In Part 1 I reviewed two books: Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly and Reel History by Alex Von Tunzelmann.
When I compare the two media of storytelling – novels and filmmaking – I have to wonder, though, why films come in for more criticism than do books for lack or otherwise of accuracy. Perhaps it’s a matter of classification. A reader will know that when he/she is reading an historical novel that it is part-fact, part-fiction. He/she will accept the ‘suspension of disbelief’ (a theatre term) and enter willingly into the story. Author notes or history books may confirm which parts of the story are factual. If movies were categorised like books are (that is, for example, non-fiction, fiction, historical fiction) would the viewer approach movies with a similar acceptance of their levels of historical truth, as readers do books? Would they enter the ‘suspension of disbelief’ with discernment, knowing that what they are watching is a mixture of fact and fiction? At current modes of film classification (action, thriller, drama and so on), perhaps the viewer doesn’t have sufficient guidelines that what they are watching is part creation, part historical fact. But I’m being generous. Perhaps the bottom line is that we as moviegoers are so dumb that we gullibly accept as truth whatever is simply flashed across the screen at us. And we need experts like Von Tunzelmann to put us straight.
Certainly in the current climate in which ‘fake news’ is, well, making the news, learning to be discerning viewers is an important skill. And this is the vein in which I think Von Tunzelmann’s Reel History book/column could be taken. A tool to help us see when important aspects of history in movies may be inaccurately portrayed. Becoming overly pedantic about what’s true or false in movies, though, is to take away from this media’s main purpose: that of entertainment. I think Von Tunzelmann’s book inadvertently highlights this as well: that movies are NOT purveyors of truth. They are about entertainment.
I listened to a book on Audible recently called Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly. It’s a novel set in World War II and beyond and covers the stories of three very different women. One is an American actress-cum-socialite-cum-charity-fundraiser called Caroline. The other is a Polish victim of Hitler’s only concentration camp for women, Ravensbruck. Her name is Kasia. And the third is a German doctor who conducted experiments on Polish prisoners like Kasia at Ravensbruck. Her name is Herta. Kelly’s description of the medical experiments the Polish ‘rabbits’ underwent is gruesome. These particularly unfortunate prisoners were called rabbits because of the experimental nature of the operations that were conducted on them, and because they were forced to hop instead of walk after the procedures that affected their limbs.
Caroline’s involvement with the prisoners came into effect largely after the war ended. She helped secure medical treatment in America for these ‘rabbits’ and also helped to have Herta’s medical licence revoked. After the war Herta had initially been sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for war crimes, but served only five years. After her release she began practising medicine again until a former Polish prisoner recognised her (in the book this is Kasia) and brought this fact into public knowledge.
Kelly’s account is deeply personal and riveting. And I highly recommend the book for its gripping nature and its important contribution to making certain historical accounts known. The author explains in a lengthy Autor’s Note how she composed the story, and which parts are fact and which a work of her creative imagination. For instance, Caroline’s romance with a French actor is fiction. And Kasia is a composite character of a number of like women at Ravensbruck.
Another book I’ve read recently, this time on Kindle, is Reel History by Alex Von Tunzelmann. Von Tunzelmann wrote a regular column for The Guardian entitled Reel History. In it she reviewed movies, commenting mainly on their historical accuracy. This book is a compilation of many of those reviews. In her reviews the author was at pains to separate fact from fiction and rated the films according to their historical accuracy and entertainment value. Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, for instance, is given an entertainment grade of C- and a history grade of: fail. Yes, that surprised me. I’m no historian and I must bow to the superior knowledge of Von Tunzelmann, an historian. When it comes to entertainment, apart from Von Tunzelmann’s grading, her writing style itself is witty and very entertaining. She says of Braveheart, ‘Tremendously lauded at the time of its release and showered with five Oscars – including Best Picture – it is, historically speaking, one of the daftest films ever made.’ I enjoyed reading the book and would recommend it, especially to people interested in the historical accuracy of films. Pointing out historical inaccuracies, particularly in a film that won Oscars, is valuable.
Part 2 to follow on 7 April 2017: When I compare the two media of storytelling – novels and filmmaking – I have to wonder, though, why films come in for more criticism than do books for lack or otherwise of accuracy…