The film opens with shots of a barbed wire fence, warning signs, and barriers, accompanied by a dramatic score and an omniscient voice-over that embeds the historical situation depicted on screen within a particular narrative. The narrator explains that the film is the story of East German factory worker Anna Kaminski (Eva Kotthaus) and West German border guard Carl Altmann (Erik Schumann). The year is 1952, and the two lovers are separated by the inner German border. Following a series of almost static shots, the camera pans slowly, awakening the film to life. Finally, human figures appear: refugees making their way along an overgrown path on the bank of a border river.

As we watch Helmut Käutner’ssky withoutstars (himmel ohne sterne, 1955), we construct a spatiotemporal structure out of moving images, sound, and words that allows us to experience the history of Germany’s division. The audiovisual figuration of the past becomes a living encounter in the present. Conceptions of history are inscribed into the filmic world’s formal and aesthetic features even before the plot begins. The iconic images of the border and the voice-over commentary localize the action in a historical setting distinguished by landscape, costumes, set dressings, and the way the characters act and comport themselves. By creating visual and aural spaces, the film both represents and constructs history, producing a fluid historical world that we can synesthetically “live.” This blend of historical model and fiction draws us powerfully into the world of the film, and the immersion is helped along by the flow of the montage, the music, and the subjectivized gaze of the camera-eye. All these operations bring us “physically and mentally closer to the action of the film.”Footnote 1 I shall use the term histosphere to refer to the “sphere” of a cinematically modeled, physically experienceable historical world. The prefix “histo-” refers here not just to (popular conceptions of) history, but also to a particular bodily dimension. In the phenomenological space between audiovisual figurations and historical experience, a histosphere functions—in the manner of histology—as an innervated tissue that relays the potential semiotic meanings of the cinematically constructed past via physical-sensory stimuli.Footnote 2 In this book, I conduct a “vivisection” of the praxis of histospheres—an exploratory surgery on a living organism.

The narrator of sky without stars speaks auspiciously of the refugees’ hope of a life in freedom. While the repetitive score accentuates the tense atmosphere, a close-up focuses on Anna’s watchful gaze. The situation intensifies further when the smuggler betrays the refugees to two border guards, causing an elderly man to suffer a fatal heart attack. The film cuts to a dramatic zoom-in on Anna’s face, which strengthens the sense of subjective experience and creates closer identification with the protagonist. To the sound of soaring strings, she seizes the initiative and leaps into the river. One of the guards shoots and hits her, but despite her injury she makes it to the other bank (Figs. 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, and 1.4).

Figs. 1.1–1.4
figure 1

Subjectivized experience and close identification with the protagonist in sky withoutstars

By combining our living audiovisual encounter with our imaginative empathy, the sequence allows us to experience the awful consequences of Germany’s division. It also activates our own memories, whether of other films or of our personal lived experiences. These kinds of associations are accompanied by conceptions of history that are in turn closely bound up with our individual biographies.Footnote 3 The popular historical fiction film (or simply, as I shall call it, the historicalfilmFootnote 4) thus comprises a dynamic process that makes the past present in order to produce meaning in the here-and-now. Against the general assumption that the constitutive feature of historical films is that they represent history, I argue that it is instead their audiovisual modeling and figuration of historical worlds, which enables an immediate experience of history. This would imply that the essential criterion of a historical film is the presence of a histosphere.

Although in film theory the boundaries between fictional and nonfictional forms have become increasingly porous, it can nonetheless be helpful to distinguish between fiction and documentary films. In recent debate, there have been efforts to free theory-building from getting bogged down in questions of ontology; however, without wishing to take sides on this issue, in my study I shall primarily investigate histospheres as an element and phenomenon of historical fiction films. I implicitly acknowledge that specific forms of this phenomenon can also be found in documentaries and other nonfictional film types, but believe that a theory of how histospheres operate in nonfiction films would require further work and cannot simply be tacked onto a discussion of their functioning in fiction films.

Despite their powerful immersive potential, historical films do not enable an all-encompassing illusion. Our living encounter with a film is only incompletely present; this encounter makes the past sensuously available, but does not allow it to be changed. In this respect, the spectator’s perspective is reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s remarks on the “Angel of History” in Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus: Plunging backward into the future, the angel looks with horror at the rubble of the past that piles up before his eyesFootnote 5; the “storm of progress” drives him “irresistibly into the future” and is so strong that the angel can no longer close his wings. The medium of film, by contrast, seemingly has complete mastery of the dimensions of space and time. Historical films can thus, I argue, achieve what Benjamin claims the Angel of History cannot: They can “pause for a moment” to “awaken the dead and […] piece together what has been smashed.”Footnote 6 Applying Benjamin’s deliberations to histospheres, this would imply that they are capable of changing the direction of our movement through time: In the historical film we are no longer moving away from but closer toward the past, entering thoroughly into it and allowing it to sweep us along. Moreover, we can turn around and peer into an imaginary future from the perspective of the past simulated by the film.Footnote 7 Our historical knowledge is (at least temporarily) overridden by our immersive, living encounter with the histosphere. Although we know, even while watching sky withoutstars, that Germany was reunified on October 3, 1990, at the same time we live the reality of the histosphere, in which the division of Germany is far from over. Film transforms the past into a space of possibilities. In his A Baedecker for the Soul, Béla Balázs writes:

Do you not also see the many branching paths that you could also have taken, that we could have taken, had we not been pushed by some chance? They all belong to our past.Footnote 8

Balázs conceives of the past in a way that also includes options and eventualities that did not come to pass. His deliberations can also be applied to the relation between film and history. On this view, cinema’s unique accomplishment would be making it possible to walk down, to experience, the paths not taken in the past. This space of possibilities is manifested not just in films’ modeling of a counterfactual or alternative history, but also in the playful suspension of our historical memory. During our living encounter with a film, our knowledge of the course that history actually took recedes into the background and gives way to a sense of contingency. The histosphere gives chance a second chance. Until the very last moment, we believe it is possible—we fear, or we hope—that this time perhaps things will turn out differently.

Our conceptions of history are also influenced by the present: “History is the object of a construction whose place is formed not in homogenous and empty time, but in that which is fulfilled by the here-and-now,” writes Benjamin.Footnote 9 Even historical films cannot cut themselves off from the present. A histosphere is always a product of the time the film was made. It is like a “tiger’s leap into that which has gone before,” which seeks out “what is up-to-date, wherever it moves in the jungle [Dickicht: maze, thicket] of what was.”Footnote 10 The time of a film’s production is inscribed into its audiovisual modeling of a bygone era. To fully understand this ambivalent nature of histospheres, we must also discuss the effect of film on our perceptions of the world. Siegfried Kracauer drew attention to film’s tendency to explore the “texture of everyday life” and help us “not only to appreciate our given material environment, but to extend it in all directions.”Footnote 11 Films thus “virtually make the world our home.”Footnote 12 Along similar lines, Balázs says that film teaches us “to see the intricate visual details” of “our polyphonous life.”Footnote 13 In order to establish the sense of intimacy and familiarity with the world described by Kracauer and Balázs, films model audiovisual “lifeworlds,” worlds of lived experience.Footnote 14 In a historical film, these constructions form part of the histosphere. Sometimes, there can be multiple competing lifeworlds in a single film. One example is sky withoutstars, whose histosphere is made up of two lifeworlds: West and East Germany (both still in the early years of their existence). Anna alternates between these two lifeworlds, without truly being at home in either. Her son Jochen (Rainer Stang) lives with her parents-in-law in the West, while her frail grandparents live across the border in the East. Eventually, she and Carl discover an abandoned railway station in no man’s land; an other place where they can be intimate.Footnote 15 For a brief time, their lifeworlds overlap. This fleeting utopian moment anticipates and models the reunification of Germany. On this construal, sky withoutstars enables a “mixed, joint experience” on the fine line between utopia and heterotopia, which Michel Foucault describes using the metaphor of a mirror.Footnote 16 This interpretation can also be extended to historical films in general: If we understand a histosphere as a filmic figuration that audiovisually models historical worlds and makes them available to experience, then the spectator’s perception oscillates between a mode of observation that strives for objectivity and an immersive, living encounter. On the one hand, as spectators we enter into the film’s depiction of a possible world; on the other, we constantly compare this depiction with our own picture of reality. This picture in turn depends on our experiences and memories, which themselves include films and audiovisual media.Footnote 17

Standard theories of fiction based on possible-worlds semantics conceive of the universe as a constellation of worlds. As film scholar Margrit Tröhler explains, these worlds “can be thought of like a solar system or like a soap bubble ball made up of multiple chambers adhering together.”Footnote 18 A film’s histosphere can be understood as one such chamber. Although it forms a self-contained sphere that models a possible historical world, it is also in direct contact with countless other chambers, including other filmic histospheres. The walls between the individual chambers are permeable membranes, which result in a dynamic interchange between them.Footnote 19 The cinema screen can likewise be understood as a membrane between two worlds.Footnote 20 Contra Kracauer’s criticism of the finite nature of the cosmos presented in the historical film,Footnote 21 as part of a constellation of worlds a histosphere always points beyond itself and influences our conceptions of history through a complex interplay with other possible worlds and media experiences of reality.

With the digital revolution, the mediatization of our perception has gained in intensity. “We are all part of a moving-image culture, and we live cinematic and electronic lives,” the American film and media scholar Vivian Sobchack observed back in 1988, and coined the notion of a “technosphere” that surrounds us and profoundly shapes our lifeworld.Footnote 22 Since then, audiovisual technologies and media have become ever more pervasive in our daily lives, so that nowadays filmic histospheres are even more easily accepted and readily accessible to intuitive experience.

As I shall set out in the following chapters, a histosphere is far more than a model-like representation of a historical period. As an immersive experiential field, it does not merely address our senses of sight and hearing, but entirely absorbs us. My theory of historical experience mediated through film experience builds on Sobchack’s work on the phenomenology of film.Footnote 23Sobchack describes film itself as an embodied experience that addresses all the viewing subjects’ senses by way of a synesthetic interplay of moving images and sound. Film is a mode of embodied being-in-the-world with the capacity “to not only have sense but also to make sense” through direct, prereflective experience.Footnote 24 At the heart of her theory is the idea that a film has its own body. Sobchack understands film as simultaneously a visible object—a world of film images—and a subject that has its own point of view on the world.Footnote 25 While film, like photography, objectifies “the subjectivity of the visual into the visible,” the cinematic “qualitatively transforms the photographic through a materiality that not only claims the world and others as objects for vision (whether moving or static) but also signifies its own materialized agency, intentionality, and subjectivity.”Footnote 26 Building on this phenomenological account, the historical film can be understood as “an experiential field in which human beings pretheoretically construct and play out a particular—and culturally encoded—form of temporal existence.”Footnote 27 Through a living encounter with a film, history is made experientially available, and on the foundation of synesthetic perception, the film addresses the spectator’s entire body. We do not merely see and hear the filmic figuration of a historicalworld; rather, it completely surrounds us, so that it is as if we can physically feel it. Although we are aware that this living encounter with history is based on perceiving an audiovisual construction—a histosphere—the filmic experience of world corresponds closely to our everyday perceptions, which the film experience extends to spheres of past time that are inaccessible outside of cinema.

The evolution of histospheres over the course of film history closely tracks the changing relationship between film and history. Back in 1896, Max Skladanowsky filmed his brother Eugen playing the Prussian king Frederick the Great. Less than twenty years later, D. W. Griffith’s the birth of a nation (1915) and intolerance (1916), two now-controversial works that revolutionized film aesthetics, revealed the historical film’s immense potential for a complex making-present of the past. Griffith’s lavish productions ushered in the era of historical epics. Then, in the second half of the twentieth century, movements such as Italian Neorealism, the French New Wave, and New German Cinema articulated an understanding in which contemporary American genre cinema was seen as part of a cultural renewal.Footnote 28 This development was accompanied by a democratization of perception that decisively altered the relation between film and history. Avant-garde montage concepts aimed at mobilizing the masses gave way to a subjectivized address to individual viewing subjects. From the perspective of a new society founded on egalitarian democracy, the “form of aesthetic experience in the cinema” was now understood as “the potential of an adequate experience of the world.”Footnote 29 This formulation captures the essence of the histosphere: Observing and adapting the film’s subjective perspective on a historical world enable us to have an individual experience of history. Movement in space, as the basic element of film images, was now joined as an object of filmmaking by perceptions and explorations of time.Footnote 30 For historical films, this meant a (at least partial) move away from simply representing historical events, toward a phenomenology of the way the historical eras modeled by films are perceived.

The cinematic renewal movements that emerged from the 1950s onwards not only created new ways of accessing history, but also redefined the relation between image and sound. The essayistic historical fiction films of the French New Wave led to a changed understanding of film sound’s historical relevance. The director and film theorist Éric Rohmer went so far as to describe Alain Resnais’shiroshima mon amour (1959) as “the first modern film of sound cinema.”Footnote 31 The film presents a dialogue between a French actress and a young man from Hiroshima in which personal recollections of historical events are explored and their reliability as historiographical accounts questioned, and closely interweaves this dialogue with film images and other auditory elements. This move toward film sound needs to be reflected in theoretical accounts of historical films too. While previous research on film and history has primarily focused on visual aspects, my study of histospheres also explicitly considers the audio historyof film.Footnote 32 Taking account of sound and the diverse ways it interacts with moving images provides the foundation to develop a theory of audiovisual history. The lavish historical productions that began to appear in the early 1990sFootnote 33 furthermore combine the subjectivized spectator experience with a multi-immersive approach, pairing a living audiovisual encounter with strategies of imaginative empathy so as to make history into an embodied experience in which visual and aural perceptions extend synesthetically to the spectator’s whole body.

In order to explore the different aspects of histospheres in greater depth, I shall analyze selected film sequences that help to ground and illustrate my theses. I concentrate primarily on mainstream productions, which thanks to their commercial marketing are well known and reach relatively large audiences. However, I by no means wish to marginalize experimental, noncommercial, and postcolonial films. My reason for not considering such films here is, rather, that they lie beyond the scope of the theories developed in this book, and so an equally detailed analysis of nonmainstream historical films would have to be undertaken in separate, supplementary studies. The present work, by contrast, focuses on three popular productions: firstly, Helmut Käutner’ssky withoutstars, which depicts the (at that time still fresh) history of German division; secondly, Jutta Brückner’s autobiographically inspired years of hunger (hungerjahre, 1980), which tells the story of an adolescence in the oppressive, narrow-minded Germany of the Wirtschaftswunder years; and thirdly, Sven Bohse’s three-part TV series kudamm 56 (2016), in which a Berlin dance school becomes embroiled in existential conflicts over the repression of the Nazi past and the struggle for women’s liberation. From the perspectives and horizons of their own times, each of the three films creates its own distinctive histosphere for the 1950s. An era torn between the shadow of the past, national consolidation, and an economic boom is evoked by motifs such as returning soldiers, the question of collective guilt, the division of Germany, and the Wirtschaftswunder. Inspired by Benjamin’s “Angel of History,” which falls backward into the future with his gaze fixed on the past, I have chosen films made at three different points in time—1955, 1980, 2016—each with very different historical coordinates that determine their perspective on the world of the 1950s. Depending on whether a film was produced at a gap of three (sky withoutstars), twenty-five (years of hunger), or sixty (kudamm 56) years from the time it is set, the construction of its histosphere will be subject to different political, social, and cultural contexts. sky withoutstars was influenced by the same discourses evident in films like the heathis green (grün ist die heide, 1951; dir. Hans Deppe), the great temptation (die große versuchung, 1952; dir. Rolf Hansen), arent we wonderful (wir wunderkinder, 1958; dir. Kurt Hoffmann), and rosemary (das mädchen rosemarie, 1958; dir. Rolf Thiele). The shock of Germany’s division was still relatively fresh, and the integration of displaced persons and returning soldiers had left its mark. Aesthetically, Käutner’s film still bears the strong imprint of classical German entertainment films, with the same careful framing, orchestral score, and linearly told melodramatic plot. A quarter of a century later, things had changed. Politicized New German Cinema was challenging interpretations of history and criticizing the ills of society. Taking a pessimistic view of the Wirtschaftswunder period, Brückner’syearsof hunger engages with a pivotal contemporary discourse that also motivated works such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy.Footnote 34 With its extreme documentary closeness, use of multiperspectival devices such as polyphonic voice-overs, and essayistic incorporation of archival footage, the film adopts some of the experimental aesthetic approaches of the late 1970s. kudamm 56, finally, is a prototypical example of the multi-immersive films that emerged in the 1990s. The depiction of family conflicts caused by the reintegration of traumatized soldiers returning late from the war has parallels with Sönke Wortmann’s box office hit the miracleof bern (das wunder von bern, 2003) and Oskar Roehler’s sourcesof life (quellen des lebens, 2013). The clash between the rock-‘n’-roll-loving youngsters and the reactionary wartime generation recalls the comedylulu & jimi (2009), also directed by Roehler. One topic that is not addressed in kudamm 56 is the prosecution of Nazi war crimes, which is a central theme in some other films produced in the same period about the Hessian district attorney Fritz BauerFootnote 35; however, the Auschwitz trials initiated by Bauer only took place in 1959—three years after the events of kudamm 56. This selection of films spans a wide period of time, allowing us to identify differences that reveal how histospheres have evolved over the course of film history.

In summary, this book develops a theory of histospheres and attempts to connect it to debates in film studies and other disciplines. My central thesis is that historical films model audiovisual figurations of history and make them available to experience in the mode of an immersive encounter. The first three chapters begin by setting out the current state of research, presenting some general findings on the relationship between film and history, and formulating some initial points of connection with phenomenological theories. My approach is based on the observation that the constructivist and phenomenological models that film studies have regularly alternated between over the past ninety years stand in a dialectical relation to each other.Footnote 36 In order to illuminate different aspects of my theory of histospheres, the following chapters are grouped under pairs of concepts: “Modeling and perceiving,” “Immersion and empathy,” “Experience and remembering,” and “Appropriation and refiguration.” On the basis of these concepts, and taking account of overarching audiovisual/perceptive and historico-cultural factors, I also discuss functional dimensions of histospheres: the spatial and temporal organization of historical films, mood and atmosphere, body and memory, and genre and historical consciousness.