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History Through Film
by Becky Tan

The Berlinale was rich in historical films, and what better way to learn about important historical events than in the movies. The king in The King’s Choice (Kongens Nei in Panorama Special) refers to King Haakon VII of Norway. Norway needed a leader after gaining independence from Sweden. Haakon seemed to be a worthy candidate, considering that his father and, later, his brother, were both kings of Denmark. Haakon was “elected” to the Norwegian monarchy, not born into it. The film concerns about one week in 1940 when German troops invaded the country. The German diplomat Curt Braeuer received word from Hitler to notify the authorities that Norway was in a state of occupation, although no war had been declared. Braeuer himself is in quandary in that he does not agree with Hitler, but must represent these orders from his country. The Germans intend to install a Norwegian fascist named Quisling to lead the government. King Haakon discusses the situation with Prince Olav, his son and eventual successor. Should Haakon fight for the leadership or abdicate? Meanwhile, the Norwegian military prepares to fight.

The Viceroy’s House (in competition) takes us to India in 1947. Great Britain is ending 300 years of colonial rule in India and hopes for a smooth withdrawal. Perhaps this is a familiar subject in British schools, but what do the rest of us know? We learn that Lord Mountbatten (who is the great grandson of Queen Victoria – so who knew that choice fact, for example?) moves with his wife and daughter for six months into a huge residence in Delhi staffed with 500 employees: Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. These groups are also representative of India as a whole. Political leaders, Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi, meet with Mountbatten to discuss exactly who will rule when India achieves independence. Some quotes were “Muslims don’t want to be the blacks of India.” “New countries are rarely founded in peace.” Here we have another “choice,” in this case a compromise, and today the world still tries to live with it, in spite of the hope, that “this compromise will have beauty because it will have peace.” The film, by Gurinder Chadha, gives Lady Mountbatten free hand to push her own suggestions forward, as she analyses the situation through contact with the house staff.

These are films about political decisions. Other historical films featured one person’s role in history. Cuatreros (Rustlers) by Albertina Carri, features (in the Forum section) Isidro Velásquez who worked alone in northern Argentina at the fringes of the law and was shot by the police in 1967. Joachim (competition section) by Marcelo Gomes is a docudrama about Joaquim José de Silva Xavier, aka Tiradentes. He was in the military in Brazil, when it was still a Portuguese colony. He successfully hunted down illegal gold smugglers and hoped to be rewarded for his work. He undertakes an expedition with a troop of his own men, as well as African slaves and native Indians during which he slowly sees the country from their viewpoints. Another film on the same topic but completely fictional is Vazante by Daniela Thomas (Panorama Special Section). See review in this issue by Shelly Schoeneshoefer.

Percy Fawcett, a member of the British army, led several expeditions from England to South America. The Lost City of Z concentrates on his trip to Bolivia, where the natives, who guided him through the jungle, talk about a lost city called Minoa. He also sails down hidden rivers, which recalls Klaus Kinski in his film Fitzcarraldo (1981) He has high expectations and says, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” This last expedition fascinates him for the rest of his life. (byJames Gray in the Berlinale Section).

These are just a few examples of the many films about history and personalities important in the past. Others, just to name a few, were Django, Beuys, Final Portrait, The Young Karl Marx, Maudie, Bones of Contention, and so on. History definitely has a place in film.