|NATALIE ZEMON DAVIS
"Any Resemblance to Persons Living or Dead": Film and the Challenge of Authenticity
The Yale Review, 86 (1986-87): 457-82.
What follows was delivered on 12 April 1987 at Duke
University as the Fifth Annual Patricia Wise Lecture of the American Film
In the summer of 1934, the English Court of Appeal
sat in judgment of a motion picture about the downfall of the czarist regime
in Russia. The film, Rasputin and the Empress, was produced by MetroGoldwynMayer
and directed by a Polish imigre; it starred Lionel, Ethel, end John Barrymore.
Princess Irina Alexandrovna Youssoupoff had sued MetroGoldwynMayer
for libel, claiming that she was clearly recognizable in the film as Princess
Natasha, whose intended, Prince Chegodiefl, murders "the mad monk"
in a palace on the Moika River. It was not the murder charge that was at
issue: Irina's husband, Prince Youssoupoff, had already published a book
saying that he had indeed had Rasputin assassinated at his family property
on the Moika, and good riddance; rather, it was the film's suggestion that
Princess Natasha had been seduced by Rasputin. The jury saw the film twice,
heard testimony, and agreed that Princess Irina had been defamed; the Court
of Appeal upheld the verdict and assigned MGM heavy damages.
I cite this landmark decision not so much to chide the producer for inventing a seduction, although he seems in fact to have done so, but to underscore what the filmmakers had to say about the truth status of their creation. Rasputin opens with the written words "This concerns the destruction of an Empire brought about by the mad ambition of one man." A list of the eight major characters follows (the czar, Rasputin, the czarina,
Princess Natasha, (and so on) and then this comment:
"A few of the characters are still alive; the rest met death by violence."
Once the trial was under way, MGM claimed, against much contrary evidence,
that Princess Irina was not the referent for Princess Natasha, and that,
in any case, the film intimated that Natasha was raped, not seduced. Even
better, as one of the justices astutely noted, the defendants now wished
they had said, as at the opening of a novel, "All circumstances .
. . are imaginary, and none of the characters are in real life."
Since 1934, any number of films have used some version
of this disclaimer: "The events and characters depicted in this pho.
toplay are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead,
is purely coincidental." Raging Bull has the formula at itís
end, even though its subject, Jake La Motta, is listed as a consultant
and the film is remarkable in its evocation of the boxing milieu and the
constraints of manliness in ItaloAmerican families of the 1950s. Platoon
also has the formula at its end; yet it is based on the experiences
of the director, Oliver Stone, in Vietnam. It has even been praised by
veterans, among them a career Marine writing in the Ncw York Times,
for "its authentic portrayal of infantrymen." And Andrzej
Wajda's Danton, after the guillotine has done its work and the credits
have told who played the various revolutionaries and who served as historical
consultant, flashes its final message (or at least it does in the American
version): "The characters and incidents portrayed and the names used
herein are fictitious and any resemblance to the names, character, or history
of any person is coincidental and unintentional."
Clearly, the "coincidence" and "fictitious"
disclaimers are in. adequate summaries of the truth status of many films
to which they are appended. Nor do they fully protect against a defamation
suit, as the makers of the World War II movie They Were Expendable were
to learn when sued by Commander Robert Kelly in 1948, and as the makers
of The Bell Jar learned when sued earlier this year.
But the other guise in which historical films often present
themselves is not wholly satisfactory either. Here
no one can be held liable, and the film plunges right into an accountósay,
of the situation in seventeenthcentury Holland or of the Thirty Years'
War in Sweden, of the background to the American Revolution or to the bitter
strife in early nineteenthcentury Argentinaóas if history were
always easy to come by. Words roll across the early frames, attributed
to no one, setting the stage with an available historical past. Sometimes
the claim to veracity is explicit. Truffaut's finely wrought Story of
Adele H., drawn from the journal of Victor Hugo's daughter, opens:
"The story (histoire) of Adele is true; it is about events
that really happened and people who really existed. "Near the beginning
of Roland Joffe's The Mission, we read, "The historical events
represented in this story are true and happened in Paraguay and Argentina
in 1758 and 1759." And not long after the opening images of The
Return of Martin Guerre, an unknown voice tells the audience, "This
is not a tale of adventure or imaginary fable, but a pure, true story (pas
un conk aventureux ou invention fabuleuse, mais une pure et vraie histoire)."
True history simply exists out there, and is as available to be drawn
upon as legend.
In fact, our knowledge of the past is something we
struggle for; it comes from somewhere, is created, fought over, and changed.
I want to suggest in this essay how history films have given or can give
more complex and dramatic indications of their truth datus than the poles
of "coincidental resemblance" and "the simple truth."
(By history films I mean those having as their central plot documentable
events, such as a person's life or a war or revolution, and those with
a fictional plot but with a historical setting intrinsic to the action.)
In addition, I want to explore the elements of historical authenticityówhat
makes a cinematic account seem real and worthy of beliefóand to
argue that, when rightly understood, they allow a film to be an
admirable way to tell about the past and at the same time to be more original
in image, sound, and structure.
But before turning to film, let me remind you of the historian's goals, for they condition how he or she looks at belt buckles,
swashbuckles, and other claims to authenticity. Historians
want to chronicle what happened, to be sure, but also to explain why it
happened and what difference it made; to describe the central values of
a period and how they fit together or were in conflict to stress the different
ways the same event was understood and reported by contemporaries; to show
the interplay between individual lives and broad social movements. Although
there is an inevitable dialogue between the past and the present, the historian
wants first and foremost to let the past be the past strange before it
is familiar, particular before it is universal.
I used earlier the verb phrase to tell about the
past rather than to show it, to recreate it, or even to
represent it. Historians are sensitive to anything that suggests that
images and events are firrnly documented, when in fact they are only speculative
or imagined; in their scholarly writings they use perhaps, may have
been, and footnotes to express their doubts and reasons. In film, it
is often claimed that such qualifications are difficult to maintain, so
powerful is its direct evocation of "reality." But is this inevitable?
The great Andre Bazin elaborated the notion that photography was the most
credible of the arts, bearing with it objective mechanical traces of real
persons and objects; yet even he contrasted the cinematic style "which
believes in the image" and adds to the traces of reality through montage,
lighting, makeup, and the like, with the cinematic style "which believes
in reality" and employs the camera merely to explore it and reveal
it. The latter style, he thought, made possible the expression of ambiguity
and gave scope to the spectator to decide what was on the screen.
A recent essay by Noel Carroll argues that "the power of movies comes neither from anything intrinsic to the medium of film nor from the audience's confusion of the image and its referent, but from a set of Hollywoodlike choices about framing, cutting, and narrative order that lead to "easily graspable clarity," to "the spectator perceiving exactly what she should be perceiving at the precise moment she should be perceiving it." My sense of movie audiences is that they are a tougher bunch
to tameóhooting, laughing, or sober in unexpected
parts even of Hollywood movies, arguing with each other about the film
as they leave the theater or turn off the VCR. But insofar as Carroll's
argument is valid, it leaves open a field of cinematic choices where complexity
and ambiguity, as well as distinctions between image and "reality,"are
possible for the historian or for the filmmaker endowed with a historian's
How, then, is historical authenticity conceived in the common parlance of the film world? Most frequently it is a matter of the look" of the past, or rather "the period look," "period props," and "period costume." "The period look of the film . . . is authentic, with lush colors and a vivid evocation of the clothing, furnishings, art and architecture of the time," says an otherwise lukewarm New York Times review of a film set in midnineteenthcentury Italy. "Period props are everywhere," says a favorable review of a film set in Brooklyn in the 1930s, "and yet they aren't unduly conspicuous. The film's look is simply inviting and believable, the perfect backdrop [for the action]." For the historical eye, the flaw in a period look would not just be the obtrusiveness or staginess of the props and costumes. Worse, an overdone period look is static. It ignores the mixture of goods, clothes, and buildings found in documents from the past: the old and the handmedown along with the new, the archaic with the fashionable, the inherited with the purchased, a dynamic mixture expressive of central processes in a society. Nor, for the historical eye, would visual authenticity rest on the evocation of a period independent of contemporary actors and events. Objects, apparelóthe world of thingsóare important for what they meant to the people of the time, for the way things were used to shape space, time, and body, and for the way they make statements about social relations. The farm machines in Roman Polanski's Tess lend reality and credibility through their connection with nineteenthcentury work rhythms. Even the Dundee marmalade jar placed on the newly dug grave of Tess's baby--a Roland Barthes reality effect par excellence--calls forth the hand of a poor woman improvising a vase.
The use of paintings from the past is another element
in the common discourse about film authenticity. From the early days of
silent film, paintings have been, of course, a major source for motifs,
gestures, clothing, and customs of earlier periods. In 1934, Jacques Feyder's
Kerrmesse heroique promised viewers that the characters seem to
step out of the frames of famous Flemish paintings to live again for your
pleasure." His recreations from Brueghel and other painters worked
superbly here, for the film itself was a Renaissance genre, a womenontop
carnival from start to finish. The current habit of quotation from painting,
however, goes well beyond this: colors, light, and composition drawn from
paintings now represent the "realities" of their time. Certainly
this enhances the beauty of the film and allows the audience the pleasure
of recognition, but how does quotation contribute to historical "genuineness"?
The painter is a privileged witness, yet his or her vision is but one cultural
artifact among many. Authenticity can be obtained only when it is derived
from such an understanding. This means using painting to suggest rather
than prescribe a period's ways of seeing, and it meant playing off one
painter's visual construction against anotherís) and against other
quite different sources for the way people have perceived their worldóeven
using them to subvert each other (Similar queries and recommendations could
be made about the use of period music.) The Return of Martin Guerre
was informed not only by the Flemish Brueghel and the seventeenthcentury
La Tour, but also by popular woodcuts, documentary sources about favorite
colors in the sixteenthcentury Pyrenees, and the director Daniel Vigne's
experienced eye for traditional French agriculture. Barry Lyndon
was informed not only by Gainsborough and Watteau, but also by the
painterly eye of its cinematographer, John Alcott, who was aided by fast
lenses that could register dimly lighted gaming tables, and by the concern
of the director, Stanley Kubrick, who scoured Europe for regions and atmospheres
suitable to Thackeray's novel.
Kubrick's countrysides bring us to another common concept~on of authenticity: it is believed to emerge from filming in the
right historical location rather than in the studio
and from casting local inhabitants rather than actors. Listen to Ermanno
Olmi, director of the superb Tree of Wooden Clogs (a film set in
rural Lombardy at the opening of the twentieth century):
[I prefer] a relationship with reality, not reconstructed
in a studio.... The real tree is continually creative; the artificial tree
isn't.... Thus with the actor. Maybe there exists an extraordinary actor,
but really, I have always felt in them a bit of cardboard in respect to
the great palpitating authenticity of the real character.... In a film
about peasants I choose the actors from the peasant world.... [They] bring
to the film a weight, really a constitution of truth that, provoked by
the situations in which the characters find themselves, creates . . . vibrations
so right, so real, and therefore not repeatable.
Olmi concludes that the camera must capture the light
on the real tree, the expression on the real peasant, before they slip
Historians are surely responsive to such a view. The physical traces of the past in a contemporary building, the faces long particular to a region, the hands familiar with a craftóall seem a good start toward authenticity. Yet the past is also separate and different. Presentday peasants do not necessarily carry with them a memory of that difference, and even on a "real" location, there must be artful reconstruction. The credibility of the film emerges, then, from the relation of the "real" actors to knowledge of the retold past. The work of Rene Allio on Moi, Pierre Riviere suggests one way that this knowledge may be acquired. The scenario and dialogue of the film are closely linked to the account of the young Norman, Pierre Riviere, who tells why and how he murdered his mother and sisters in 1835. (His written recital was published by Michel Foucault and his students in 1973.) Allio lived in a Norman village for weeks before he cast Pierre and his family (only the outsidersóthe legal and medical personneló were played by professional actors). Every Friday a large local assembly saw and discussed the rushes and the next week's filming. The issues of marriage and property raised in the film still had resonance for them. Thus "history" in the film was
created out of a three-way exchange among local actors,
filmmakers, and an authentic text.
On the other hand, a similar exchange can be set
up with professional actors amid the greater artifice of the studio, as
we will see m a moment when we examine the films of Carl Dreyer. Everythmg
here depends on the extent to which the participant' are informed of and
take seriously the strangeness as well as the familiarity of the past.
Some have argued that the use of professional actors helps viewers remember
that a history film is not literally a depiction of the bygone age, but
an interpretation, a representation whose accuracy must always be questioned.
There may be something to this, so long as the actor's persona bends itself
to the historical persona rather than dominates it. (One thinks, for example,
of how effectively Charles Laughton lent himself to the re-creation of
Henry VIII and Rembrandt however limited the other historical merits of
Alexander Kordaís films on these figures may have been.)
About each of the usual marks of historical authenticity
in filmsóperiod props, paintings, location, and local peopleóI
have expressed similar reservations. They add to the credibility and genuine
historicity of the film only insofar as they are connected to the values
and habits of a period and are used with some discernment about their truth
status. This means that there is no automatic privileging of the ~realistic"
or naturalistic film as the mode for representing the past. The symbolic
or evi dently constructed modeóBazin's image filmóhas its
role to play, too, and even a few advantages for showing how past societies
work. This also means that there are more ways in which film can establish
authenticity thanis usually thoughtósome tried and unrecognized,
some yet to be discovered.
To explore these claims, I want now to consider three important films. The first two were directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer in which the deep qualities of the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries are established through relatively nonnaturalistic means: through simplification," to use Dreyer's word, through intens~ty, slow pacing, symbolism. The third was directed by Rene
Allio, in which the socioreligious conflicts and
political dynamics of early eighteenthcentury France are given effective
expression through a more "naturalistic" mode, abundant detail,
and narrative richness.
Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne díArc and
his Day of Wrath figure prominently in film criticism for their
cinematic novelty, but are little discussed for the historical achievement
which was so much a part of Dreyer's avowed purpose. The silent film on
La Pucelle was made in 1927 for the Societe Generale des Films, but the
Danish filmmaker had already begun to read about Jeanne shortly after her
canonization in 1920, eventually getting to a new edition of the 1431 trial
records. As he put it:
The more familiar I became with the historical material, the more anxious I became to attempt to recreate the important periods of the virgin's life in the form of a film. Even beforehand, I was aware that this project made specific demands. Handling the theme on the level of a costume film would probably have permitted a portrayal of the cultural epoch of the fifteenth century, but would have merely resulted in a comparison with other epochs. What counted was getting the spectator absorbed in the past; the means were multifarious and new.
A thorough study of the documents from the rehabilitation
process was necessary: I did not study the clothes of the time, and things
like that [though in fact, when he was later rebuked by critics for the
steel helmets on his soldiers and the hornrimmed glasses on a monk,
he insisted he had fifteenthcentury source in his support]. The year
of the event seemed as inessential to me as its distance from the present.
I wanted to interpret a hymn to the triumph of the soul over life. What
streams out to the possibly moved spectator in strange close-ups is not
accidentally chosen. All these pictures express the character of the person
they show and the spirit of that time.
The resulting film compresses the several months of the trial and its major turning points into an indeterminate time span, and puts all its force into the mysticism and agony of the village girl who dresses as a man and into the reactions of her learned inquisitors, her mocking jailers, and the people of Rouen who watched her execution. Through close-ups and a few carefully selected images, episodes, and captions, the film gives an arrest-
ing and plausible portrait of the religious and political
visionary and ofthe simplicity and craftiness, the terror and certainty
that resonate fromher answers at the trial. Face, gesture, and movement
(the men circlearound Jeanne; Jeanne's eye circlesaround them) suggest
the yawning gap between most fifteenthcenturydoctors of theology and
law and this illiterate village woman, the clericsincomprehension and suspicion
when confronted with Jeanneís religious understandings, experience,
and claims. The absorpt~on andtearsóand finally, the riotingóof
the spectator' at her deathshow how popular sainthood is born.
Dreyer's style is spare andconcentrated. The way
a vision comes is suggested by the cross that formson the floor of Jeanneís
cell, made by the shadow of the window grate, which she reads as amessage
from God. The straw crown she plaits and with which she isridiculed by
the soldiers makes the analogy with Christís passion,or to use the
fifteenthcentury phrase, makes of her end an Imitation of Christ.
The fear behindher shortlived abjuration is evoked by a skull turned
up by a gravedigger in thechurchyard, which Jeanne sees as she is threatened
with death unless shesigns the document prepared by her inquisitors; the
hope she feels as she later awaits the flames is evoked by a mother offering
her breast to herinfant in the crowd.
Historical authenticity inLa Passion de Jeanne díArc rests notso much on the instruments of judicial torture with which Jeanne isthreatened or on the peopleof Rouen amusing themselves with acrobats and pipers while Jeanne's head isshorn, as on the personalities and relationships that are in most instancesinformed by fifteenthcentury values and sensibilitiesówhat the Danish filmmaker called "the soul" of a period. The visualembodiment of this soul" was shaped by the film's connection with the trialrecords, whose editor, the learned Pierre Champion, served as Dreyer'shistorical consultant. La Passion de Jeanne díArc opens with a hand slowlyturning pages of the Bibliotheque Nationale's transcript of the trial. Thefilm has the rhythm and movement of an inquisition. The "technique [of thetrial] is what I tried to
transpose to the film," said Dreyer."There
were questions, there were answers.... Each called for acloseup."
But the visual expression was also shaped by Dreyer's
belief inasimplification" and "abstraction" and by his critique
of the excessiveconcern in American films for multiple realistic detail.
Writing in 1920,he said of them:
The greatest care was exercised to make each of the
film's smallest detailsbelievable.... All of it was so real and so correct
and so believable, andyet one did not believe it.... A devil whispered
in one's ear: Uls it notall technique?" It was soul that was lacking!
In La Passion de JeannedíArc, settings
and costumes are simple. Only certaindetails are highlightedóand
never so as to detract from the faces,free of makoupó"in order
to give the truth." The huge (and costly) cement castle that was constructed
for the outdoor scenes is hardly present in the film; its main rolewas
to make the actors, all professionals, believe in the historicity oftheir
tale. The film was shot in the order of events, not in the order ofsets.
And the illusion worked. Theactors continued to play
their roles after the cameras stopped, and thecrew became involved in the
trial. As the costume designer recalled:
[It was] particularly moving theday when [Renee]
Falconetti's hair was cropped close to her skull in thewan light of the
execution mormng and in the total silence on the set. We wereas touched
as if the mark of infamy were truly being applied.... Theelectricians,
the mechanics held their breaths and their eyes were full oftears. [Falconetti
herself cried.] Then the director slowly walked towards the heroine, caught
some of her tearson his finger and touched them to his lips.
Dreyer thought that he had found inthe boulevard actress whom he directed as Jeanne (it was her only cinematicrole) "the martyr's reincarnation." The association lasted long after the French Right of Dreyer'sday had made Jeanne a national symbol. In 1973, when the LibrairieGallimard brought out extracts from the trial edited by Professor GeorgesDuby of the College de France, it was not one of the fifteenthcentury miniatures of
the Maid of Orleans which was onthe cover, but Dreyer's
If La Passion deJeanne díArc is
adistillation of historical experience, Day of Wrath(Vredens Dag)
is a gradual revelation about one of the darkest and mostoverdetermined
phenomena in sixteenth and seventeenthcentury Europe:witchcraft
and its prosecution. Day of Wrath was adapted from a Norwegian play
written in 1908, which Dreyer had seen in1920. By the time he and two fellow
countrymen produced a script in 1942,he had a folder full of research notes
on the subject. The blackand white sound film that premiered in Nazioccupied
Copenhagen in 1943presents what was then a minority view but would now
be a central view inscholarship about sorcery: that witchcraft was not
simply a fantasy projected byjudges on old women who confessed under torture,
but was part of a sharedcultural system about the occult which could be
manipulated by the womenthemselves. ("In Day of Wrath," Dreyer
said later,"Christian's show their intolerance for those who are attached
toremnants of ancient religions." Perhaps Michelet's La Sorciere
was on his bookshelf.) The historical accomplishment of the film is
tosituate magical practice and diabolic accusation in the intimacy ofeveryday
healing, harming, desire, and jealousy rather than in thespectacles of
Sabbath and possession.
The film opens with the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) hymn for the dead that tells of the Last Things and the LastJudgment; we hear it and we also see it on a scroll printed in Gothic typeand decorated with archaic woodcuts. It then.moves to one of the severaldocuments from the year 1623 that will determine the fate of the old woman, Herlof's Marteócourtorders, a sentence, a Journa1 entryóthe kinds of documents from which the history of witchcraft prosecution isestablished, but which social historians go beyond, as does Dreyer'scamera, to discover the "inner secrets," the actual beliefs and practices of a period. Herlof's Marte is a neighborhood healer dispensing gallows herbs when we first seeher, but she later proves to be capable of prophesying evil and promisingrevenge against those who
will not help her. As she escapes fromthe crowd coming
to arrest her forwitchcraft, the scene fades to the vicarage that will
be the setting formuch of the film. Absalon, the aging Lutheran pastor
who lives there, hadseveral years before married a second wife, Anne, who
was much younger thanhimselfóa "scandal" in the eyes of
his old mother Merete, who also fears what willhappen when her grandson
Martin returns from his sojourn abroad. There, thestillvigorous Merete
dominates and humiliates Anne, jealously trying to maintaincontrol of her
son's household and loyalty. And there Absalon, hissexuality slipping away,
treats Anne with affection but not with passion,and has given her no child.
Dreyer introduces this situationwith his usual economy
of means; then he brings back Martin, and thebeautiful stepmother and the
handsome son immediately begin to fall in love. Now thestory of Herlof's
Marte intersects with the family at the vicarage,as the terrified woman
beseeches Anne to hide her, tdling her she had oncesaved Anne's dead mother
from prosecution as a "hex." Herlof's Marte isfound, tried, tortured
to produce a confession, and burned alive. Along theway Anne overhears
Marte remind Absalon that he had protected Anne's mother so thatyoung Anne
could be his wife. And the audience overhears Absalon intoningprayers to
drown out Marte's threat to denounce Anne as a witch'sdaughter.
The rest of Day ofWrath furfills the predictions of old Merete and Herlof's Marte. Absalon, guiltybecause he has "lied to God," allows Merete to develop suspicions aboutAnne and confesses to his wife that her mother had the power to summon the living and thedead and to wish someone to die. Anne "summons" Martin, and he enters herroom just afterward. They become lovers in the summer woods. Anne, herpassion fully awakened, dreams of alife together and a child; Martin is torn between suicidal guilt anddesire. Absalon, by now ill, returns through a night storm, preoccupiedwith his death and seeking his wife's forgiveness for having married herwithout her love. In anger, Anne says that she has often wished him dead and then
reveals her affair with Martin;her husband shouts
"Martin" and falls lifeless. At the funeralóanextraordinary
scene where the camera moves slowly across the singing choirand the blackclad
clergy and finally lights on Anne, who is dressed all in whiteó
Martin speaks agitatedly but frees Anne from any blame in his fathersdeath.
Whereupon old Merete rises up and denounces Anne as a witch who hasbeguiled
Martin and murdered Absalon with the help of the Evil One. Everything now
falls into place for Martin; he retreats from Anne tohis grandmotherís
side. Abandoned, Anne makes a confession to Absalon on his bier: "Yes,
Idid murder you with the Evil One's help . . . and with the Evil One's
helpI have lured your son into my power. Now you know." The film ends
with theDies Iraeówhich foretells the Last Judgment, but
in an image(the printed scroll) specific to the early modern periodóand
then awitch's cross foreshadows Anne's burning.
There may be no precise sorcery caseinvolving one Anne Pedersdotter, but the historical power of Day of Wrath rests on the centrally important family issues embedded in the film and onthe typology of magical practice it offers. (Dreyer's historicalconsultant, Kaj Uldall, was probably of little help here, for his specialtywas folk art and furniture.) A somewhatcluttered play by Hans WiersJenssen was the story's source, and Dreyer'sprocess of simplification "of purifying the motif," "purging it of trivialdetails" gave clarity to the historical forms. The second marriage with gross disparity in agewas a source for charivari in early modern Europe, precisely because of itsdangers for sexuality and fertility. Merete was right when she called it ascandal. And as a Lutheran pastor, Absalon would have much on his conscience, since he married Annewithout her consent, presumably to salvage his lost desire, and thencovered his failure by disparaging conjugal sexuality. Anne was right whenshe rebuked him for taking away her joy.(Modern critics misread this film as equating Christianity with hostilityto all sexuality. One aspect of the Lutheran Reformation was its defense ofmarried sexuality, and whatever Dreyer's personal beliefs aboutreligion,
Day of Wrath is consistent with that view.
Absalon owed his wife her pleasure.) The otherquarrel in the filmóthat
between widowed motherinlaw anddaughterinlawówas
another feature of the extended household in early modern Europe,especially
when the daughterinlaw was a second wife. The more commonaccusation
made against the daughterinlaw was that she was a whore, but
the circumstances at the vicarage makethe charge of witchcraft understandable.
Witchcraft emerges in the film, asit does in recent
scholarship, as a complex phenomenon that merges folkbelief and
clerical doctrine and is concerned with such daily matters as healthand
sexuality. Herlof's Marte is a typical practitioner, using her gallowsherbs
to help a neighbor one day (as the film shows), and on another day using
herbs and charms to allow a neighbor to get revenge. Marteadmits to making
an accord with the devil and renouncing Christ only whenit is proposed
to her under torture; Dreyer leaves it uncertain whether shereally believes
th~s or is just anold eccentric "not afraid," as she says to
Absalon, "of Heaven or Hell, only afraid of dying." Anne can
understand herself as apractitioner because of the widely held view that
occult powers arehereditary. In her case the power in question is necromancy,
that is,communication with the deadófor instance, with the dead
Absalon, to whom Anne is talkmg at the end ofthe film. The aid of the Evil
One she admits only when deserted by Martinand powerless. The genius of
Day of Wrath, noted by many critics, is its unfolding of a story
that can be interpretedat every step in either natural or supernatural
termsónot only by today's viewers but also by the men and women
of theseventeenth century. Why does Martin come to Anne? Why does Absalon
die?Why does Anne cast the devil as her helper? The intersection between
wish, despair, andcultural belief is given remarkable narrative and visual
As with La Passion deJeanne díArc historical authenticity comes first and foremost from the film's credibleconnection with "the spirit of a period" in its large forms and sometimesin its small details. Anne's eyes are a test for understanding her(Absalon
sees them as pure and clear;Martin as mysterious
and with a flame of passion; Merete as burning with witchcraft). They change
before the camera as she herself changes: theygaze with curiosity and terror
at the start of Marte's burning; theyenchant Martin; they rebel against
Merete; they show Absalon her angryresentment. This narrative link fits
a time that believed in and feared the "evil eye" and read faces
for character.The costumes seem inspired by Rembrandt, as do some of the
beards, but themore important influence may be facial expression. The sets
and props arecharacteristically simple, focusing only on what is important
for the action (Anne's embroidery frame, thelinen closet). Nor was Dreyer
bothered by a chest with the carving "anno1639"óa date
years after the actionówhich can readily be seen standing between
Martin and Merete after shetells him he must find a wife.
Finally, as in LaPassion dcJeanne dIArc, certain
cinematic techniques assist the historical telling. The film shiftsfrom
sharp whites (collars, coifs) and shaip blacks to soft and mistygrays,
a shift suggesting movement from clarity to ambiguity. The slow pace and
the lingering camera, whichBazin and other critics found boring or selfindulgent,
give the viewertime to explore what is happening, to make up her mindóperhaps
even to reflect, despite Dreyer's denial of any political intent,on what
the words of the Dies Irac could have meant to the Copenhagen audience
in Novcmber 1943, six weeksafter the roundup of Jews had begun. Dreyer
summoned the living and thedead in his film and allowed viewers to judge
their actions.But, magician though he was, he could not escape the Nazi
forces and had toflee to Sweden with his reels.
With Rene Allio's LesCamisards, a film which was made three decades later and which was a pioneer in therevival of the historical film in France, we are in a world of color, fastpacing, and detailed reconstitution. Allio tries overall for "realistic" representation, but in that process he does not lose the sense of basicsocial forms and establishes a constant play between the alien features
of the past and the more recognizable look and categories
of the present.
Les Camisards is an account of several
months in the Protestant rural uprising in theCevennes region of south
central France, an uprising which was a responseto forcible conversion
by Catholic missionaries. After the credits a ratherlong caption explains
to viewers that "In 1685, Louis XIV outlawed Protestantism by revoking
the Edict ofNantes." It goes on to mention the razing of Reformed
churches, the exilingof pastors, and the punishment of rebels; it concludes
with a idescription of the firstviolent resistance in the Cevennes in 1702,
in which an important abbot,several priests, and the inhabitants of a chateau
were slam. The film'saction then starts. A silent and hostile congregation
of "converts" gets news from its priest of the capture and punishment
of theassassins by the local Catholic authorities. Some of the peasants
go off toa clandestine assembly, first to hear the Word of God from one
of their ownand then from the prophetic young preacher, Abraham Mazel,
who moves through thecountryside crying, "Repent, repent, leave Babylon,
renounce idolatry." Outof the listeners is formed a band of armed
resistersó young men andeven a few womenóled by the former
blacksmith, Laporte, with the inspired Mazel at hisside.
It is this band we track throughthe film, first as
they manage to combine resistance with their farm work,harvesting under
the eyes of Catholic soldiers, and then as they become guerrillas, their
numbers growing, receiving food from sympathetic villagers, and advancing
unseen through the hills they know. Then they burn a church used for theMass;
they kill soldiers and a government official; and, aided by thecelebrated
roving leader, Jean Cavalier, and his men, they put to rout a large but
indifferent army from the occupyingCatholic garrison. Interspersed with
the Protestant action, we see Catholicmaneuvers at the chateau: one aristocratic
captain seeks the hand of the propertied widow of the slain royal official,
while the other courts the daughter of the local seigneur.This noble father
returned to the Mass, but is still taking out the Protestant Biblc from
hiscoffer and even breaking bread with the rebels. The film ends with a
defeatin battle for the Protestants (Laporte and many others are slain)
and amarriage for the Catholics (the seigneurís daughter makes her
aristocratic match under herfatherís tolerating eye). A new and
tough royal official is inplace, but the Protestant resistance has only
begun: a woman survivor of the battle carries thecry "Repent, mercy,
pardon" to the villagers, and as the men walk by thedisplayed head
of Laporte, a last over voice says, "It was about this timethat people
began to call us Camisards."
Rene Allio made Les Camisards in 1970, in
part (as he put it) "inthe spirit of historical reflection that followed
May 1968" and in part to enjoy himself in the fields of the Cevennes,
where he grewup. In addition, the film represents an earlycollaboration
between a director and the new school of French socialhistory embodied
in the work and person of Philippe Joutard, a specialistin the historical
ethnography and collective memory of the Camisard revolt.Here was a chance
for Allio to find a way "to represent the popular classes," to
break, as he said, with thehero and star so dear to the usual financers
of the feature film. Here wasa chance for Joutard, whose edition of Camisard
journals had first inspiredAllio, to insist during the filming on the distinct
spiritual and prophetic features of the movement, asagainst, say, peasant
resistance to taxes. The results are not only the"authenticity"
of local names and real personages (Mazel, Laporte, Cavalier) and cinematic
events which are a reasonable composite of historical events, but also
the establishment of twodistinct cultural styles. The simplicity of Protestant
dress and hairstyleis opposed to the ornate garb of the welloff and
wellborn Catholics(even the axProtestant seigneur does not yet
wear a wig) the ordered authority of theCatholic priest is opposed to the
ecstasyóeven the fitsóof the prophetic Mazel; the royal troops
entering battle with drumbeats areopposed to the Protestant peasants and
artisans singing their Psalms ofDavid.
Even more important is thepresence of a Camisard
voice in the film. A young man is shown going tojoin Laporte's band while
an overvoice speaks in the first person,identifying him as the woolseller
JeanJacques Combassous, a Protestant full of shame for having married
in the Catholic rite: "I heard of some who had takenup arms to defend
our faith. I resolved to go and join their troops andexamine their conduct,
and if I was edified, to stay with them, and if not,to go back home."
The film is not thenceforth told from his vantage point, but every once
in a while he isheard in overvoice, interpreting the action by the lights
of Camisardsensibility and also offering the last statement of the film.
The audiencenever knows, however, where Combassous's words come from: Are
they a text from the time? Or are they thedirector's device for giving
personality and stance to one of the mass of resisters?
If Les Camisardsmakes little effort to reflect on its own truth statusóof which more lateróRene Allio himself thought much about the filmmaker's relation to history.He had not "resurrected" the past, he said, but had tried "to reinvent it"in all its strangeness. We sense that strangeness at several points: the quiet Protestant meals eaten fromwooden bowls, with the tiniest gesture suggesting a courtship; the Protestants'mocking laughter at the love letter sent by the aristocratic captain to thewidow, which they read aloud from a seized mail packet; the Camisard whobeats a royal officer to death while the victim shouts, "Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt notkill." In retrospect, Allio says that he would have preferred tohave used local peasants rather than actors (this he did only later inMoi, Pierre Riviere) and to have had them speaking the local language of Occitan. (Here Philippe Joutard demurred: the Camisards wereperfectly bilingual in French and Occitan; French was the language of Protestant worship and of Camisard journals. Using French ensured both historical authenticity and a broad audience for the film.) At least he filmed amid the nineteenthcentury houses anddecayed villages of the Cevennes, where there were physical and memory
traces of a more prosperous past.Here was a landscape
that would yield the muted colors suitable toProtestant sobriety, a landscape
he could interpret according to the lessons of seventeenth and eighteenthcentury
In particular, Christine Laurent's costumes experimented
with how to create genuine authenticity rather than static period accuracyóthat
is, how to find a visual language and vestimentary signs which would suggest
the way clothing looked and was worn in the Cevennes. Laurent put them
together on a small budget from seventeenthcentury sources,secondhand
stores, and theater trunks.The shirts or camisoles which the film's Protestants
wear were inspired byshirts from the nineteenth century American Westóan
important choice, since it was said that from such garments came their
Reality and credibility are the components of authenticity
best achieved (so I have been suggesting) when films represent values,
relations, andissues in a period; when they animate props and locations
by theirconnections with historical people and whenthey let the past have
its distinctiveness before remaking it to resemblethe present. The three
films we have been considering, whether in their"simplified"
or in their "naturalistic features," help us in a central way
to visualize and think about events in Europefrom the fifteenth to the
But whatever their contribution, there are two allied historical tasks they do less well, or not at all: suggesting the possibility that there may be avery different way of reporting what happened and giving some indication of their own truth status, an indication of where knowledge of the past comes from and our relation to it. What do I mean by a different way of reportingwhat happened? All three films concern discordant situations. the inquisitors versus the Maid, Catholics versus Protestants, and the like Dreyer intended his judges to be understoodnot as wicked men but as persons who took seriously the dangers of sorceryand of challenges to clerical control. Nonetheless, the camera ispositloned in Jeanne díArc to tell onlyone story, however balanced it
tries to be in creating believablehistorical judgments.
The same is true of the frankly partisan Camisards. Only Day
of Wrath, with its wondrous ambiguity, experiments with telling two
stories at onceand showing multiple ways in which the same event could
Let us expand our examples by considering TheMission,
a film which, whilewellintentioned and visually impressive, is
somewhat tenuously related to events and persons that were documentable
as the Spanish and Portuguese monarchs redrew their borders in Paraguay
in the1750s. In this film, Joffe, his scenarist Robert Bolt, and theological
advisor Daniel Berrigan give ample treatment to the conflicting views and
interests of Jesuits, of Portugese and Spanish estate owners and their
governments, and of the papacy on theissue of the destiny of the Guarani
Indians. We hear Jesuit and Spaniard arguing about whether the Guarani
are enslaved on the estates or whether they are held in stricter subjection
on the Jesuit missions. We see Jesuit argue with Jesuit about whether a
member of a religious order should bear the sword to stand with his flock
or hold to the pacifism of Jesus. At the end of the film, the pope's legatelooks
out at us questioningly, evoking the doubts he has expressed throughout
his entire mission: is thesaving of the entire Jesuit order worth the price
of local destruction and Indian uprooting and enslavement? But these contrary
views are all told within the frame of a single Jesuit story, and the independent
voice of the Guarani is heard only onceówhen the Guarani chief,
speaking in his own tongue and translated by Father Gabriel, tells the
legate that he too is a king and that he does not thinkthe pope has interpreted
God's plans aright. The Indians are pastoralizedin The Mission; how
they themselves might have accounted for events is lost in this "true"
"What's so bad about a partisan history film?" you may be asking. Nothing necessarily, so long as one indicates tothe audience what one is doing. "Why should Allio have to give equal voice to the Catholics in his excellent film?" you also may be
asking. He needn't, but think howvisually and intellectually interesting
might be a brief scene from aCevenol Catholic village, whereone living
peasant culture could be confronted with another. "Don'thistorians
also tell a single story?" you finally may be asking. They do,but
at least their footnotes should suggest other accounts of whathappened,
and the bestcurrent historical practice tries to flag other tellings to
readers and tobe at least briefly reflexive about its own stance.
Film has countless possibilities for showing more
than one story at onceand for indicating in a concise and arresting way
the existence of otherinterpretations. Before going on to suggest what
they might be, let meclarify what I mean by the truthstatus problem in
the three films I have been considering. None, of course,uses the "any
resemblance to actual events is coincidental" disclaimer, butonly
Dreyer's Jeanne díArc does anything to complicate a truth
claim. Les Camisards opens with its anonymous caption "In 1685
. . .", and the overvoiced artisan's commentary floats without areality
status. (I tracked it down at the library; it is mostly taken fromthe Camisard
journal of the woolseller Jean Bonbonnoux, written in Genevalong after
the events with some sentences added from the memoirs of the preacher,
Mazel.) What if, at the end of the film, the words "Itwas after this
that people began to call us Camisards. were said by a post story Bonbonnoux,who
turns to the theater audience and says that he's left them a journal?
At least this would be a start towardportraying history as an encounter
between us and sources from thepast.
La Passion de Jeanne díArc begins with such a source, the slowly turned pages of theBibliotheque Nationale manuscript, which then flows into the cinematic representation of the text. Present day scholars may grumble that this opening depicts archival sources astoo transparent to the historian, and presentday filmmakers may grumble that this is now a visual cliche. Nonetheless,at the time it was devised in 1927, it told viewers that knowledge of thepast is constructed, and provided an image of the film's narrativesource.
Let me conclude with a set of ideas drawn from existing
films to inspire usto expand the repertory of cinematic techniques for
good telling about thepast. Some have simple Brechtian distancing functions;
some evoke multiple tellings or controversy; some locate the film in relation
to historical knowledge; some do all three at once.
Reminding viewers of thedistance, between past
and present: the opening of Federico Felliniís
The ShipSails On, where a silent film gradually and comically
moves into sound and color until the action begins,a brief history of film
suggesting the decades that lie between theviewer's present and the present
of the film, which is set before World WarI; the moment toward the end
of La Nuit Varennes, when a central figure,Restif de la Bretonne,
steps out of his revolutionary France into thestreets of contemporary Paris;
the diagrammatic maps used in Thc Story of Adele H. to indicate
narrative, period style, and geographical movement.
Especially suggestive are thetechniques used by Bertrand Tavernier in Que la FeteCommence (Let Joy Reign Supreme) a film set in 171920 during the regency of Philippe d'Orleans over young Louis XV, andintertwining the hopeless efforts of a group of backwoods nobles to establish an independent republic of Brittany with the plotsand festivities of the regent and his minister, the abbot Guillaume Dubois.Tavernier positions spectators surprisingly close to the pastó"filming as if we are contemporaries of the events," he called it,"cracking the historical varnish"óand then distances them by various cinematic comments. The former meanshabituating the audience to the ambiance of the past by long extended shots(a peddler running along a Breton shore), while omitting from the film any captions or conversations intended solely toexplain to modern viewers what is going on (we learn of John Law's new banknotes only as much as the Breton conspirators learn). Distancing is accomplished by making us laugh at, ratherthan with, the characters (Dubois tells a prostitute his political troubles while her feet are on his shoulders) and by having us listen to music which is in ironic tension with the action (the regent's own stately composition plays
as a peasantgirl sets fire to his coach). And through sudden freezes
the camera linksits subjects with past and future historic' of resistance:
the face of theBreton leader before his execution the face of the peasant
girl watchingthe burning coach.
Suggesting multiple tellings:Kurosawa's great
Rashomon, of course, with its three accounts of asexual and
violent encounter Last Year at Marienbad, with its repeats, suddenshifts,
dissolves and mixed clues about memory; Blowup,with its unreadable
photograph on which the evidence ofmurder depends; Reds, with its
witnesses commenting on the action and characters (adevice much better
in its conception than in its realization, as the scenarist Trevor Griffiths
and the historical consultant Robert Rosenstone both pointed out).
Ways of showing where knowledgeof the past comes
from: the opening of Welles's Citizen Kane, with its
newsreels, journalist's inquiries, and final mystery, unravelledonly to
the theater audience and not to the reporter; the opening ofMueda: Memorial
and Massacreóthe remarkable film from Mozambique about the yearly
reenactment of anevent in the struggle for independenceóin which
a predominantly dark opening sequence gradually lightens to anexpansive
open field where the white director Ruy Guerra discusses planswith the
black players about what difference the film will make to theirritual.
And in The Frcnch Licutcnants Woman, the film within a film allows
aconstant inter play between twentiethcentury actors andnineteenthcentury
lovers; the street scene of nineteenthcentury whores is prepared for
by a bedroom scene in which the actress isreading a history of London prostitution
and commenting on it to herleading man.
One could multiply such ideas at length, thinking of ways that overimages,overvoices, slowing down and speeding up of film, moving from color toblack and white, and juxtaposed images and angles could play the role ofthe historian's "perhaps," "maybe," "this is controversial," or "this is how we think we know." One could generate ideas about better openings or end
credits: why not acknowledge ahistorical source if one can acknowledge
villages, chateaux, foundations,and suppliers of hats and food? Why not
find the visual equivalent of apreface and say what the film intends?
But I end with two ideas for remakingbeginnings so
that they may be more expressive of the needs of goodhistorytelling
without sacrificing the needs of good filmmaking. Thc Return of Martin
Guerre opens with thc notary arriving in Artigaton horseback, moves
to the marriage of young Martin and Bertrande, and thenan anonymous voice
says (as we saw above), "You will not regret listeningto this account,
for it is not a tale of adventure or imaginary fable, buta pure, true story."
Now this remark is in fact a printer's blurb from an edition of thejudge's
book about the case, a book that became a sixteenthcentury bestseller
and whose existence is mentioned at the end of the film. Why notgive the
remark to a printer, who would be shown talking with a perplexedJudge Coras
about his manuscript?
CORAS: I judged this case four monthsago, and it
is so strange, I still wonder about it. Will readers everbelieve my book?
PRINTER: With your name on it, they'resure to. And
I'll say in my preface: "This is not a madeupfantastic tale,
but une pureet vraie histoire."
[Cut to the village of Artigat.]
The other example comes not from a film Iworked on, but from one I heard about from its leading man, Edward JamesOlmos, who played Gregorio in The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez. This fine film is set in Texas in the opening years of the twentieth century and concerns the pursuit across Texas of a Mexican-American who has killed a sheriff he thought was wrongly arresting him. The film opens with a picture of a narrowgauge railroad train moving across the countryside (it will appear later in the film carrying rangers in pursuit of Gregorio, but it is surely an original image). At the same time, we hear someone singing the Mexican ballad that tells the story of the hero Gregorio. Eddy told us that when the director, Robert M.Young, was starting work on the film, he went to the small Texas
town where the courthouse stillstands and asked the old judge if he
had ever heard of Gregorio Cortez."I have been waiting for this day
for twentyfive years," the judge said in his Texas accent, and
pulled out a drawer in his filecabinet. "Every Tuesday night, when
my courthouse friends and I play dominoes, we always get around to talking
of Gregorio Cortez.If you'll let me play the judge in the film and say,
'In Texas,Gregorio Cortez can get a fair trial,' then I'll let you see
And that's how the film Gregorio Cortez might
have begun: an encounter between a director, a judge (and he did actin
the film), a file, a local ballad. Such are the ways a history film cantransform
memory, can take responsibility for its resemblance to persons living or
dead, and let the viewers in on the secrets of authenticity.
Information about the Rasputin libel case
can be found in AmericanLaw Reports, Annotated, 99 (1935), 86478,
and in John Kobler, Damned in Paradise The Life of John Barrymore (New
York, 1972). Andre Bazin's essays on film and"reality" can
be found in Quíest-ce que le cinema? (Paris, 195861).
Its English translation, by Hugh Gray, is What is Cinema (Berkeley
and Los Angeles, 1967 71). Bazin's essays are discussed by Dudley
Andrew in Andre Bazin (New York, 1978). Noel Carroll's "The
Power of Movies," appears in a specialissue of Daedalus, "The
Moving Image" (Fall 1985). The views of director Ermanno Olmi are
found, together with many other interesting interviews, in Film Forum:Thirty-Five
Top Filmmakers Discuss Their Craft, edited by Ellen Oumano (New York,
The views of Carl Theodor Dreyeras well as comments
about his films are published in Dreyer in Double Vision, edited
by Donald Skoller (New York, 1973);Interviews with Film Directors, edited
by Andrew Sarris (NewYork, 1969); and Voices of Film Experience,
1891 to thc Present, edited by Jay Leyda (New York, 1977). The best
study of his films is DavidBordwell's The Films of CarlTheodore
Dreyer (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1981). Rene Allio talks about his
work inJeanPierre BertinMaghit's "Trois Cineastes en quete de
l'histoire (Entretien avec ReneAllio, Frank Cassenti et Bertrand Tavernier),"
La Revue du Cinema, 352 (JulyAugust 1980) and in Cinemaet
realite by Paolo Zagalia and others (Brussels, 1982). Bertrand Tavernier
talks about his work in his interview with BertinMaghit and also in
Ecran, 36 (May 1975).