Confession time: even though I’ve a degree in History, I’m actually pretty okay with films, books and games that aren’t above playing around with historical facts. I quite enjoyed how the Assassin’s Creed games gave the Middle Ages, the Renaissane and revolutionary America the Dan Brown treatment, pretty much deciding that everything’s better with a healthy dollop of conspiracy theory. If you’re telling a story, don’t let history get in the way too much of what works and what doesn’t work in storytelling. Let’s face it, more often than not history has pretty bad plotting, even if there may be good overall ideas.
Nevertheless, Das Attentat: Sarajevo 1914 the TV movie produced and shown by the ZDF, one of Germany’s two national public-service broadcasters, made me angry. It didn’t help that the film mistook having an earnest tone for having something to say, and that it became duller as it tried to ratchet up the tension. What bothered me most, though, was this: here we’ve got a film shown on the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the act that triggered the First World War. It’s produced by national television, which comes at least with an implicit stamp of officiality. Its tone suggests that it purports to be important. Yet, and that’s the thing that stings, it’s largely a fabrication, a piece of historical revisionism. The set dressing is nicely historical, but the story that claims the assassination to have been orchestrated by German and Austrian military, government and, most importantly, industrials is silly hogwash.
It’s also unnecessary hogwash: the European elites by and large were rearing to have a go at their enemies after a century that was rife with conflict over nations, resources and colonies. Did the German government want the war? Very likely yes, but that is true for pretty much every major government at the time. Yet the film’s writers decided they wanted a different story, one of the fin de siècle Military-Industrial complex, though only the German one, manipulating things to their own capitalist ends. While I sympathise with the politics, what bothers me is this: the film was placed to look like an officially endorsed rendition of historical events in good faith. I don’t think the ZDF or the film makers consciously wanted to mislead people, but history syllabi being what they are I doubt that most people in the audience know, or care, enough to question Sarajevo 1914‘s version of what happened to see it as a “What if?” scenario.
And that, to me, makes this different from many other examples of historical fiction that takes liberties with the source material. Games of “What if?” are most fun if you know how they change history to tell a different story, they pretty much depend on the historical foil. Alternatively, history is full of question marks, and there’s a lot of space to present different takes on what happened – I’m by no means looking for an official, monolithical History, seeing as I’m a big believer in multiple lower-case histories that form capital-H History with all their gaps, contradictions and ambiguities. But presenting utter invention with the veneer of authenticity and official truth? Perhaps I’m not the only one who finds this problematic, actually – the ZDF followed the premiere of Sarajevo 1914 with a documentary that looked at the causes and motivations behind the assassination, and they were presented to be considerably more murky and less black-and-white than the fictional version suggested. Still, realistically speaking: how many people stuck around to watch the documentary, which didn’t even contain a completely made up, generic love story to spice up the tale of murder and intrigue?
Then again, while I’m being jaded and cynical: how many people watched the first minute of Sarajevo 1914 and thought they’d rather watch something modern – where 90% of the men don’t wear big, bushy moustaches?