Piotr Witek – Film as one of the most important contemporary ways of representing history. Problems of teaching methodology of history

„Kultura i Historia” 1/2001

Piotr Witek

Film as one of the most important contemporary ways of representing history. Problems of teaching methodology of history

Historians and methodologists of history have long asked questions related to historical narration [1]. No agreement on the subject of what historical narration is what are its definition features and whether it plays any significant role within the research process by a historian has been reached yet. No answer to such questions can be simple. What is more, considering changes taking place in contemporary culture, the question of historical narration becomes more and more complex and reflection on the subject becomes still more necessary. Before the so called information revolution had started problems associated with reflection on historical narration referred to verbal language, sentences and their function within the text and finally to the written text itself (hermeneutics of the text). Nowadays we experience completely new and unexpected problems and difficulties. Starting with the beginning of the second half of the 20-th century we have witnessed not only rapid development but also growing importance of means of mass communication, cinema, television, video, computers and internet in particular. More and more frequently we can watch history in cinemas and on screens of TV sets. The image of the past starts to be created by new audio-visual and multimedial ways of narration. For our contemporary, informatic society the audio-visual narration becomes an accomplished fact. For a historian, more and more frequently film, television or computer generated image becomes a fundamental source. Therefore the reflection of the milieu of researchers of history on the subject becomes absolutely necessary. The hermeneutics of image becomes an urgent problem. That way apart from academic historical narration we witness emerging of an alternative practice of telling about the past (audio-visual history). As a consequence, film, television, computer and Internet play fundamental role in teaching history. We cease to learn history from historians in return we begin to experience it through the eyes of directors (filmmakers) and television creators.

Considering the fact that the aforementioned situation seems to be ignored by the milieu of professional historians, the problem demands paying particular attention to it, as well as to researching and teaching.

Quite often professional historians disagree that film may generate history (Lino Micche, Michel Foucault for example) and what follows can not constitute an alternative for historiography (written history) [2]. According to them films are fictious tales, having not much in common with what a historian deals with. Sometimes documentary film as a genre is accepted, yet only as historical source. For historiography verbal language seems to be the only and fundamental tool serving the purpose of learning about the past and telling about it. For researchers of the past the Gutenberg Galaxy constitutes an absolute cultural context, within which the cognitive process can take place. From the point of view of cognition that sort of approach is still more strange as persisting in regarding written history only suggests that written narration is better than film narration. What is more, written texts serve as basis for criticizing visual history in such a way, as if written history was something reliable and invariable [3]. Nevertheless a fundamental question should be asked here: what attitude towards spheres of broadly understood cultural reality which can be unverifiable and therefore impossible to verbalize, should a historian adopt?

The statement that in our post literary world the audiovisual culture seems to change the quality of our relations with the past seems to be well founded. That change of definition should not slip unnoticed by the academic milieu of historians. We must learn how to deal with new problems and stop pretending that nothing has happened. The statement that films are imprecise, inaccurate, that they falsify the past and disregard events or falsify history seem to be outdated. Maybe it is high time to admit that film histories are beyond the control of academic historians. Evaluation criteria that have been worked out for written historiography can not serve the purpose of evaluation of audio-visual narration. Very often film creates a historical world that written academic historiography can not compete with. That is why working out new criteria serving evaluation and analysis seems to be necessary. In fact we face two separate and different worlds belonging to two incommensurate spheres of culture: the spheres of verbal and audio-visual culture. In such a context it may be worthwhile to ask slightly different questions: What happens to history when words are translated into images? What happens when images exceed information that can be conveyed by words? Why do we always judge a film from the point of view of written history? Which is the way that film generates criteria for human memory? Which is the way to employ them in researching of what it means to possess knowledge of the past? What can film teach us about historical cognition? What can historical cognition teach us about film? Last but not least, what should film and according to which criteria be regarded as audio-visual historical narration?

For a contemporary historian those are fundamental questions demanding deep reflection and methodological consciousness.

Polish historians seem to be convinced that film can be useful for a historian as historical source only. Such a way of thinking is not very distant from that of Bolesław Matuszewski, one of the first Polish thinkers, theoreticians and filmmakers of the late 19-th century. He used to point out to usefulness of film for historical research. According to him, one of the basic functions of cinematograph is to serve scientific purposes. It was also supposed to be a useful, and what is important for a historian, accurately objective tool. That usefulness was to be demonstrated through the specific character of film as historical document, which allows certainty and does not allow any distortion of the truth. Matuszewski himself verbalized his ideas this way: „It is possible to state that live photography possesses the features of authenticity, exactness and precision, specific for it exclusively. It constitutes a par excellence eyewitness, absolutely trustworthy and unerring. (…) we could only wish that other historical documents contained the truth and infallibility to the same extent” [4].

As it can be easily noticed, what we deal here with is an extraordinary enthusiasm of cognition. Film seems to solve all problems connected with registering and reproduction of the world. It is an objective and unerring medium, possessing also substantial value in the role of proof material. Thanks to the ability to reflect the photographed reality it merits trust of historians. What is more, verification of such a source is unnecessary. Film, a medium that possesses the ability to register reality with utmost accuracy, renders research obsolete. As Matuszewski puts it: „(…) as a consequence, according to the nature of things, live photography will become a pleasant way of researching the past, and through offering direct insight, it will make arduous research unnecessary” [5]. Filming practice was raised to the level of absolutely effective research method enabling cognition and recreation of the past.

Polish contemporary researchers view film in its function of historical source in a more critical and less naive way. Though inspired by Matuszewski’s thinking, they do not share his optimism.

Jerzy Topolski, for instance, has written that film is a source difficult to be taken advantage of by a historian. Motion and ability to show dynamics which are characteristic for film, brings about many, unused so far, possibilities of reconstruction of the past. Topolski differentiates between film, as a work of art and film perceived as a chronicle of events. Topolski states it is so because „Film as a work of art is always a work adressed and, just like masterpieces of painting or literature, contains three, previously recognized structures (presenting, presented and message); therefore it is necessary to apply to film already known rules of interpretation” [6]. Presenting structure refers to form of film; presented structure refers to what can be seen on the film and message refers to the message which is to be conveyed to the viewer – historian. As our methodologist states it is also possible to point to existence of those three structures in a film being a chronicle of events. Yet the presented structure, which is supposed to constitute a reflection of reality, should not be distorted by the remaining two structures, which could handicap „obtaining accordance of the presented structure to reality to the full” [7]. Topolski views film as an indirect source, in need of internal critique.

Another historian, Andrzej F. Grabski views film in a similar way, and he defines it as a record of historical consciousness of the filmmakers and viewers [8].

The researchers mentioned above treat film as a very useful source for research of the past. For them, the most important genres are documentary films, reports, and chronicles as those registering and reflecting the objective reality. The process of differentiation between the subject of cognition – the film operator and the object of cognition – the depicted reality takes place here. Contrary to fabular films based on artistic fiction, documentary films – though they do not reflect reality in a simple way – grant us access to the past reality as it is depicted on the tape. The suggestion of viewing film as a source for researching historical consciousness put forward by Andrzej F. Grabski proposes a slightly different solution. We do not deal here with objective reality as the subject of interest of a historian, but with a certain social consciousness. It means that the historian is interested in researching a certain status of knowledge about the past, rigorized by a particular system of values. Therefore film reflects not reality itself, but the filmmakers’ and viewers’ beliefs on the past and what they imagine it to have been. A new dimension of objective reality, which can be described as mental, emerges here.

This methodological reflection devoted to questions of film and its role in the process of cognition of the past and of teaching about it, becomes limited to research of sources. This way, film as historical source is understood here as one of traditional means of cognition, enabling scientific recreation of the past reality in all its manifestations. The notion of film as historical narration emerges in Polish historical thinking only marginally. That is why our proposition is centered around culture oriented approach to film as historical source and regarding film as a way of telling about the past equal to historiography.

Thus, according to the sketched above concept of audiovisual dimension of contemporary culture, film is viewed as a product of one of social practices (social historiographical practice/ social artistic practice).

As historical source, film constitutes an audiovisual record of socially conditioned, individual audiovisual experiencing of course of events/ social reality in the moment of becoming history. Film and associated film making practice are social facts and as such refer to the society only, to a particular social group, which created them. Other words, film refers to culture standard of audiovisual social experience within which it was conceived as a record of experience. Thus film, as an audiovisual record of individual experiencing of history can be in agreement with the culture standard – social experiencing of cultural reality becoming history, more or less. In certain circumstances it may deviate from standardized social experiencing of history.

Film in its function of historiography [9] is perceived by us as one of contemporarily existing ways of social cognition and „taming” the world. As historical audiovisual narration it constitutes one of the ways of remembering and forgetting. Designing images of the past, it pushes other to peripheries of culture. It is different in the way that it is based on preserved sources, being the record of accumulated social experience of past generations. In this perspective film historiography constitutes a self-reflection of a generation, a record of its cultural self-consciousness, recorded in the shape of audiovisual historical tales. Thus film historiography in its methodological layer is hermeneutics of source. As Robert A. Rosenstone puts in: „(…) film is a post-literate equivalent of the preliterate way of dealing with the past, of those forms of history in which scientific, documentary accuracy was not yet a consideration, forms in which any notion of fact was of less importance than the sound of a voice, the rhythm of a line, the magic of words” [10].

That way as a product of culture, film possesses historical dimension, which can be defined in its three aspects; 1) it tells a certain story; 2) it depicts a certain cultural reality, which it is the presentation of or visualization of experiencing a certain historical event or situation, already well formed culturally; 3) it devises/ creates new historical situations (potential past culture worlds or culture worlds potentially past). Thus almost every film is in a certain respect historical. In such a context if a film historical tale is in agreement with the culture standard of a social group, which created it, than it depicts or marks a fragment of cultural reality. A visualization of that kind is a presenting record of experience of historical situation, which has already been well „tamed” culturally. Such a film seems to constitute kind of audiovisual „canned world”, or conventionalized audiovisual metaphor of cultural reality. In case visualization of the same historical situation exceeded audiovisual social experience of such a situation, we deal with a new visualization, devising or creating a new fragment of cultural reality. In such a perspective we deal with a film historical tale which designs a new area of cultural reality. Film seems to be here a kind of specific simulacrum. Such film historical narration puts differentiation between true and false in question. Such an audiovisual historical tale either designs a cultural world that is not existent yet, or designs a world already gone anew. Such a film can be perceived as an unconventionalized audiovisual metaphor, projecting new areas of cultural reality. Thus films and associated film making practice are social facts and as such they refer to the society or particular social group within which they were created. Pursuing this train of thought further on, it is possible to say that thus they refer to corresponding beliefs functioning within a given culture practice. Thus plot and documentalism are only conventions of presenting or devising/ creating cultural world. Those conventions function here as stylistic means and are analyzed as such.

Making students more conscious of those problems seems to be extremely necessary. Teaching them how to manage new ways of creating historical narration also seems to evoke no doubts. Therefore I would like to suggest a course of methodology of history focused on the aforementioned problems. It would cover some important topics: 1) Historiography as a way of taming the past and the presence; 2) Written and audiovisual historiography; 3) Methodological categories of analysis of historical narration; 4) Film as a way of taming the past – as historiography; 5) Film as a historical source; 6) Methodological problems of researching film as a historical source; 7) Characteristic features of film historiographical creative activity; 8) Fabular and documentary historical film narration seen as „rhetorical conventions”; 9) Historical film narration as a way of remembering the past; 10) Methodological problems of audio-visual experience. The conceptualization of the mentioned questions should be done on the basis of selected literature and films.


Metodologiczne problemy narracji historycznej, ed. by Jan Pomorski, Lublin 1990

Many other historians state that historical film can be a useful way of representing the past, for example: Robert A. Rosenstone, Pierre Sorlin, Michael S. Roth, Dan Sipe, Denise J. Youngblood.

Robert A. Rosenstone, Visions of the past. The Challange of Film to Our Idea of History, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England 1995, p. 49, 46, and see: Revisioning history. Film and the new Construction of the Past, ed. by Robert A. Rosenstone, Princeston University Press, Princeston, New Jersey 1995.

Bolesław Matuszewski, Nowe źródło historii; Ożywiona fotografia czym jest czym być powinna, Warszawa 1995, p. 161

Ibidem, p. 162

Jerzy Topolski, Teoria Wiedzy Historycznej, Poznań 1983, p. 273

Ibidem, p. 273

Andrzej F. Grabski, Film a świadomość historyczna. Metodologiczne uwagi historyka, „Acta Filmologica. Studia i materiały”, no 1, 1982, p. 58; Marek
Hendrykowski also deals with this problem: Marek Hendrykowski, Film jako źródło historyczne, Poznań 2000.

Jan Pomorski, Historiografia jako autorefleksja kultury poznającej, „Świat historii”, ed. by Wojciech Wrzosek, Poznań 1998, p. 377

Robert A. Rosenstone, Visions of the past…, op. cit., p. 78

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