- Filming the Middle Ages by Bettina Bildhauer
Bettina Bildhauer has written an impressive study of medievalism in German cinema. Unfortunately she and/or her publishers have represented it as a “groundbreaking” account of medieval film as an international genre. That ground has, in fact, been broken a number of times since Kevin Harty’s The Reel Middle Ages (1999), notably by John Aberth in A Knight at the Movies (2003), Nicholas Hay-dock in Movie Medievalism (2008), and especially by Laurie Finke and Martin Schichtman in Cinematic Illuminations (2010). Sixteen years ago, when I first tried to identify a genre of medieval film, I could claim to be entering a mostly empty field. That time has passed. If this book is not groundbreaking, it is also not, alas, a persuasive account of “a coherent filmic tradition” (p. 13) that operates across cultures and eras. One should be wary of a study that begins by dismissing the most mainstream examples of the genre it pretends to define, especially while conceding their “influence on the genre” (p. 13). The omissions include the most popular medieval film of the last twenty years, Braveheart (1995); that perennial favorite of film students, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975); virtually all Arthuriana; the many versions of Robin Hood; and all of Asian cinema, aside from a couple of paragraphs on Rashomon. The remaining list is almost as remarkable for its eccentricity as its exclusions. Of all the St. Joan films, we get three pages on Dreyer’s classic La Passion (1928) and four (pp. 87–90) on an obscure Nazi version, but nothing on Bresson, Besson, and the rest. At least two of the films discussed by Bildhauer—Hard to be a God and Dreamship Surprise—are technically science fiction. A number of others—Sign of the Pagan, The Immortal Heart, Condottieri—are set outside the supposed parameters of 500–1500 AD. The films often seem to have been selected to fit the thesis.
As a study of the German tradition, however, this is an intelligent, densely argued, demanding book. It comes with the enthusiastic endorsements of Carolyn Dinshaw, John Ganim, and Robert Burgoyne. Even outside that remit, it is usefully provocative. It certainly belongs in most film libraries. If it is not the first attempt [End Page 403] to define the genre, it is, so far, the most systematic. It has commanded my attention through three full readings. If in what follows I am seriously critical, it is because I take its arguments—and the problems they raise—seriously.
Bildhauer means to fill the genuine need for an account of the “genre as process” (p. 17), defined not by subject but by what it does. The paradigm is deceptively simple. There is, she argues, “such a thing as a ‘medieval film’: a group of films usually set in the Middle Ages, creating non-linear time structures, playing visuality off against writing, and critiquing the modern individual human subject” (p. 213). This is not, as she says at the beginning, “a book about the Middle Ages” (p. 11); it is about cinematic manifestations of three myths about the Middle Ages, each of which gets one of the book’s three sections. The first imagines the medieval as a timeless, literally prehistoric period in which linear progression is suspended both for communities and individuals; past and future are compressed into the present, creating a “co-presence” in which different entities appear in the same moment and/or different moments appear in one. The career of Faust in Murnau’s 1926 version can be condensed into a day, and the aged Faust can morph into his youthful self. The second myth sees the Middle Ages as a visual culture before the domination of print. The third follows Burckhardt in imagining a world of medieval collectivity before the invention of individuality. All three tendencies, Bidlhauer argues, allow the medieval to serve as a validating surrogate for film—and later media—culture in its struggle against the hegemony of print and modernism.
This simple structure...