proceedings of the International Documentary Film Symposium held on September 11 - 16, 1999 in Riga, Latvia

History at ARD - Planning, Producing and Placing
History Programmes in Public TV in Germany
Rainer C. M. Wagner
Stuttgart Documentary Film House
In contrast to Abram Kleckins' very high and analytical survey I shall present you a rather factual and descriptive narrow sector of audio- visual working. My item is history at ARD, that means history on the 1st and 3rd channels of German television. Perhaps you have noticed that I am not willing to make a great difference between documentary on television and documentary film. So, for me it is the same - principally. The matter of the Symposium is documentary on the brink of the Millennium. This magic border line: does it really mean something for our consciousness as persons, as citizens, as filmmakers or film consumers? Standing on the high edge we have two directions of view. The one is forward to the future which is not yet focused, very foggy and uncertain, simply unknown. And the other is backwards into the hills and valleys of memory, full of dark or shining events. In this crucial situation we all have evidently an increasing interest in a look back to the past where we hope to find the explanation for our present state, based on historical facts, seemingly objective data that cannot mislead us. Finally, perhaps, it is the search for the sense of life and evolution. So, it is not astonishing that at this Symposium out of the total of 35 films at least 13 or 14 deal with history or contemporary history in one way or another.
I will take now the opportunity to give you some information about history in German public television. This will be itself a historical review in the development of historical programs. If some of you discover any parallels in your own countries, it might be not just an incident. Perhaps certain developments are symptomatic for the process of self-reflection of a nation.
Before I came to the Haus des Dokumentarfilms in 1995 I had been a commissioning editor mainly for history and contemporary history during 25 years at Süddeutscherundfunk SDR which is a regional Radio and TV station in Stuttgart. So, what I want to tell you now is predominantly my own experience and I shall concentrate on the work of this station with occasional glimpses to other corporations. Such German institutions as public TV and public Radio are independent from the state. Up to a certain degree the German broadcasting is inspired by the experience of BBC. The occupation forces imported the idea after World War 2. In the modern dual system in competition to the commercial private broadcasting the public stations are responsible for, I quote, "the basic supply with information, education and entertainment", in this order. When founding ARD ten regional stations were mere radio stations. Then since 1952 they built up own television organizations or television branches. In the autumn of 1954 they started a common TV channel, the "First German Television". On November 22, 1954 in this common TV channel SDR started the first veritable program of contemporary history called Ten years ago (Vor zehn Jahren) with newsreel clips and live moderation. A look back to the war situation in November 1944. This was a preview to a future centre of emphasis.
At that time television in Germany was idealistically meant as a sort of school for the nation in favour of democracy against totalitarian tendencies. The television, I quote again, "should strengthen activities for the basic principles of democracy: tolerance and better understanding between nations as well as for the common welfare and the rights of the individual", the Director General of STR said in 1953. In the next few years the three guidelines of historical effort in the electronic medium were developed.
First: regional history according to the federal concept of the new German republic and the broadcasting landscape. Second: presentation of democratic traditions and the rule of law.
Third: reports of eyewitnesses as journalistic correspondence to the "Oral History" before this method and term were used in the science.
All this brought consequently SDR to the first comprehensive treatment of the subject Third Reich (Das Dritte Reich) in German television in years 1960 - 1961. It was a 14 part series transmitted every second Friday night in prime time, quarter past eight. They gathered 58% of the audience. Even in those early TV days such high rating was otherwise reached only by sports or light entertainment. It shows that 15 years after the war the German population needed such an analytic survey of the epoch in which most of them had been involved but which they had understood only partially. The way of presenting was very straight, simple, sober and honest with maps, diagrams, photos, footages and interviews. From that time up to now the Third Reich, the Nazi empire and World War 2 stay the main topics of history programs in German television.
The National Socialism is mainly described as fascism in its epoch without the problem of continuity, in spite of the fact that old and new Nazis were a heavy burden for the young German Federal Republic. In this respect a totally different interest in the film productions of the German Democratic Republic is to be observed, but at the moment this is not my subject.
Quite naturally that in the following years the calendar lead to other historical events too. For instance, the battle of Sadowal KŒniggrätz in 1866 which was the decision of the leadership in Germany between Austria and Prussia, or the Franco-Prussian War, the war between Germany and France in 1870 - 1871. This accumulation of military subjects does not look very peaceful and democratic but the background was the general interest in the painful process around the birth of the German nation hundred years ago and the search for national identity five years after building of the wall that divided Germany into two states.
In the discussions the planning team searched for a new specific way to present the historical events apart from the pure documentary. We found a sort of stylized dramatization but we stuck meticulously to the facts. We operated as if television had already existed in 1870, so we used all journalistic elements of modern TV as there are news, reportage, eyewitness account, commentary, even entertaining components. The people in front of the camera, famous and prominent journalists at that time, re-enacted in costumes, behaviour, speech and environment of the 19th century. Journal 1870/71 was one of the early docudramas.
Why do I speak about such old examples, not about the current ones? My intention is to lead you as near as possible to the origins of several TV categories and to depict the conditions of their genesis. And I am interested in specific television developments formally, aesthetically and substantially. So I am not going into the vast area of historical feature films, dramas and dramatical series, or even interesting filmed literature like, for example, the works of Siegfried Lenz or Günter Grasso. I think that the mixture of the pure drama, serious documentary and light entertainment is more interesting, more significant for the spirit of the time.
In the seventies the fifties crept slowly into the sight of filmmakers. And it seemed to be allowed to use the extreme juxtaposition in a sort of review programs. After the dark and gloomy years of Nazi terror the subject was now the turbulent childhood of the Federal Republic of Germany, the time of the economic miracle.
It seemed as if the variety of disparate phenomena in a relatively short temporary distance could be covered best in a sort of mixture of genres, free style television as we called it. In 1978 another pioneering work of SDR was the series What would we be without ourselves (Was wären wir ohne uns). I consider its patchwork style very important because I often ask myself, whether we history producers in the TV stations are right when we lead the audience to believe in a pseudo linear structure, artificially arranged to a new pattern from coincidentally preserved fragments.
In the 80s heavy serious sort of programs came back forced by memorable dates: 50 years from 1933, 40 years from German capitulation, 50 years from the beginning of World War 2. We at SDR produced at that time a 13 part series Europe under the Swastika (Europa unterm Hakenkreutz) which was on air every Sunday at 20:15, the absolute prime time. And this was the last case in the history of German television when one single station could occupy thirteen weeks in sequence.
A few years later the SFB 'Berlin' produced a five part series on the extermination of Jews in Europe. So came a European view, a new tendency in the history film production in German television. Up to that time history at ARD was merely German history or history influenced by Germans. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 this tendency was intensified once more. In a contravotating movement with Perestroyka and Glasnost the interest in the history of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union increased enormously.
And with the Millennium coming nearer and nearer the angle of vision widens to a global, even a cosmic view.
And on the other hand the number of eyewitness programs is increasing. We have seen this morning a very moving documentary Insha Allah - God Willing by the Finnish colleague. The reason is the undeniable situation that the witnesses of the great events of this century are dying out. One official ARD historical series for the last months before the year 2000 entitled Twenty Days in the Twentieth Century (Zwanzig Tage im Zwanzigsten Jahrhundert) presents the world history and includes, for instance, the Russian revolution, the Chinese revolution, the Indian independence and even the first step on the Moon. And the second series is One Hundred German Years (Hundert Deutsche Jahre). Both of them show clearly that now television can refer to itself without difficulties as an audio-visual medium in a practical way. This is new. We can quote our own productions or compile programs from reports out of the 50s, 60s, 70s. The circle closes: a current affairs medium has become a source of history, for history on the brink of the Millennium.
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