Medieval Film

October 15, 2009

Anke Bernau and Bettina Bildhauer's edited collection of essays, Medieval Film, covers a wide range of topics related to the way in which the Middle Ages are portrayed on film, simplified and sometimes falsified for the enjoyment of mass audiences. The editors strive to balance the analysis of particular films with more general implications that such close readings may have for the discourse of representation, film studies and medievalism.

The popularity of films about the Middle Ages and their manner of construction offer a compelling starting point for a number of debates. Historical veracity in mass entertainment, the manner of representing otherness and the past can all be seen as part of a wider contemplation of narrative, and especially historical, film. Additionally, the considerable body of available material makes it possible to determine the way in which particular films reference each other and how, collectively, they create a vision of the Middle Ages present in popular perception.

Unfortunately, the editors seem to have decided that the common theme of the considered films is not enough. In an attempt to provide a theoretical framework for the collection, they focus on the medieval films' "a-chronology". The term supposedly encompasses issues of temporality and the notion of traumatic time. Bernau and Bildhauer write that "more so than films set in other periods of the past, the present or the future, medieval films reflect on the fact that they make present a past that was never filmable and offer alternatives to chronological conceptions of time".

The evidence given to explain this allegedly special relationship between films about the Middle Ages and a-chronological temporality is not entirely convincing. A similarly tenuous rhetoric is present in the attempt to prove a unique link between medievalism and film studies.

In her contribution to the collection, Bildhauer points to writers such as Hugo Munsterberg and Siegfried Kracauer, who used the Middle Ages as a point of comparison or contrast with the workings of the moving image. She concludes: "It is time to acknowledge film theory's reliance on medievalism." However, she does not provide any tangible reason why this reliance should be more important than one on, say, semiotics, gender studies or indeed any other discipline that may influence the way one thinks about film.

There is no real need for this editorial attempt at universalising. Thankfully, most of the essays are concerned with a detailed analysis of films from a variety of new angles. The collection tackles an impressive range of topics: from the successful and the failed use of medieval visual art as a way of achieving authenticity, to an interesting discussion of linguistics. Moreover, it considers a representative sample of films from around the world.

This collection's scope is its biggest asset and the most legitimate claim of relevance to a wider audience. Alison Tara Walker's piece on the role of music and Andrew Higson's essay on the medieval films' place in a wider discourse about filmic representations of British history exemplify the commendable heterogeneity of the covered material.

Similarly, John M. Ganim's contribution on "medieval noir" is worth noting. He tentatively discusses how film noir shares stylistic, narrative and character tropes not only with the representations of the Middle Ages, but with medievalism itself. Being aware of the term's inherent anachronism, Ganim proposes an innovative way of looking at the two film genres and disciplines.

Medieval Film is an interesting collection that, unfortunately, suffers from an attempt to homogenise something quite obviously varied. This, however, does not detract from the value and merit of individual essays, which should prove useful to students and scholars of film studies and medievalism alike.

Medieval Film

Edited by Anke Bernau and Bettina Bildhauer. Manchester University Press. 224pp, £55.00. ISBN 9780719077029. Published 1 September 2009

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