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Filming the Middle Ages

Filming the Middle Ages by Bettina Bildhauer (Reaktion Books, 2011), 264 pages, ISBN: 978-1861898081 (hardback), £25

About the reviewer: Dr Lesley Coote is a lecturer in medieval studies, medievalism and early modern studies.  She is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and a member of the Medieval Electronic Multimedia Organisation (MEMO), the Studies in Medievalism group, and the International Association of Robin Hood Scholars.  She is a member of the University of Hull’s Marvell Centre, and of two editorial boards for Brepols publishers’ series: Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe, and Medieval Identities in Socio-Cultural Spaces (MiscS), of which she is Chair.  She regularly acts as a reviewer and reader for a variety of journals, including Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching, Review of English Studies, Arthuriana, Modern Language Review and the Journal of Gender Studies. She is a member of the advisory board of the online review journal, Medievally Speaking, to which she is also a contributor.

To begin with, I love the cover illustration of this book.  It conveys the impression of the cinematic medieval (the image, we learn later, is from Murnau’s 1926 film Faust) with which Bettina Bildhauer seeks to engage, and which she analyses in some depth.  This skeletal image of Death as ‘future’ and as ‘past’, when severed from its context (from its mise-en-scène) has the medievalist look of a ‘dark glass’ and the futuristic look of an astronaut’s visor.  Like medieval images of the Dance of Death, it invites and attracts, yet distances, challenges and threatens the viewer – one of the main themes which Bildhauer is about to explore.  In this case, the book does not disappoint the expectations generated by its cover.  Refreshingly, it discusses medieval film as film, not as an accessory to medieval studies, although Bildhauer is also a practising, and published, medievalist.  Her introduction discusses (and defends) medieval film both as a terminology and as a genre, within a wider context of writing on the subject.  It also addresses claims that cinema revives a medieval visual culture and its methodologies, together with the seemingly endless debates regarding historical accuracy and the need for it (or not).  There is, as Bildhauer states, no concrete answer to this, as true accuracy is impossible.

… medievalists and historiographers will find this book extremely useful for research and as a teaching resource.

The rest of the book is divided into three main sections arising from cinematic treatments of the medieval; the problematic of time (which includes death and destiny), the use/function of the written word, and conceptions of society, including the nature of leadership and heroism.  These are, incidentally, also the standard themes into which medieval studies teachers working with film frequently divide their class or programme plans, so these divisions have a very practical use for medieval studies and historiography teaching.  The first section, on time, examines the medieval film’s disruption of linear time, and the implications of this, including its queering effect, with the implications this has for the presentation of themes (such as gender), also medieval film’s association with fantastic tropes such as the vampire and the ‘undead’. Bildhauer engages with the idea of the medieval past engaging with us, and how we are affected by it even as we seek this engagement on our own terms. In her second section, she examines the contest for authority and authenticity between the written word and the visual or experienced world.

In the medieval context, Bildhauer notes the tendency of the modern cinematic medium to favour authentication by experience and the visual, above the claims of books and writing.  Books are objectified in film, becoming allegories or metaphors which signify something other than themselves.  The subject of the third section is the re-imagining of the medieval world as a pre-industrial, pre-modern and pre-individual society, from which the leader/hero emerges as a representative of the personified collective.  In this society, the social grouping is itself the individual, or body, with the people as its parts.  In connection with this, Bildhauer delves briefly but very insightfully into the use of animation and CGI in the representation of blurred boundaries between the human and the fantastic  – represented by technology – as a function of the far past as a place where the impossible could have existed.  The past, she states, is ‘always already’ modern.

As already noted, medievalists and historiographers will find this book extremely useful for research and as a teaching resource. It also, however, has great potential for film studies scholars and teachers of all kinds – genre studies, gender studies, auteur studies, general film studies – and the study of German national cinema.  One of the most impressive, and striking, features of this book is that its author has avoided the US/British penchant for (obsession with?) King Arthur, Robin Hood and the Crusades, instead focusing on European, and specifically German or German-influenced, cinematic output.  The films discussed range from the more well-known such as The Seventh Seal, The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Name of the Rose and Zemeckis’s Beowulf, to early films such as Faust, Golem, Destiny, Waxworks and Gade/Schall’s 1921 Hamlet, and lesser-known but more recent films such as Hard to be a God, Sword of Xanten, Dreamship Surprise and the animated Jester Till.

The book features an evaluation of German medieval cinema and its place in ‘transnational’ cinematic culture, describing and analysing the way in which the medieval past has occupied a very specific and powerful place in twentieth-century German cultural development.  Bildhauer traces this from the early decades of the twentieth century, through the Weimar republic, towards an evaluation of its relationship with National Socialism and post-Nazi historical memory. In particular, she highlights the place of medieval films in the development of twentieth-century ideas of Heimat and Vaterland. This begs another book, which I would love to read, on that subject alone.  Filming the Middle Ages should prove invaluable for anyone studying this, or associated, topics in cinema, literature or history. It should also prove an invaluable asset for auteur study, as many of the films discussed were the work of major auteurs in the history of European cinema, many of them (Pabst, Murnau, Eisenstein, Bergman…) exerting considerable influence on other national cinematic cultures.   Maybe the answer/s to why such figures felt impelled to set at least one film in the European Middle Ages lies somewhere in this book…which is a really ‘good read’, hugely informative, should be on the reading list of all the above, and will not disappoint the reader with a purely general interest in medievalism or cinema, either – in other words, a really good book.


Dr Lesley Coote

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