The Historian-Filmmaker's Dilemma. Historical Documentaries in Sweden in the Era of Hager and Villius

By Salmi, Hannu | Film & History, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Historian-Filmmaker's Dilemma. Historical Documentaries in Sweden in the Era of Hager and Villius


Salmi, Hannu, Film & History


David Ludvigsson.

The Historian-Filmmaker's Dilemma. Historical Documentaries in Sweden in the Era of Hager and Villius.

Uppsala University Press, 2OO3. 411 p.

Swedish Insights on Historical Documentary

The Swedish historian David Ludvigsson (Uppsala University) has recently published an impressive study on historical documentary under the title The Historian-Filmmaker's Dilemma. Historical Documentaries in Sweden in the Era of Hager and Villius. The book does not try to be a complete account of Swedish audiovisual history but, rather, concentrates on two of its major figures after the 1960s. Olle Hager and Hans Villius both held a PhD in history when they were hired by the Swedish Broadcasting Company in 1967 to make historical documentaries for television. Hager and Villius formed a productive couple who, without doubt, would have been world famous if they had worked in an English-speaking country and emphasized more international themes. They collaborated thirty-five years and produced over two hundred programs together. Ludvigsson writes about "the era of Hager and Villius" and, indeed, the two historians really made an institution and represented history for decades. Hans Villius was the one who became known by the public. he appeared sometimes as an on-screen presenter but was more often recognized for his distinctive voice-over narration. His south-Swedish accent became the voice of history in Sweden.

David Ludvigsson's study can be set into a larger context. During the past decades, there has been a vivid interest in what Germans have called Geschichtskultur, an interest in how history exists in the present day, how history is continuously produced and reproduced through institutions, through media and artifacts. Ludvigsson clearly awcknowledges the importance of studying historical storytelling outside the academia. He starts by sketching the major changes of Swedish history culture and thus creates a background for Hager's and Villius' filmmaking.

In recent decades, historians' interest in audiovisual narration has increased in a rising curve. In Scandinavia, such pioneering figures like Niels Skuym-Nielsen and Karsten Fledelius emphasised the significance of audiovisuality already in the 1960s and 1970s and also paid attention on documentaries. Since the 1990s, audiovisual history has been a popular theme for both historians and film scholars. Most publications, however, have concentrated on fiction film while historical documentaries have remained on the margins. What is interesting in Ludvigsson's work is the fact that it focuses on a genre that has often been neglected as a means of telling about the past. The European tradition of historical documentaries has been an unmapped continent.

Ludvigsson's main interest lies in the question "how is history used in historical documentaries?"-and in Hager's and Villius' programs in particular. What is important is that the analysis is not based on audiovisual material only. The use of history does not refer to the composition of historical narratives per se but also to those considerations filmmakers have to confront when they negotiate with both cognitive demands and poetic ideas. Hager and Villius tried to be historians and filmmakers at the same time. This is why Ludvigsson writes about "historian-filmmaker's dilemma." Hager and Villius had to reconcile contradictory demands in their effort to work according to their historian's ethic but simultaneously to express their ideas in a form that would appeal to the audience. Ludvigsson argues that filmmakers have to encounter three kinds of considerations: cognitive, moral, and aesthetic. …

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