Top 10 (Non-Mainstream!) History Movies

For this week’s post, I’m thrilled to welcome Ryan Linthicum of The History Film as a guest blogger. Ryan is a public historian and film historian who recently graduated with an M.A. from Simmons College in Boston. She regularly presents at scholarly conferences and is a history educator. Through her blog, she explores the reinterpretation of history in film.

When asked, what is your favorite history movie of all time, most people would probably answer Braveheart, Gone with the Wind, or Saving Private Ryan. Though these movies provide high entertainment value and emphasize extraordinary historical events, their banal representation of the past, in my opinion, trivializes it.

So what is a good history movie? A good history movie must go beyond people, dates, and events. History is much more than simply replicating the past; it’s about communicating issues that continue to affect us today. I like movies that are multidimensional, break traditional perceptions, and consider different perspectives and consequences. This post-modern history outlook can be construed as controversial, but if modern history movies aim for accuracy and authenticity, I have to wonder, by whose standards are they measuring historical accuracy?

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Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida.

Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2014 award winning history film Ida is defiantly one of my favorite history films. This Polish film focuses on Ana, a young orphan brought up by nuns in a Covent in 1962. Before taking her vows Ana visits her only living relative, Wanda, who tells her that she is actually Jewish. Together they journey to find where Ana’s parents are buried and discover their true identity. As Ana discovers more about her heritage, family, and country, her understanding of religion and identity come into question. What I love so much about Ida is that it shows the rarely-seen consequences of the Second World War. The films stillness allows time to really question and ponder not only the immediate fallout of the Second World War, but also the rippling religious, societal and cultural consequences of war. Furthermore, as we follow Ana through her journey of self-discovery we too begin to question religion, nationalism, family, and identity. Many films tell us war is bad, but few films are able to tackle the other resulting problems, questions, and unseen consequences of war. Pawlikowski’s Ida accomplishes the feat very well, because he not only asks these questions but he leaves the audience with few answers. This history movie, just as history itself, remains unfulfilled.

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Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s, Hitler: A Film from Germany

Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s, Hitler: A Film from Germany, also discusses these critical post-war issues in his seven-hour film. This 1977 extensive film touches upon a critical issue in post-war Germany, how to deal with the devastating results of Nazi control. Similar to Pawlikowski’s Ida, Syberberg’s Hitler asks many questions but gives few answers. As both directors understand, dealing with the trauma of history also means dealing with unanswered questions and the realities of ones past. Traumatic history cuts and wounds the present. Left untreated this can have crippling consequences. In Hitler, the multiple issues of Nazi-Germany are discussed, such as the damaging cult of Nazi propaganda, the Holocaust and ideology behind it, and post-war Nazi tourism and entertainment industry. Hitler deals with the elephant in the room issues that affected so many post-war Germans and Europeans.

In addition to Hitler and Ida, here are some of my other favorite movies: Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959 – Japan/France); Andre Rublev (Andrei Tarkovskii, 1966 – Soviet Union); Ceddo (Ousmane Sembene, 1977- Senegal); Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985 – France); Surname Viet Given Name Nam (Trinh T. Minh-ha, 1989 – USA); The Last Bolshevik (Chris Marker, 1992 – France); Ararat (Atom Egoyan, 2002 – Canada/France); The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1997 – USA).

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With some exceptions, period pieces tend to romanticize and trivialize the past. Categorizing history into grandiose generalizations, and often times, stereotype people and events in the process. History is not as simple as many Hollywood films make it out to be. The history movies mentioned in this article stand out for their complex approach to understanding the past. These films create a post-modern history that redefines and re-remembers war, race, politics, nationalism, and genocide, and re-examines how the past continues to affect us today. Though I am encouraged by many of the history movies that aim to break away from traditional Hollywood norms of history, such as Selma (2014), The Imitation Game, (2014), and Milk (2008), these films continue to express simplistic attitudes about the past. I encourage filmmakers to not only translate suppressed events onto the silver screen, but I also employ them to push their boundaries and explore the psychological, societal, and cultural dimensions of history and filmmaking.

With thanks to Ryan,

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