Historiography and the Rise of Docudramas

The age of documentary is over. Docudrama is the new king. No longer is it acceptable for a tweed-wearing Classicist to wander the halls of famous houses and abbeys, to trek across battlesites, to sit in archives holding deteriorating binders of yellowing pages of fading ink. Simple facts are not sexy. To tell history is boring. Now you must show it. And to show it with run-of-the-mill actors (who, for some reason, are Australian, New Zealandish or, ever increasingly, Welsh). It is left up to chance whether the events shown are an accurate representation of what happened.

David Starkey’s Monarchy was perhaps the precursor to this. Though, in Starkey’s defence, he is a tweed-wearing Classicist and his use of actors was nothing more than people standing out in fields or sitting in chairs, doing nothing and saying nothing. Some, if they were the ‘villain’ of the piece, would stare menacingly at the camera. The ‘hero’ would wave his sword or clasp the hand of a comrade in an act of solidarity. The schemers—and there were a lot in Starkey’s Monarchy—would turn and look off-camera, smugly: a move from which Lena Headey would take great inspiration in her turn as Cersei Lannister.

More recently, 1066: A Year to Conquer England, Britain’s Bloody Crown, Roman Empire and Hitler’s Circle of Evil have drifted more into the realm of drama, swathes of the show devoted to the aforementioned Oceanic and Welsh actors taking up large chunks of screen time. Every so often, an ‘expert’ will prop up, always in close-up in a dark room, like a captive, to give some context to the scene. Captive is perhaps what they are, for they offer up anecdotes as fact without blinking, as if a gun is held aloft just off camera. In the case of Netflix’s Roman Empire, one expert reports as fact the story of Crassus being executed by having molten gold poured into his mouth, an anecdote that first appeared some two hundred years after his death. (For completion, Crassus died during a skirmish when peace talks between he and the Parthians went sour.) In two separate scenes, Pompey and Caesar, both consuls of Rome, kneel to a foreign king, a vassal of Rome no less, and not one historian calls out this absurdity for what it is.

The worst offender of these is Hitler’s Circle of Evil. As the title suggests the focus is on the non-Hitler members of the Nazi party. Himmler and Heydrich, Goebbels and Göring, Bormann and Hess and Speer, each man gets an episode dedicated to himself, examining his life before the Nazis, his reasons for joining and the legacy he creates for himself while in the party. It is through these personal developments that the history of the Nazi party itself, from its beginning as a ragtag collection of angry shouters in a Munich beer hall to its collapse, is shown.

Like Monarchy and 1066 and Roman Empire, the producers of Hitler’s Circle of Evil clearly thought the information put out to the audience too dense. In order to break it up, and to distinguish the similar sounding names of some of the members, dramatisation is used. And it used a lot. And it is used repetitively. Goebells, the Minister for Propaganda, is regularly shown sitting at his desk, thinking up some speech to write. Heydrich, architect of the Holocaust, walks menacingly down one long hallway after another, smiling a smug, evil smile as he wanders closer to the camera. Himmler, head of the SS, slowly brings his gaze to the camera after signing off on some document that the narrator of the piece tells us is the order for the liquidation of some ghetto or the opening of another concentration camp

The worst part of Hitler’s Circle of Evil is its lack of objectivity. It is an odd thing to suggest the terms ‘balanced’ and ‘objective’ and ‘when talking about the Nazis’ but historiography is, or should be, objective. Too many times the show portrays this Circle of Evil as bumbling and pathetic. Himmler is a ‘pretend soldier’ with a ‘weird’ obsession with the occult, Speer is a whipping boy for the other members of the party, through whom they fight a proxy battle for Hitler’s ear. The worst of these is given to Rudolf Hess, the party’s deputy: he is a moronic, braindead, besotted sycophant who does not understand politics but rises to the top because he happens to be in the room from the beginning. These are men who took part in some of the worst atrocities known to humankind, men who would have taken part in countless more if it were not for the intervention of other forces and yet this is not enough in the mind of the producers to make them appear unsympathetic. Being evil people who perform evil deeds is not enough: they need to appear incompetent while doing it. If it does anything, it detracts from their actions. Cold, calculated, thought-out decisions fuelled from a twisted ideology of a perfect world carried out by smart, calculating men were the cause of these atrocities. Yet the show acts as if these layabouts and vagabonds merely stumble into an electoral victory and onto the decision to genocide groups of people and conquer Europe. The overwhelming if not entire majority of people watching will conclude that the Nazis are the bad guys. There is no need to prefix every act they perform with ‘weird’, ‘bizarre’, ‘insane’ or, as in the case of every mention of Göring, ‘drunk junkie’. 

When these shows do document historically accurate information it is surface-level at its deepest, the type that is often covered in baby’s first history lesson. Weirdly—to take one their own words—, the producers of Hitler’s Circle of Evil try to deny this by putting up a disclaimer that these shows are not suitable for children or teenagers. It makes you wonder, then, who exactly is the audience for these programmes? The same disclaimer points to the content found within the following fifty or sixty minutes that makes it ‘unsuitable’ for a young audience. The footage of emaciated Jews, of corpses piled atop one another in the street, of the mass execution of ‘undesirables’ is of course uncomfortable to watch, yet worse is found in a GCSE course book. These docudramas are perhaps best suited for that age of audience; the way in which the episodes and themes are separated would certainly support classroom learning. Key moments in the history of the Nazi party are carved up into short, digestible, retainable segments. As annoying as the repetitive shots are, they serve to split up the information relatively well between narration and reconstruction of events. And—if one has to find credit from somewhere to give—making one member each episode a particular focus, it does highlight personal ambitions of each member. Goebbels joining because he was a failed writer and was offered from the outset the chance to edit the party’s newspaper, or Heydrich only joining because he was unemployed and had debts to settle are important. It illuminates to people that people don’t always align themselves with issues because they believe in something; they do it because it is convenient to them. It is an important lesson to know, one that, unfortunately, many never seem to realise.

The issues of a lack of detail are the same for the less graphic, yet equally as vacuous shows on the Wars of the Roses, the Norman Conquest and the Roman Civil War. “Caesar and Pompey were at war with one another?” Why were they at war? “Oh, lots of reasons… hey, look over there—Mark Antony and his all forehead actor is going to do something cool.” Civil wars and dynastic disputes very rarely ‘just’ prop up but these shows do very little to highlight that. Perhaps because it is hard to make the Senate arguing amongst itself look interesting. HBO’s Rome manages it though, often with far more accuracy too.

Then again, these shows are often fronted by some combination of Dan Snow, Dan Jones or Janina Ramirez, the unholy trinity of the tele-historical age. And if you’re scraping beneath the barrel to hand off another show to any one of them, you’re not going to push the boat out for a competent research team, are you? 

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