than the restrictive subtitle "Die antike Welt im Film" suggests. Some information about the authors and their works would have been desirable, though some is available on a homepage mentioned in the preface. All in all, this is a useful book containing many suggestions for further study in the area of film philology.

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