The theory of histospheres posits that historical films simulate historical worlds. According to Jurij Lotman, we perceive these kinds of artificial images of the (or a) world as a “model of an infinite universe,”Footnote 1 a figuration that is constantly being amended by historical experience:

The spatial image of the world created by culture is situated as it were between humanity and the outer reality of Nature and is constantly drawn to these two poles. It turns to humanity in the name of the outside world whose image it is, while the historical experience of man subjects this image to constant reworking, striving for accuracy in its representation of the world.Footnote 2

Lying between these poles, a histosphere is at once a model-like representation of a historical world and both a catalyst for and product of the historical experience generated by the film. Much of its power is based on strategies of aesthetic illusion. The first section of this chapter will therefore examine the theoretical concept of figuration and the special relation between cinematic illusion and historical reference. Histospheres make historical worlds sensuously available (at least seemingly so) by constructing audiovisual, spatiotemporal structures out of aesthetically composed, narratively interfused images and sounds. In the second section, I therefore analyze the strategies used by historical films to create filmic spaces and model an internally consistent, temporally arranged historical world. I argue that filmic space is manifested in a dynamic perceptual movement, whose aesthetic design addresses imaginary historical references in the spectator’s memory and thus anchors the living encounter with the space in a field of historical associations that also involves political interpretations and judgments. It therefore makes sense to combine my theoretical reflections on the construction of filmic space with theories of how film models and mediates history. Building on this, in the third section I propose that, for historical films, the film theory concept of mise-en-scène should be supplemented by a concept of mise-en-histoire: the imaginative referentialization of the historical worlds constructed by a film. The overarching aim of this chapter is to develop a theory of how filmic figurations are already fused with conceptions of history during the mise-en-scène process, and thereby enable historical experiences.

Figuration and Illusion

When Monika walks down Kurfürstendamm for the first time in kudamm 56, the spectator is flooded with audiovisual details from the 1950s. The stores, the cars, the clothing of passersby, the bombed-out Gedächtniskirche in the background: Moving images and sounds are woven into a complex historical world (Fig. 5.1).

Fig. 5.1
figure 1

1950s flair in kudamm 56

Against the backdrop of the linguistic turn, historian Hayden Write wrote that

It is obvious that cinema (and video) are better suited than written discourse to the actual representation of certain kinds of historical phenomena—landscape, scene, atmosphere, complex events such as wars, battles, crowds, and emotions.Footnote 3

White’s examples emphasize film’s unique potential to not just describe a historical world but to synthesize it into an audiovisual figuration out of disparate individual elements. “Figuration” refers here to far more than the mere arrangement and constellation of the film’s individual audiovisual elements in time. The concept also implies an “incarnation,” a “taking form,” of a word made flesh.Footnote 4 Unlike in the theater, this process does not unfold in an actor’s physically present body; rather, the film produces its own performative body.Footnote 5 In the gaze of the film’s body, a material world, the film’s physical reality, is manifested.Footnote 6 As a concept describing how literary works create worlds, figuration is based on a correlation between the activity of narrating a story and the temporal character of human experience.Footnote 7 Philosopher Paul Ricœur defines figuration as “provid[ing] ourselves with a figure [se figurer] of the context of life […] of the world surrounding the relic that today is missing.”Footnote 8 Narrative allows the historical world to be experienced in time. In his model of threefold mimesis, Ricœur shows how the “symbolic order of extra-textual reality and the worlds created in the fictional medium” enter into a “relationship of reciprocal influence and change.”Footnote 9 While “prefigurations” require us first to “preunderstand” the semantics, symbolic system, and temporality of human action, “configurations” serve a central mediating role.Footnote 10 The “configurational act” produces a historical narrative as an organic whole by arranging its elements in the order of time: “It draws from this manifold of events the unity of one temporal whole.”Footnote 11 At the intersection between the world of the text and that of the reader, there finally occurs a “refiguration” “wherein real action occurs and unfolds its specific temporality.”Footnote 12 The act of reading places the text into a relation with the reader’s experiences. Ricœur understands refiguration as a process “by which the text unfolds, as it were, a world in front of itself.”Footnote 13 The central element of his theory, meanwhile, is “configuration,” which mediates between “prefiguration” and “refiguration,” or as he puts it: “We are following therefore the destiny of a prefigured time that becomes a refigured time through the mediation of a configured time.Footnote 14

Applied to the concept of the histosphere, proceeding from a starting point of “prefiguration” (the spectator’s prior knowledge), the “configuration” arranges the film’s various aesthetic elements in time and makes it possible to experience them as a historical worldFootnote 15; then, finally, a “refiguration” occurs during reception of the film. In film experience, the spectator’s experiences and memories blend with the audiovisually configured historical world. This results in an audiovisual form of historical experience, the special status of which can also be explained by reference to Ricœur, who speaks of an “interweaving reference between history and narrative fiction.”Footnote 16 While history (re)constructs the past in the reader’s imagination using methods borrowed from narrative fiction, fiction in turn borrows history’s “reference through traces.”Footnote 17

Histospheres make use of this reciprocal relationship. On the basis of a fiction film’s mimetic and narrative qualities, they construct an audiovisual figuration of history whose historical “reference through traces” utilizes strategies of aesthetic illusion. Illusion is understood here not as an attempt at manipulation that could lead us “to believe something that would not hold up if we were ‘better informed.’”Footnote 18 Rather, in illusion we attain “a view of the world that does not simply distort reality, but imaginatively rebuilds it.”Footnote 19 Although in historical films we allow ourselves to be playfully transported into historical worlds, we never fully succumb to the illusion.Footnote 20 However, this “awareness of illusion” does not disrupt it, “but serves as the framework within which the aesthetic illusion is able to unfold in the first place.”Footnote 21Gertrud Koch concludes from this that film too produces a reflexive relation to the “world of appearances.”Footnote 22 The fiction assumes “its own dimension of reality” that “is directed at an empirical artifact that cannot be uniquely determined but is able time and again to assume different forms in experience.”Footnote 23 This implies that the reflexive level of the aesthetic illusion affects how we experience and interpret the historical worlds constructed by film. In addition to its immersive, affective, and illusory potential, a histosphere creates a fluid understanding of history that leaves scope for reflection and interpretation.Footnote 24 Moreover, if (as claimed by Moses Mendelssohn) artificiality creates inner coherence and appears more probable than the actual realities of nature,Footnote 25 this would allow us to make another connection to Ankersmit’s concept of historical experience, which (as discussed in the previous chapter) he claims results from the “improbable probability” of a work of art.Footnote 26 This creates a feeling of authenticity, which marks out the fiction as a possible world without perfecting the illusion. This has consequences for our historical consciousness, for our very knowledge that a historical film is an audiovisual figuration of historical worlds opens up deeper levels of reflection. As Koch puts it,

In the aesthetic realm, the world is conveyed by creating worlds. The central focus is not on depicting and describing the world, but on constructing worlds that can contain implicit stances toward the world.Footnote 27

Following the philosopher Stanley Cavell, Koch understands film as “photographic presentations of the world set in motion.”Footnote 28 Analogously, histospheres can be described as “photographic presentations of historical worlds set in motion.” Thus, a fundamental condition for films’ construction of historical worlds is that the “fictional space of a filmic world […] builds on illusion,” since “the illusorily experienced world is recognized not just as fictional but also as worldly [welthaltig: ‘world-containing,’ ‘world-encompassing’].”Footnote 29 We experience a film’s figuration of history as an illusion of a living historical world that is linked to our empirical world and other worlds. The cinematic illusion stands in a relation of mimesis to the prefilmic world (though without attempting to recreate that world). In historical films, this reference to the prefilmic world also includes the historical past, and so it is necessary to introduce an additional referential and reflexive dimension. The images of the world constructed in aesthetic fiction serve a commentary function, and can “refer to the empirical world in a manner not all that dissimilar from scientific fictions.”Footnote 30

A histosphere thus allows us to make three sorts of hypotheses: (1) about our present-day empirical world, (2) about our conceptions of the historical past, and (3) about history as narrative construction. It also has great intuitive persuasiveness, since “the perception of movement enabled by an objective illusion becomes the signifier of a living presence that cannot be escaped.”Footnote 31 A histosphere can thus produce a figuration of a living historical world that we are able to sensuously experience despite its model-like character. This marks a point of connection between the theory of histospheres and the ideas of Lotman, who regards the work of art as “a finite model of an infinite universe […] the reflection of one reality in another, that is, it is always a translation.”Footnote 32 Although Lotman is thinking here mainly of textual world constructions, one aspect of his argument does implicitly relate to the specific qualities of film. Based on an understanding of art as a modeling system, Lotman describes a playful mechanism based on the fact “that the different meanings of an element do not sit rigidly side by side, but ‘oscillate.’”Footnote 33 As a possible world, a histosphere is “wholly real,” yet there is also no doubt that it is merely a figuration, a historical “semblant world.”Footnote 34

This hybrid status is especially apparent in the depiction of historical figures, which oscillates between mimetic imitatio, that is, mere impersonation, and interpretive embodiment.Footnote 35 In the historical world constructed by a film, “the actor’s ‘this-has-been’ and the role’s”Footnote 36 are augmented by a third dimension: the mythical image we have of historical figures. Our perceptions and appraisals of the depictions of historical figures and events on screen depend not just on historical discourses but also on social and cultural ones, all of which are in turn influenced by media figurations. This imaginary desideratum, rooted in our socialization and our conceptions of history (some of which are products of media), may potentially be in competition with the performative embodiment of historical figures in film. However, what is at stake here is not mere rhetorical confirmation that the depicted historical figure does not correspond to reality; rather, the tension between the film’s persuasiveness and our critical reflection is part of the “game.”Footnote 37 By participating playfully in the modeling of a historical world, we actively contribute to the success of the illusion, without ever really forgetting that it is “only” a film.

Of particular significance for the filmic figuration of historical worlds is histospheres’ referential structure. A historical film’s Welthaltigkeit, the degree to which it “contains,” “encompasses,” or “relates to” the or a world, is measured by its imaginary historical referents. These may, like artifacts, buildings, or landscapes, actually exist in reality, but in the moment of reception they are generally absent and thus just as imaginary as all the other elements of the cinematic world. Christian Metz uses the term “imaginary referent” to describe the “piece of (imaginary) reality” from which the spectator assumes the story has been “extracted.”Footnote 38 The associated “vague but strong”Footnote 39 feeling, similar to Barthes’s“reality effect,”Footnote 40 is manifested with particular intensity if we believe we recognize elements of the histosphere as constituents of earlier experiences. The chains of associations thus triggered very often refer to media signifiers of history that take the place of actual historical events, overlay them in our memories, and denote them as historically significant. The theory of histospheres has parallels here with historian Alison Landsberg’s concept of “prosthetic memory”Footnote 41: In both cases, media depictions of historical worlds make history accessible to wider audiences, and subsequently feel like a personal experience. Most of the “pieces of imaginary reality” to which historical films’ imaginary referents refer follow this pattern and so are themselves elements of a fictional media reality. The imaginary referents of filmic figurations of history are thus also mediatized referents; the past and the historical realities simulated by media can no longer be disentangled at this level. Jean Baudrillard refers to this phenomenon as “hyperreality.” For him, historical films are not representations of historical reality, but autonomous models that produce an “operational scenario of history.”Footnote 42Baudrillard thus anticipates the historicizing core of histospheres, which do not reproduce the past but themselves produce history as media reality.

Space, Time, and Filmic World

The start of sky withoutstars shows images of border fortifications, no man’s land, and warning signs in rapid succession. It is not yet possible to form a coherent sense of a homogeneous filmic space, but the sequence does model a distinctively cinematic perception of space not bound by rules of central perspective. The “image space”Footnote 43 visible within each individual shot functions as a segment of a spatial world accessible to sensuous experience. Slight adjustments of the camera, clouds drifting in the sky, and grass stirring in the wind reveal that these are not static images. The spectator’s gaze takes in focal planes, perspectives, and proportions; it looks for clues to the spatial relations between the individual shots (Figs. 5.2, 5.3, 5.4, and 5.5).

Figs. 5.2–5.5
figure 2

Image space and perspective in sky withoutstars

Based on our visual experience of watching films, we anticipate a spatial structure. The credibility of this space depends not on its historical accuracy but on whether it feels right. As Simon Rothöhler puts it,

When it comes to our ability to enter into historical spaces in film, carefully placed details and the general haptic design matter more than historiographic perspectives.Footnote 44

This view is consonant with Oliver Schmidt’s thesis that the spectator, as a perceiving and experiencing subject, “is the link between the filmic space and the conception of a self-contained filmic world.”Footnote 45

However, for a historical world to unfold in an interplay of spatial illusion, narration, and synesthetic experience requires not just a spatial but also a temporal figuration. In the first moments of sky withoutstars, the time of the action appears to be standing still, and the space in which the action unfolds can only be vaguely mapped out. Only when the music briefly falls silent, the narrator dates the events to “late summer 1952,” and the camera pans from the closed-off railway bridge to the river along the border do we get the impression that the filmic world is now opening up so that the narrative can begin. The camera jumps to a lightly wooded area and tilts down, following the refugees emerging from the trees. The interactions between the characters and the filmic world constitute a “space of narrative action.”Footnote 46 The refugees always move from right to left. Even when the camera follows the smuggler with a long pan in the opposite direction, fixed visual points like the wood, the bridge, and the border river established at the start allow us to keep our bearings (Figs. 5.6, 5.7, 5.8, and 5.9). The individual image spaces are connected by the movements in front of the camera as well as the movement of the camera itself, and by the audiovisual montage. The consistent light design and the establishment of an auditive space across shots create continuity.Footnote 47 This means the historical world configured by the film is not merely a “space of narrative action” that the characters can move about in, but also a cohesive “filmic space” experienceable by us spectators.Footnote 48 The limited number of locations in which the action unfolds is in line with the narrative need for a small, bounded cosmos; however, as a filmic world, this cosmos nevertheless also points beyond itself.

Figs. 5.6–5.9
figure 3

Spatial orientation in sky withoutstars

A brief glance at the first few minutes of sky withoutstars is enough to make clear the extent to which a histosphere is also a spatial phenomenon. Similar to Arnheim’s distinction between “film image” and “world image,” filmic space has a dual character: The concept refers, on the one hand, “to the technical act of constructing space on screen by means of stylistic cinematic devices (film image), on the other to the depiction of space as part of a complete homogeneous filmic world (world image).”Footnote 49 “Space” is an “organizing schema based on the spectator’s perceptual capacity, but at the same time a specific quality ascribed to the perceived world by the spectator.”Footnote 50 The filmic world is composed of the sum of individual spatial impressions: “What is experienced are concrete world spaces, that is to say, pieces of the world that are linked together and, as a structure of connected spaces, represent the basis for developing an all-encompassing world model.”Footnote 51 This is even truer of histospheres: The world spaces figured by a film are constructed segments of presupposed historical worlds, which are only pieced together in our perception of them and which we augment with our historical and cultural world knowledge. This is in accord with central ideas of the spatial turnFootnote 52 in the social and cultural sciences, which according to Schmidt is generally characterized by three tendencies:

(1) Space tends to no longer be regarded as something absolute but as something relational and hence as dynamic and malleable; (2) space tends to be regarded less as a given reality and more as a synthetic product that is only realized in perception; (3) space tends to be regarded as a meaning-bearing aesthetic structure that is lived and experienced by human beings and thus has a fundamentally processual character.Footnote 53

The medium of film can accordingly be understood as “a kind of cognitive and phenomenological laboratory of spaceFootnote 54 in which historical worlds can be spatially and temporally modeled and opened up to synesthetic experience. The perception and form of the resulting “spatial hypothesis”Footnote 55 are dependent on aesthetic design. Schmidt therefore proposes

by way of distinction from the narratological term fictional worlds, which understands literary or cinematic worlds as systems of counterfactual states of affairs, in the case of film to also speak of aestheticized worlds, that is to say, of designed, sensuously experienced perceptual systems.Footnote 56

On this view, the filmic space at the start of sky withoutstars is not merely understood in terms of topography or coordinate systems, but is sensuously experienced. Out of the audiovisual elements of the individual image spaces, we assemble an aestheticized world. The movement of the characters and the camera and the composition of the montage allow the image spaces to interact and merge into a living encounter with the filmic space.Footnote 57 Furthermore, as an effect of the figuration of movement, the filmic space “seeks to be perceived in its compositionality as something represented, that is, to be referred back to intention, meaningful structure, and expression.”Footnote 58 This remark by Kappelhoff formulates a fundamental condition for conveying historicity in historical films: In order to be perceived as a historical world, the filmic space must first express itself as such, that is to say, it must be both sensuously available and refer to historical world knowledge.

As well as the illusion of a spatial filmic world, a histosphere also models a sociocultural space that can be assigned to a particular historical time in virtue of “cultural artifacts such as architecture, clothing, everyday objects, language, ways of behaving, specific individuals and events, and music.”Footnote 59 The histosphere is by no means neutral or impartial in this process. The filmic figuration of a historical space always presents the space from a particular perspective and in a particular aesthetic, pieces it together in a particular way, and places it in relation to other filmic and historical spaces. Histospheres thus not only construct historical worlds, but also explain, interpret, and comment on them.Footnote 60 To give one example, the office of Anna’s factory manager in sky without stars has glass doors and walls, giving a view of a large factory floor. The transparency of the glass panes not only adds another visual layer to the film image but also creates an aesthetic of surveillance that marks the GDR as a totalitarian state. A counterpart is provided by Anna’s parents-in-law’s cramped, densely packed grocery store, which serves as a concrete spatial expression of West Germany’s consumerist market economy and small-minded bourgeois attitudes (Figs. 5.10 and 5.11). Both settings can be understood as a cinematic variety of a chronotope, in which space merges with its conventionalized functions.Footnote 61Filmic space, plot, and historical interpretation are thus expressed in a single, temporally structured experience.

Figs. 5.10–5.11
figure 4

East German surveillance and West German consumerism in sky withoutstars

However, it is not just the historical worlds of historical films that are inseparably bound up with a temporal dimension, but also filmic space in general.Footnote 62 This interrelationship can be traced back historically: The technical, cultural, and artistic foundations of moving images date from the late nineteenth century, when space was increasingly measured in terms of time. Accordingly, the way films figure and model experientially available historical worlds depends not just on the geometric and physical construction of filmic space, but also the arrangement and realization of that space in time. Kappelhoff describes the film image as a temporal structure “that is spatialized as a perceptual world in the spectators’ physically present seeing and hearing,” taking up Erwin Panofsky’s concepts of the “dynamization of space” and “spatialization of time.”Footnote 63 This specifically filmic synthesis of space and time is especially evident in the illusion of movement: “Space itself, not the picture of space in perspective presentation is what we experience here,” as Balázs puts it.Footnote 64 The dimension of time allows the spectator, aided by montage and the movement of the camera, to piece the filmic space together and imaginatively move about in it. If this “imaginary movement of the body”Footnote 65 through space is understood as not just a visual and aural but also a kinesthetic phenomenon, this marks another point of connection to phenomenological approaches to film. In Sobchack’s theory of film as embodied experience, a central place is occupied by the moving camera as the expression of an intentionality equivalent to a perceiving human consciousness.Footnote 66 Only in this perceptual movement, anchored in space and time, can a relative off-screen space be constructed. Koch links this condition to her reflections on filmic illusion:

The camera’s dual function of both producing optical-perspectival image space and constantly opening this space up to an assumed outside through movement creates the illusion that the space extends beyond what is visible. The illusory effect of this perspectivity goes beyond purely inscribing a point of view. For it is not simply the rapid alternation of locations but the possibility, suggested by the movement, of being able to move around the off-screen spaces that creates an illusory surplus.Footnote 67

sky withoutstars likewise creates the illusion of a filmic space that it is possible to “move around” in. As Anna flees from the border guards, we see long shots and medium close-ups of her crossing the river, interspersed with close-ups of a soldier shooting at her (Figs. 5.12, 5.13, 5.14, and 5.15). The choice of perspective is not limited to point-of-view shots linked to particular characters. Quite the contrary: No location is inaccessible to the camera, even if it appears to be floating over the water. The physical laws of the “space of narrative action” matter little to the camera. Instead, the individual filmic spaces stand in a narrative chronology in which the filmic world is gradually disclosed through our perception of camera movements and montage.Footnote 68 “The work grows step by step into a whole, and as we accompany its progress we must constantly hark back to what has disappeared from direct perception by ear or eye, but survives in memory,” as Rudolf Arnheim writes.Footnote 69 A similar form of perception can also be observed in the activity of the historian, who successively studies the available sources and relates them to each other.Footnote 70

Figs. 5.12–5.15
figure 5

A filmic space in sky withoutstars in which spectators can “move around”

In a histosphere, this historiographical method and the film’s perceptual movement are combined: In our perception, we assemble the disparate elements of the film into a historical world that we experience not just with our bodies/senses but also as a discursive system. The aesthetics of the space and the movement through the filmic world are translated into meaning. This production of meaning depends, inter alia, on the principles governing the movement that discloses the filmic world.Footnote 71 The tripod shots at the start of sky withoutstars convey a different experience of space than the shaky handheld shots in the famous Omaha Beach sequence insaving private ryan (1998; dir. Steven Spielberg). Both films use classic shot–reverse shot montages and consistent directions of movement. But although the filmic spaces are constructed in a similar way, the way these spaces are experienced differs. While in sky withoutstars we can calmly observe the characters’ actions in an already-constructed filmic space, in saving privateryan the filmic space is constructed by the characters’ movements, which sweep the spectator along with them. To a much greater extent than in sky without stars, the camera appears to be subject to the physical forces of the filmic world, so that whereas in Käutner’s film the historical world is primarily observed, savingprivate ryan constitutes a space of extreme physical experience. What this shows is that histospheres do not just illusorily reconstruct historical spaces, but also “use the movement of images to create a spatial experience sui generis,”Footnote 72 which forms the film’s historical worlds out of its perceptual movement.Footnote 73 A histosphere makes us feel as if we are traveling back in time. The illusory experience is often so strong that the end of the film represents not merely a dramaturgical closure, “but, in a broader sense, the possibility to either switch off an entire world—or disseminate it outside [the movie theater].”Footnote 74 Put another way: Just as the filmic space is assembled over a passage of time, it disappears again at the end of the film. However, the way the film’s historical world is perceived and experienced leaves traces that are inscribed in our conceptions and interpretations of history.

A special relation between space and time also exists at the level of film sound. To an even greater extent than the moving image, which stands in a relation of similarity to the static single image, sound can only be perceived over a passage of time. The specific arrangement of film sound in time plays a key role in cohering the separate image spaces into a homogeneous filmic world. Ordered autonomously alongside the images, sound bridges cuts and creates spatial continuities.Footnote 75 One example of this effect is when Anna, following her dramatic escape over the river, meets the border guard Carl Altmann for the first time. The continuous chirping of crickets links the individual shots together into a homogeneous space in which the action plays out. The ambienceFootnote 76 mediates between depiction and perception: It models the filmic space and infuses it with a mood capable of affecting the spectator emotionally.Footnote 77 Sound can also create an off-screen space of varying sizes.Footnote 78 In Anna’s parents-in-law’s grocery store, at first we can only see Otto Friese (Gustav Knuth) serving a customer outside the entrance. But when we hear his wife Elsbeth (Camilla Spira) talking to another customer at the checkout, we form an imaginary picture of the inside of the shop before we can see it. The world of a histosphere is constructed not just by sight but also by sound. The soundtrack’s “instant credibility” makes the illusion of space feel believable.Footnote 79 Balázs observed that the particular “timbre” of sound can give us the impression of being in the midst of the depicted events.Footnote 80 Noises in particular can give the filmic world substance and a haptic quality.Footnote 81 Film sound can also situate the action in a particular historical period.Footnote 82 The characteristic chime of the cash register in Otto’s store, for instance, can be dated fairly confidently to the mid-twentieth century.Footnote 83 While from individual noises it may only be possible to get a very imprecise sense of where and when a film is set, we will get a clearer idea once multiple sound objects are arranged into complex soundscapes: The whirring, squealing, and clattering of the car, the voices of the passengers, and the crackling PA system at the start of kudamm 56 allow us to recognize the Berlin subway train.Footnote 84 But only in combination with film images can the setting be identified as the 1950s. A histosphere’s world is based on an audiovisually configured, perceptually constructed spatiotemporal structure that develops added value through the specific interactions between image and sound.Footnote 85 The image spaces constructed by a film and the historical worlds assembled in the spectator’s temporally structured perceptions are thus not the sum but the product of visual and aural stimuli.

The relation between filmic space and characters also influences the constellation of characters. While many historical films adopt the single- or dual-protagonist structure that has dominated throughout film history, there has been a tendency in more recent examples toward larger ensembles, allowing the historical world constructed by the film to be explored from multiple perspectives. This can already be seen in sky withoutstars, which augments the traditional structure, based around a single central couple, with other key characters. Anna’s frail grandparents on one side of the border and her parents-in-law and son Jochen on the other form a dual structure in which East and West are historicized as a spatial order. There is a tendency away from a classical, “temporally causal, psychologically motivated narrative trajectory directed at compromise” toward a spatially organized structure.Footnote 86 This early example heralds the emergence of “a different logic of narration,” which Margrit Tröhler connects to the growing trend for films with “plural character constellations.”Footnote 87 According to Tröhler, these films are “bound less to individual, binary positions than to relational dynamics, preferring flat or fluid structures, the differentiation of values, and inconclusive negotiation of contradictions.”Footnote 88 No satisfactory dramaturgical resolution is achieved in our specific example either; instead, Anna and Carl drift back and forth between the topographical coordinates of divided Germany, without being able to bridge this divide. The third space, the no man’s land between the barriers of the inner German border into which the lovers retreat for a brief time, ultimately proves to be an illusion. While sky without stars only gestures toward plural character constellations, ensembles like that in kudamm 56 usually have a spatial center that exerts “a centripetal force on the narrower and broader circle of its members,” incorporates them into the same heterogeneous constellation, and brings them together at a central location.Footnote 89 In kudamm 56, one such “chronotope of encounter”Footnote 90 is constituted by the Galant dance school, where the characters’ paths are constantly crossing, conflicts play out, and hardships are endured. The spatial dimension of this culminating point is also supplemented by a historical one, for it gradually emerges that the school was confiscated from its previous Jewish owners under the Nazi regime and given to the Schöllack family. kudamm 56’s serial structure is one key factor that enables these sorts of “complex narrative forms, which are connected to a broad ensemble of characters.”Footnote 91

Another form of plural character constellation is the character mosaic. Many and diverse characters are arranged within a complex narrative structure, but mostly do not know or interact with each other.Footnote 92 This sort of constellation can already be found in episodic films like Helmut Käutner’sin thosedays (in jenen tagen, 1947), which is temporally and spatially organized around the changing owners of a single car. In the multilayered construction of a more recent film like dunkirk (2017; dir. Christopher Nolan), the spatial dimension comes even more strongly to the fore. The flow of the linear narrative is interrupted by jumps in time and the repetition of the same events from different perspectives. The film’s narrative structure is reorganized based on the characters’ spatial configuration, in the manner of a scientist setting up an experiment. This high degree of artificiality openly declares the simulated historical world “to be an imaginary construction, and the interconnecting narrative plays with ‘relations’ of all kinds—structural, semantic, plastic—thereby heightening the films’ expressivity.”Footnote 93 A histosphere is consequently experienced not just as a historical world but also as a model, a figuration of such a world. At the same time, plural character constellations often appear “to borrow from the social dynamics and patterns of everyday experience.”Footnote 94Historical films and television shows whose simulated worlds differ especially sharply from the spectators’ day-to-day reality also tend to place particular emphasis on figurations that link the film’s historical world to familiar iconographies and the spectators’ embodied memories.Footnote 95 Moreover, by contrast with many biopics and classical historical films, films with plural character constellations often dispense with traditional heroes and develop, as “cultural praxis,” different modes of encounter with the Other.Footnote 96 The open historical worlds created by this approach foster a changed experience of history. An intense sense of contingency undermines the experience of determinism that may be engendered by the spectator’s knowledge of history. A plural character constellation allows the depicted historical processes to be explored from multiple perspectives and lived as undetermined, contingent, present events.

From Mise-en-scène to Mise-en-histoire

The insideof a subway car: passengers in long coats, almost all of them wearing hats, the women in skirts, the men in jackets and cotton pants. Spread evenly throughout the space, framed by brass handrails and light brown wood paneling, they stand or sit, reading newspapers or staring mutely into space. A young man is reading an article about an Elvis concert out loud, accompanied by the even whirring, clattering, and squealing of the train and the subtle piano tones of the score. Lamps with domed milk glass covers douse the scene in a diffuse light, which further accentuates the brown and gray tones of the decor and costumes (Fig. 5.16). After just a few seconds, we know that this sequence from the start of kudamm 56 is set in the past. A historical world is staged for our eyes and ears, which is given particular intuitive persuasiveness by the interactions between the film’s aesthetic operations and our perception.

Fig. 5.16
figure 6

Staging of history in kudamm 56

The way we perceive the simulated historical world in a film is based, first and foremost, on the arrangement and organization of characters in space and the structuring of spatial relations in time: in short, on the mise-en-scène, which constitutes the filmic space, organizing “all visible and audible elements, both intraframe and interframe.”Footnote 97 The choice of camera angles, the image composition, and the sound design are geared toward the logic of the later montage.Footnote 98 The mise-en-scène thus directs our perceptions both within and between the frames.Footnote 99 The effect of a three-dimensional filmic space is created only “through artistically arranged [inszenatorische] connections between the visual structures.” The mise-en-scène constructs this effect “by means of recessive compositions, sculptural lighting, or alternating camera perspectives.”Footnote 100 Although this description is focused on the visual level, we should not forget that filmic space is also shaped by sound.Footnote 101 Through the interplay of film image and film sound, the mise-en-scène opens up an audiovisual space of events that not only structures the filmic world aesthetically, but also communicates it audiovisually.Footnote 102Mise-en-scène thus proves to be an essential concept for the theory and praxis of histospheres. If a histosphere is a filmic figuration of a historical world, mise-en-scène is its “sensuously tangible texture.”Footnote 103 It oscillates between signifying practice and mediating entity; Ivo Ritzer writes that the mise-en-scène “does not relay a fixed meaning from senders to receivers, but rather opens up a discourse between these poles, which in the process of media signification are both constructed and contained within it.”Footnote 104 Applied to historical films, this means that in the interaction between artistic arrangement and perception, the mise-en-scène configures a historical world while also being part of the form of representation.Footnote 105 A histosphere is not just a representation of a historical world, but also a discursive construction and performative act.

Our ability to perceive the historical filmic world organized by the mise-en-scène as historically connoted is, in turn, connected to a special process of referentialization. I call this process mise-en-histoire. Mise-en-histoire referentializes the world formed out of the film’s audiovisual figurations in popular historical consciousness and reciprocally links it to the spectators’ individual conceptions of history.Footnote 106 While the mise-en-scène organizes the performative act of staging and the world created by it, and makes this world and act experientially available to spectators, the mise-en-histoire establishes a relation to collective and individual conceptions of the historical past. Experiencing a histosphere thus involves not just perceiving a historical world constructed by the film, but also the associations triggered by it. The potential historical meanings and references manifested in this process in turn have multiple layers. For instance, the aesthetic design of the figurative surfaces also simulates historical aesthetics, representational practices, and media technologies.Footnote 107 In kudamm 56, for example, the colors look slightly faded, reminiscent of old photographs from the 1950s (Figs. 5.17 and 5.18). This reference to historical media not only gestures toward other media signifiers of historicity but also connects to the spectator’s own mental pictures, which may be based on media experiences but are not necessarily consciously linked to them. In this way, the mise-en-histoire invests a histosphere with a relational temporality and a spatial structure organized within this temporality.Footnote 108

Figs. 5.17–5.18
figure 7

Faded colors in kudamm 56 and in a contemporary photograph

In terms of narrative theory, this schema is reminiscent of Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the “artistic” or “literary chronotope,” which fuses “spatial and temporal indicators […] into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole.”Footnote 109 Space and time are interwoven:

Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history. The intersection of axes and fusion of indicators characterizes the artistic chronotope.Footnote 110

Consequently, in their “correlative combination” space and time generate “a new tertia and gain in materiality and plasticity.”Footnote 111Bakhtin’s reflections are focused on the novel, but can also be applied to film. While mise-en-scène comprises the arrangement of characters in space and time, mise-en-histoire interweaves them with popular historical narratives. This narrative dimension of histospheres affirms Hayden White’s thesis that history is necessarily narrative.Footnote 112 Furthermore, the historical referentiality of visual and aural elements of film grants us an intentional mode of access to history that interacts with our media-influenced conceptions of history. The notion of a chronotope, referring to a narrative “increase in density and concreteness of time markers—the time of human life, of historical time—that occurs within well-delineated spatial areas” that serve as the “primary point from which ‘scenes’ […] unfold,”Footnote 113 is thus also highly relevant for historical films and can be understood as the spatiotemporal nucleus of the mise-en-histoire, the process of historical referentialization.

The mise-en-histoire is also closely interwoven with aesthetic design. When the mise-en-scène “tells and shows,” when it creates “content through form,”Footnote 114 then there is a particular focus on camerawork. “Lighting, scenery and decoration, costumes and make-up, bodies and objects”Footnote 115all aspects of the mise-en-scène are geared toward the gaze of the camera. As an integral part of the mise-en-scène, the camera gives “the arrangement of scenic elements in space its specific effect” and creates “new spatial relations.”Footnote 116 The camera synthesizes all the visual elements of the filmic world. The way in which it captures and represents the depicted space and the characters arranged within it determines how we perceive them. In an early scene in kudamm 56, the camera tilts up from the floor of the dancehall, accompanied by the soaring orchestral tones of Don Cornell’sMost of All.” Dance teacher Caterina Schöllack (Claudia Michelsen) strides directly toward us between lines of smartly dressed young people. The strict central perspective is underscored by the visual layers stretching back into the depths of the image. When Caterina turns around directly in front of the camera, the film cuts to a reverse angle. A crabbing shot follows her as she makes her way back through the lines to her starting point, interrupted by over-the-shoulder perspectives that link back to the first shot of the sequence. The mise-en-scène depicts the dance school as if it were a military drill ground (Figs. 5.19, 5.20, 5.21, and 5.22). In combination with the mise-en-histoire, this sets up the way the series will present the 1950s: as a struggle between the restoration of social order and the younger generation’s yearning for freedom. To the beat of Cornell’s ballad, the sequence’s audiovisual choreography explores the characters and space, and casts them into a certain picture of history. Directed toward “the externalization of an inner expression,”Footnote 117 the camera constructs a historical world. “By modeling, it delineates, accentuates, interprets”Footnote 118 that which lies before it.

Figs. 5.19–5.22
figure 8

Dance class or military drill? Mise-en-scèneinkudamm

The camera structures the perceptions of the spectating subject and prefigures their reception “by seeking to have the pro-filmic gaze coincide with the filmophanic image that is projected or broadcast onto the screen.”Footnote 119 This can also be seen in the depiction of the eponymous Kurfürstendamm, Berlin’s famous shopping boulevard. At the start of kudamm 56, a crane shot lowers us into the historical scenery. The camera then tracks back as we watch Monika walking through the film’s constructed 1950s reality: stores with awnings and neon signs in the style of the period, advertising pillars and display cases, passersby and sales clerks in authentic costume (Fig. 5.23). The mise-en-scène prefigures the histosphere’s spatial coordinates, which the spectator assembles in their mind into a coherent historical world. The space of the historical world generated by the film is thus always an interpretation of the spatial arrangement of elements, which in turn is enriched by the spectator’s memories and associations. However, we are not simply passively subjected to this intentional perspectivation: On Sobchack’s phenomenological theory of film, the way film arranges its various elements is based around a dual structure of seeing and being seen.Footnote 120 With the gaze of the cinematic subject, the camera addresses the gaze of the spectator, which perceives the film images both as the presented world and as an intentional point of view on that world.Footnote 121 Our perceptions of a histosphere also oscillate between pleasurably exploring a depicted past and observing (though no less appreciatively) the arrangement of audiovisual elements itself. Sobchack’s concept of a doubled gaze thus also enables a re-perspectivation that casts a new light on historical filmic worlds.

Fig. 5.23
figure 9

The film’s historical world in kudamm 56

Relation to reality is a significant aspect of both mise-en-scène and the historical film genre. For instance, the paratextual information that a film was shot in “original locations” creates a feeling of authenticity; we implicitly believe that traces of a-filmic reality will have been inscribed into its histosphere, which would imply that the use of original locations creates something like a Benjaminesque aura. However, the reproducibility of the medium of film casts doubt on this.Footnote 122 The theory of mise-en-scène holds that a-filmic reality merely provides “raw material for the pro-filmic,” which comprises “all elements of an image that are situated before the camera and intentionally recorded by it for the purpose of media transmission.”Footnote 123 This formulation leaves it open whether at least the unintentionally recorded elements of film images or film sound should not also be assigned to a-filmic reality. But here too the “camera’s ineluctable molding process” takes effect, giving all elements in the “event space” the status of scenery.Footnote 124 Put another way: Everything that we see and hear, including in historical films, even what the camera and sound equipment have recorded unintentionally, is per se artificial and synthetic. The indexical connection to a-filmic reality can exist only as interference, as the “noise of the real.”Footnote 125 Film images thus have a dual status: Firstly, they can be defined as aesthetic images in isolation from anything external to them; secondly, “they are characterized by their reference to an external totality, whose continuous alteration they articulate as duration over time.”Footnote 126Mise-en-scène and mise-en-histoire are thus based on the same principle: They make “that which is absent medially present on the screen.”Footnote 127 However, their referents differ in terms of time: While the referent of the mise-en-scène is the a-filmic reality at the time of filming, the referent of the mise-en-histoire is an imaginary historical point of time. Two layers of historicity overlap, creating a hybrid form of temporality.

This opens up scope for interpretation concerning the depicted historical location. It is often not possible to identify the filming location from the film images. Mise-en-scène transforms places into aesthetic units. The camera’s gaze turns “even a-filmically existing places into scenic elements, by imposing a particular perspective on them.”Footnote 128 This means that the history of films’ production is sometimes rather surprising. kudamm 56, for instance, was not filmed in “original locations.” For aesthetic and logistical reasons, the eponymous boulevard had to be moved to a different street, which was transformed into the historical setting by means of set design and postproduction.Footnote 129 Even the ruins of the Gedächtniskirche were inserted into the background later on. This shows that the feeling of authenticity that creeps over us when we enter into a film’s historical world is more an effect of how the elements are arranged and staged than an indication of an actual indexical link to history, and that histospheres, incorporated into specific social and cultural constellations and their historicity, are the product of a “creative camera” that does not simply reproduce historical images but imprints a particular “vision” on them.Footnote 130

Audiovisual figurations of historical worlds can also be viewed critically. For instance, Fredric Jameson complains of “aesthetic colonization” in which in-depth historical discourses have been replaced by the historicity of an audiovisual style.Footnote 131 On this view, a histosphere would be little more than an aesthetic attribute. However, Jameson misunderstands the complex historicity of film described by authors such as Jacques Rancière.Footnote 132Jameson’s overly simplistic attempt to pit “real” history against “fake” history also overlooks the divergence between, and processual character of, different approaches to history. Kracauer, by contrast, sees in the misguided intention to “reproduce” the past in all its complexity a structural parallel between history and “camera-reality,” which are both “partly patterned, partly amorphous.”Footnote 133 He says that both history and film challenge their “adepts” to “capture a given universe.”Footnote 134Histospheres unite these two approaches through the combination of mise-en-scène and mise-en-histoire. However, while the concept of “camera-reality” refers solely to the historical point in time at which an image was produced, a histosphere has twofold access to history: Firstly, it is linked to the time of the film’s production by the historicity of the aesthetic design. Secondly, the film’s depiction of a historical period also refers to a larger historical referent and its myriad representations in media. A histosphere is thus a kind of puzzle picture in which different layers of the past overlap. At the same time, it conveys an intense feeling of being-in-the-world. The synesthetic quality of the filmic staging gives the simulated historical world a sensuously tangible materiality. For film scholar Anne Rutherford, mise-en-scène is the crucial link between cinema’s material dimensions and affective potential.Footnote 135 As a “synthesizing aspect,” mise-en-scène connects the filmic staging to “the spectating subject’s corporal perception.”Footnote 136 The resulting “body of media experience”Footnote 137 can once again be connected to Sobchack’s phenomenological reflections on the film’s body.Footnote 138Sobchack describes an incarnated perception, a film’s embodied perspective on the filmic world that the spectator can both view from the outside and live through and interoceptively experience themselves.Footnote 139Mise-en-scène models the film’s perspective and conveys the cinematic space as a “lived space.”Footnote 140 Building on this process, the historical film produces a living relation to subjective conceptions and popular representations of history through a synthesis of artistic arrangement and modeling, embodied film experience, and mise-en-histoire. A histosphere’s simulated historical world becomes a lived world: We are put into a mode of embodied, living encounter with history.


In this chapter, I attempted to develop a concept of histospheres based on filmic figurations. The worlds modeled using the devices of film design are already fused with conceptions of history during the mise-en-scène process, enabling a living, physically palpable encounter with the past. Histospheres are thus both a catalyst for and product of the historical experiences generated by films. To provide a theoretical underpinning for this thesis, I drew on Paul Ricœur’s notions of prefiguration, configuration, and refiguration to show how the spectator’s experiences and memories blend with the audiovisually configured historical world.Footnote 141 On the basis of fiction film’s mimetic and narrative qualities, histospheres construct audiovisual figurations of history whose historical “reference through traces” utilizes strategies of aesthetic illusion. We allow ourselves to be playfully transported into historical worlds, but they always remain identifiable as artificial, artistic constructs.

Histospheres therefore create a fluid understanding of history that leaves scope for reflection and interpretation. This allowed me to draw a connection to Ankersmit’s concept of historicalexperience, in which he claims that it is the “improbable probability” of a representation of history that makes it believable.Footnote 142 It is precisely because we are aware that historical films are audiovisual figurations of historical worlds that we are able to engage in more in-depth reflection. Consequently, in addition to the relation of mimesis in which cinematic illusion stands to the prefilmic world (though without attempting to imitate that world), we must also introduce another referential, and reflexive, dimension. Histospheres thus allow us to make three sorts of hypotheses: (1) about our present-day empirical world, (2) about the actual historical past, and (3) about history as narrative construction. In combination with the enormous intuitive persuasiveness and presence of audiovisual media, they can produce figurations of living historical worlds that we are able to sensuously experience despite or even precisely because of their model-like character.

Based on this and Christian Metz’s work, I observed that a historical film’s Welthaltigkeit (literally, the degree to which it “contains” or “encompasses” a living world or the world) is measured by its imaginary historical referents. Most of the “pieces of imaginary reality” to which historical films’ imaginary referents refer are in turn based on media depictions of historical worlds. These depictions make history accessible to wider audiences, and subsequently feel like a personal experience—a phenomenon for which Alison Landsberg coined the term “prosthetic memory.”Footnote 143“Referential realism” gives way to a “perceptual realism”Footnote 144 constituted by the subject’s mediatized experience of history. This makes film part of a new mode of history that draws on an archiveFootnote 145 of hyperreal histospheres.

To get a full picture of the effects of histospheres, I showed that they also involve spatial phenomena. As world spaces figured by films, histospheres are constructed segments of presupposed historical worlds, which are only pieced together in our perception of them and which we augment with our historical and cultural world knowledge. As well as the illusion of a spatial filmic world, which we experience corporeally and sensuously, histospheres also model sociocultural spaces. The film’s historical worlds are integrated into a discursive nexus that shapes, comments on, and interprets them on the basis of the film’s perceptual movement. The way we perceive and experience histospheres leaves traces that are inscribed in our conceptions and interpretations of history.

One particular focal point was the intersection between artistic arrangement and historical referentialization. In order to better describe and conceptualize the relevant relations, I introduced the notion of mise-en-histoire, based on the film theory concept of mise-en-scène. While the mise-en-scène describes the performative act of staging, whereby filmic worlds are organized and made available to experience, the mise-en-histoire establishes a relation to collective and individual conceptions of the historical past. The historical referentiality of visual and aural elements of film evokes an intentional mode of access to history. These associatively recalled conceptions of history often refer to prior media experiences. Histospheres are thus invested with a relational temporality and a spatial structure organized within this temporality.

By reference to Sobchack’sphenomenology of film experience, I observed how our perceptions of a histosphere oscillate between pleasurably exploring a depicted past and observing (though no less appreciatively) the arrangement of audiovisual elements itself.Footnote 146Sobchack’s concept of a doubled gaze enables a re-perspectivation that casts a new light on historical filmic worlds. On this view, the feeling of being able to immerse ourselves in a historical world through film is a product of mise-en-scène and mise-en-histoire rather than a sign of any actual indexical connection to history. Linked to the time of a film’s production by the historicity of the aesthetic design while simultaneously referring to an imaginary historical referent and its myriad representations in media, histospheres thus function like a puzzle picture in which different layers of the past overlap. The synesthetic qualities of the medium of film give the simulated historical world a sensuously tangible materiality. Sobchack describes a film’s embodied perspective on the filmic worldFootnote 147 that we can both live through ourselves and link to our conceptions of the past. A living relation to history is established through a synthesis of artistic arrangement and modeling, embodied film experience, and mise-en-histoire; in the next chapter, I shall explore this relation and its workings in further depth.