This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 License.
Suggested Citation: Pauleit, Winfried; Greiner Rasmus; Frey, Mattias: Audio History of Film: Introduction. In: Research in Film and History. New Approaches (2018), pp. 1–8. DOI: https://doi.org/10.25969/mediarep/14813.
The relationship between film and history has assumed many and varied forms over the course of time. During the twentieth century, film increasingly became a medium through which contemporary political and historical events were discussed and interpreted.1 Cinematic narration of history influenced twentieth-century film production in myriad ways and constantly challenged “classical” historiography, especially its function of disseminating historical knowledge. Writing about history has been accompanied by documentary photography and film ever since. Meanwhile, fictional films undertake popular adaptations of historical narratives that shape people’s ideas about bygone eras.
In recent years, images have become a particular focus of scholarly interest. The historian Gerhard Paul’s “visual history” approach foregrounds the specific aesthetics of images as historical sources, something long neglected in his discipline.2 Proclaiming a paradigm shift from the dominance of writing to the dominance of images, “visual history” adapts important antecedents, such as the “pictorial turn”;3 another key influence is the work of the art historian Erwin Panofsky.4 In this context, the historian Bernd Roeck describes images as “stabilisers” that profoundly influence our ideas about the past but can be interpreted in various ways.5
Since historical knowledge is acquired and inflected through media,6 films help shape understandings of history aesthetically and narratively; they not only bring major historical topics or biographies of historical figures to the screen, but also convey historical knowledge in audio-visual form, thereby influencing popular worldviews and perspectives. By doing so, film challenges established forms of written history and other modes of cultural memory.7 In the competition over which interpretations hold sway in society, film has proved itself a force to be reckoned with.
Nevertheless, studies of history have long neglected film. Though historians have debated the relevance of films as historical sources ever since Bolesław Matuszewski in 1898,8 films have tended to serve merely as evidence about the period when they were made, or else have been viewed through the lens of an aesthetically oriented history of film. In the wake of Siegfried Kracauer’s book From Caligari to Hitler (1947),9 there were numerous attempts to understand social and historical developments (such as the rise of National Socialism in the early 1930s) by analysing films contemporaneous with those developments. Even then, however, film and the history of film were still not recognised as legitimate fields of historical inquiry. It was not until the mid-1970s that Marc Ferro provided the crucial impetus for historians to understand every film as a historical document: as an interpretation of its subject matter and of the circumstances during which it was made.10
The auditory dimension of film continues to be neglected, even though it is an integral part of the medium. This is despite Thomas Lindenberger's call for historians to treat audiovision as an object of study with a status equal to writing, and his understanding of visual history in terms of a society not just of “co-viewers” (‚Mitsehende‘) but explicitly also of “co-listeners” (‚Mithörende‘).11 There needs to be a focus not just on the “generative powers of image” (‚bildgenerative Kräfte‘)12 – a term used by Gerhard Paul to emphasise images’ active role in shaping history – but also on the ‚generative powers of sound‘. Paul has taken the first steps in this direction with Sound des Jahrhunderts (Sound of the Century, co-edited with Ralph Schock, 2013),13 an extensive collection of texts on the cultural and media history of sound, the acoustic history of politics and the relevance of sound to twentieth-century history of memory. However, apart from a handful of references, the specific formal features of audio-visual media – especially film – are largely neglected. Other efforts suffer from similar limitations, such as histories of hearing as sensory perception and studies of sound’s role in political, social and cultural contexts.14
A parallel shift in film studies gained momentum in the 1970s, when scholars of film initiated a variety of attempts to reformulate the writing of film history. In the 1980s, these critical approaches were collectively labelled the “new film history”,15 and later also the “new cinema history”16 and “media industry studies”.17 Although defined in various ways by their advocates, in general these labels refer to ways of writing history that consider not just aesthetic questions but also economics, exhibition and distribution practices, media censorship, technology, sociology and contemporary history. Practitioners of these approaches also sought to expand on the scope of the humanities’ conventional methods and objects of inquiry, for example by researching in state archives and the records of censors’ boards, or conducting longitudinal ethnographic studies of film producers or “below the line” freelancers.18 Thanks to these developments, calls for a more nuanced and complex conception of history emerged in film studies too.
This convergence between film studies and historical studies provides a basis for studying film sound and its significance for the production of history. The linguistic turn, common to both disciplines, provided one key driver. In particular, Hayden White’s much-discussed view that history and its structuring of data are necessarily narrative drew attention to cinematic forms of narration.19 Robert Rosenstone developed the notion of “history on film”, a new historiographical method based in the medium of film itself, and raised the prospect of multimedia forms of historical scholarship.20 A similar view is taken by Robert Burgoyne, who describes (historical) films as critical dialogues between past and present. Vivian Sobchack, meanwhile, interrogates the status of historical events that are constructed largely through the viewing and experiencing of film and media images.21 Other scholars have critically reflected on these constellations of film and history in the context of research on documentary films.22 Hermann Kappelhoff, by way of contrast, understands modern cinema as a site of historical consciousness that, rather than representing historical events, instead makes palpable the sensuous experiences of past eras.23 This observation does not just support Ferro’s thesis that films are able to depict the hidden functional mechanisms of a society.24 It also establishes far-reaching research perspectives concerning the audio-visual nature of visual spaces in film, which are in turn supported by other studies.25
Despite the convergence between film studies and historical studies described here, previous research has almost always neglected to register the significance of film sound for the production of history; scholars have typically failed to explicitly consider sound’s relation to the cinematic narration of history26 or visual history-led approaches.27 One important exception is Carolyn Birdsall’s recent monograph Nazi Soundscapes (2012).28 Taking the city of Düsseldorf as a case study, Birdsall examines the cultural implications of sound and hearing under National Socialism and pointedly takes film production into account. Beyond this work, the scholarship remains piecemeal at best, usually honing in on close-up details (see, for example, Simon Rothöhler’s discussion of ‚acousmêtre‘ in his film analyses29 ) at the expense of panoramic treatments of big-picture conceptual issues.
Since the 1980s, sound has become an increasingly important subfield of film studies.30 However, research on sound largely confines itself to aesthetics, film production and technology,31 occasionally extending into the cultural history of sound recording32 or the medium of documentary film.33 There are a whole host of studies scrutinising the dimensions and forms of voice in media, albeit with a primary focus on questions of media aesthetics,34 technology and narratology,35 the relationship between voice and image36 or feminist psychoanalytic theory.37 Very little scholarship attends to the voice in connection with film and history. One rare exception is Oksana Bulgakowa’s 2012 article on the changing timbre of voices in 1950s cinema, which examines historically, culturally and socially conditioned speech norms, technologically contingent recording practices, and artistic conventions.38 Another is Richard Dyer’s 2008 analysis of the African American singer Lena Horne’s Hollywood career, in which he considers the aesthetics of her voice from cultural-historical and sociopolitical perspectives.39
Research on film music40 and sound design41 evinces similar foci and lacunae. Although billed as histories of film sound production, they rarely, if ever, centre on the dynamic relations between acoustic dimensions and history. The subfield of film music has, admittedly, made some tentative steps in this direction, even if circumscribed perspectives and narrow analyses prevail: for example, Annette Kreuziger-Herr and Rüdiger Jantzen’s treatment of Miklós Rózsa’s music (and its desire for authenticity) in historical films such as QUO VADIS (Mervyn LeRoy / Anthony Mann, USA 1951), or Stephen C. Meyer’s Epic Sound: Music in Postwar Hollywood Biblical Films (2015).42 Despite perennial announcements of a new acoustic turn, only a handful of pioneering studies on film sound and history have emerged – even in the field of sound studies, which is explicitly concerned with sound and its cultural history.43
The study of film sound and its relationship to history is still in its infancy; only limited research has been conducted on topics such as sound recording for film and its relationship to contemporary history, or the status of film sound in the production of historicity and in discourses of film reception and film marketing. Against this background, the present volume, Audio History of Film, embarks on novel research avenues and explores productive new perspectives. Audio history of film is a field that provides the missing link between film studies, sound studies and historical studies. It investigates how film sound can generate and shape audiences’ experience of history. Our concern lies not just with the aesthetic dimension of film sound production, but also with its material, technical and cultural dimensions and their potential to model and produce history. Our endeavour attends not simply to imagined or ideal spectators (often stand-ins for the scholar’s own subject position), but also to how real audiences use elements of film sound to interpret history or to how critical and marketing discourses comment on sound and thus co-determine the reception of historical films. This volume presents three essays that offer three different approaches to the audio history of film. Each of them uses a unique approach and methodology in order to complement the others; this triangulation, an exploration of a multiperspectival research itinerary, is intended to establish and develop audio history of film as a viable and autonomous field of study.
In the first chapter, “Sonic icons: stand-out moments of cinematic self-reflexivity”, Winfried Pauleit investigates “sonic icons”, drawing on the work of Michel Chion and Brian Currid.44 “Sonic icons” are moments or short sequences in film that stand out prominently due to their acoustic qualities. However, they cannot be reduced to sound alone; rather, they are characterised by a combination of sound, image and text. Such moments can be initiated by, for example, the presence of microphones, sound recording devices or gramophones. They generate a self-reflexive potential that directs film audiences’ attention back to the production and reproduction of sound, identifying film sound as the product of prefilmic sound and the processes used to record and edit it. This form of self-reflexivity provides – often outside the scope of the film’s plot – historical evidence or models of film sound production equipment and the performative processes of work with this equipment. Pauleit hypothesises that the stand-out moments of sonic icons allow film spectators to simultaneously experience film sound as part of the aesthetics of film and as part of contemporary history.
Pauleit’s analysis of sonic icons draws on an understanding of modern film that characterises the autonomy of image and sound as an aesthetic play in which sound can seemingly be heard asynchronously or independently of the image.45 Modern film allows us to see and hear these processes that separate image and sound as relationships of difference, and in some cases also explicitly comments on them. In doing so, it highlights the importance of sound as an element of film aesthetics. Accordingly, sonic icons are primarily aesthetic figurations, but are also marked by, or shot through with, inscriptions of contemporary history. Pauleit studies this relationship between aesthetic production and historical inscription in order to lay out the fundamental features of an audio history of film. He also discusses the relationship between film sound and indexicality. These interrelations are understood not in terms of naive representational realism about sound but rather in terms of the inaccessibility of prefilmic sound events.46 This furnishes the foundation for an audio history of film, based on exemplary films and the discourses surrounding them, which cannot simply be experienced directly through attentive listening, but can nonetheless be accessed by indirect means.
Pauleit fleshes out his ideas by reference to films from very different genres and periods that are associated with key turning points in the history of sound films. He focuses on different uses of gramophone and phonograph records in cinema. His study ranges from Robert Siodmak and Edgar Ulmer’s silent film PEOPLE ON SUNDAY (D 1930) to Howard Hawks’s A SONG IS BORN (USA 1948), Agnès Varda’s SALUT LES CUBAINS (F/CUB 1963) and LES PLAGES D’AGNÈS (THE BEACHES OF AGNÈS, F 2008) and Tom Hooper’s historical film THE KING’S SPEECH (UK/USA/AUS 2010).
In the second chapter, “Sonic histospheres: sound design and history”, Rasmus Greiner examines the role of sound design in the audio-visual construction of historical films.47 His investigation is based on a conception of film experience drawn from Vivian Sobchack’s work on the phenomenology of film.48 Sobchack understands the experience of film as an embodied process of synaesthetic perception. In her theory, films convey the experience of history not simply through intensely affective images, but also by synaesthetically combining the visual and aural levels. In order to be able to better describe the role of film sound in this complex process, Greiner develops the model of the sonic histosphere.49 According to this model, sound actively contributes to the construction of a filmic space–time structure that models and makes palpable a living historical world. In the histosphere, spectators’ perceptions oscillate between a supposedly objective external view and the subjective experiences of the film characters. If soundtracks are analysed according to this approach, the great importance of sound design will become apparent. Greiner begins by discussing how reality and history are constructed through sound, and this discussion forms the theoretical basis for the subsequent investigation. He then analyses three films in turn, with each analysis focusing on different dimensions of the relationship between sound design and the sonic histosphere. Firstly, by reference to Tom Hooper’s THE KING’S SPEECH he investigates how film can model history through constructing space, time and characters. Secondly, by analysing Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (USA 1979) he explores the auditory experience of trauma and painful history. In this context, sound design is linked to cinematic strategies of subjectivisation and forms of remembering, and its function as the emotional texture of history is examined. Finally, Greiner analyses Ari Folman’s animated film WALTZ WITH BASHIR (ISR/F/D/USA/FIN/CHE/BEL/AUS 2008) as an example of auditory reflection on the relationship between traumatic experiences, memory and history. He expands on his discussion of the sonic histosphere by considering, variously, a particular mode of reception (reflective listening), reflective intra- and interfilmic references, and mediatised historiography.
In the third chapter, “The authenticity feeling: language and dialect in the historical film”, Mattias Frey investigates how history and sound interact in period films and television series, by far the most widely consumed forms of historical narratives today. Although examples of this genre earn regular scorn in the arts sections of Die Zeit and The Guardian, such films remain extremely popular with the general public. The Academy Award for Best Picture went to a period production in forty-nine out of the last eighty-six years; every year historical films attract millions of cinemagoers and top lists of box office hits. In this genre, a particularly important role is played by authenticity: an aesthetic striving for “accuracy” and “veracity”, or rather a discourse in which this is promised (by filmmakers in interviews, or by adverts) or expected (by audiences and by many critics). Frey formulates the concept of an “authenticity feeling”. Authenticity, the main benchmark against which ordinary spectators judge historical films, ultimately amounts to a felt, embodied historicity, the successful confirmation of a subjective idea of historical reality.
In order to critically analyse this social phenomenon, Frey systematically dissects aesthetic strategies of authenticity, placing particular emphasis on the crucial yet under-researched functions of sound. The authenticity feeling is, to be sure, enhanced by costumes and props, set design and location shooting, casting and make-up, superimposed historical dates, text and other visual elements. But music, dialogue, sound effects and silence – the four main elements of film sound – also exercise substantial influence on audiences’ understanding of history. The chapter proceeds to hone in on dialogue, especially language and dialect. Frey explores the discourses that contribute to the authenticity feeling by examining interviews with directors as well as adverts, reviews, online forums and empirical studies on audiences’ reactions to historical films. Here too, the emphasis remains on film sound: Frey asks, for example, what expectations spectators have regarding sound in historical films, or how they subjectively respond to dialects.
In this way, Frey develops a method by which analyses of textual, contextual, paratextual and extratextual elements complement and mutually reinforce one another. The quality, reliability and validity of research results are strengthened and heightened by incorporating different data sources, approaches and methods – aesthetic analysis, discourse analysis,50 media industry studies,51 fan studies,52 empirical audience research53 and paratextual analysis.54 The chapter’s final section comprises three short case studies of recent historical films: ZODIAC (David Fincher, USA 2007), THE KING’S SPEECH and THE MIRACLE OF BERN (Sönke Wortmann, D/A 2003). This section attempts to sketch a polyvalent audio history of film based on the method put forward in the earlier sections.
In taking this multiperspectival approach, it is expressly not our intention to split off film soundtracks from film images and study their relationship to history in isolation. Nor do we seek to situate film within a general history of sound recording and production, à la sound studies. Rather, we understand audio history of film as a field of research in which, taking sound as our starting point, new and more complex answers about the relationship between film and history emerge. This entails concerns that include (but extend well beyond) soundtracks, the visualisations and narratives of audio history in film (i.e. the complex aesthetics of film), and ultimately also the discourses of film reception and other paratexts such as film marketing and advertising. We foreground the role of sound not in order to exclude other important issues, but rather as a way of highlighting how scholars discussing the relationship between history and film have often overlooked sound and failed to account for its crucial status in this relationship.
Studying the audio history of film also presents us with epistemological issues: for example, the specific form and physiognomy of film sound – just like images – cannot be adequately reproduced in textual form. Readers can only rely on their own experience, perhaps recalling similar sounds and speculating on this basis about what the auditory phenomena described by a text might actually sound like. For, after all, a “description of a sound and the way it is conveyed [‚vermittelt‘] are only ever a circumscription, an outline of that sound”.55 This problem is further complicated by the fact that there is no sonic equivalent to a still image. “This means sound can only be perceived in passing by means of attentive reading; it is always in flux between appearing and disappearing”,56 as the sound designer Daniel Deshays explains. Digital technology has, for the first time in human history, made it possible to analyse every sound with pinpoint precision and to easily isolate audio fragments.
Audio history of film attempts to take account of these processes of constant development and integrate them into theory formation. “Cinema changes, and the action of sound is one of the prime reasons for that change”,57 as Rick Altman pithily puts it. This means that ontological claims about soundtracks and their contribution to films’ production of history are at risk of overgeneralising and oversimplifying. For this reason, our project does not attempt an ontology of film sound, but instead critically investigates specific fields of inquiry with the aim of tracing multiperspectival connections between them. To this end, THE KING’S SPEECH, which all three authors analyse (from different angles and using different methods), plays a particularly important role: as a means to demonstrate how even small shifts in research approaches can produce whole new shades of meaning.
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