Hollywood’s relationship with the historic record has been an uneasy one. Films such as Gone with the Wind and The Patriot have famously fabricated past events and suppressed truths, while others—notably Schindler’s List, Selma, and Spotlight—have been praised by historians for their accuracy. But the frequency of discrepancies among works set in earlier decades and centuries raises questions about the significance the recorded past plays in the minds of directors and screenwriters.
NYU’s Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor in the departments of Italian Studies and history, has had a front-row seat in this process, most recently serving as a historical consultant for Guillermo del Toro’s reimagined Pinocchio. She also provided feedback to the creators of 2019’s Jojo Rabbit, a film that portrays the impact of both an imaginary and real-world Adolf Hitler on the life of a 10-year-old boy.
Ben-Ghiat’s expertise is fascism—her recently released Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present centers on the means authoritarian leaders use to stay in power. She has also chronicled, in Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema, how its leaders in Italy used the country’s filmmakers, including Federico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini, to advance their causes through the big screen. Her research lends itself to unique insights, especially how filmmaking has intentionally been used to misrepresent certain periods of history.
With this year’s Academy Awards ceremony approaching, NYU News spoke with Ben-Ghiat about her role in the creative process and how these experiences have informed her teaching.
Could you describe your involvement with production companies in the films you’ve consulted on?
It varies widely. Some productions will bring you in at the end—when they have a rough cut and they want you to comment on only one aspect of the work. That was the case with Jojo Rabbit—I was shown a screener to judge the Hitler character in particular. Other productions will bring you in from the beginning, which was the case with Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. So you help to shape not only which historical events are there, but also the ones the director has decided he wants to show. How accurate are they? Is the portrayal of the character as it should be—along with the milieu and context? Are they faithful to that moment in history?
What do you mean by that?
In Pinocchio, Guillermo del Toro, to let people know the film was set in fascist Italy, included posters and graffiti, which are official regime graffiti with the slogans “Believe, obey, and fight.”
This is a fictional work—it is a creative elaboration of reality and not a historical documentary.
So in a theatrical film, each production’s director and creative ensemble will have a different idea about how accurate they want to be, how important that is, and where they will take some creative license. And that’s where you, as an expert, weigh in and say, “Well, from where I stand…” For example, in films that are set under fascism, you don’t want to heroicize the fascist leader. You want to be careful about camera angles and the way that the narrative arc is presented so that you don’t reflect the fascists’ own notion of how they wanted to be seen.
Have you found that filmmakers are open to being “corrected” when it comes to historical events and figures? Or is this a negotiated process?
So if they’ve brought you in from the very beginning, then you’re there because they are open to having your feedback. And generally with the ones I’ve been on they’ll send you a document—it’s a storyboard and it’s scripts—and you return it with notes. So you fact check.
But you also have a broader interpretive thing going on in these productions. And so a lot depends on what vision the production has for its film and for its history. For instance, Guillermo del Toro is very historically oriented and very politically oriented, but he’s also done some fantastically creative things, too, so it’s a collaboration. I’ve found people to be quite open, but sometimes there are things that they want to do because visually they work on screen and that means they’re going to take a little creative license at times.
Films are much more limited than books in terms of the time they are afforded to convey history, so considerations of what to include and what to exclude are significant. Are there any common threads that filmmakers seek to amplify?
I think with the productions I’ve been part of, which have all been in the last five years, there’s a real interest in investigating why demagogues have an appeal, how mass violence can occur, and the effect of these fascist ideas on people—and particularly on collaborators, such as in both Jojo Rabbit and Pinocchio. The fascism is mainly presented in Pinocchio through the podestà. He’s like a mayor and the ultimate authority in the town.
In Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, there were those who were called little Hitlers and little Mussolinis. They imitate the leader and are the ones to enforce fascism at the local level, and on a daily basis. So I’ve found an interest among filmmakers in showing how fascism gets replicated through little fascists and how people’s daily lives are affected. You have the dramatic effect of the violence, which Jojo Rabbit shows very well, along with the relationships in that film—the hiding of the Jewish girl and that kind of relationship. So those questions of power and collaboration and resistance are, for what seem to be good reasons given our world today, very compelling to filmmakers right now.
Do you have a favorite “true to history” film?
The Battle of Algiers, made in the early sixties by Gillo Pontecorvo, is about the French struggle to repress anti-colonial actions for the liberation of Algeria. It’s a realist film and has incredible dramatic tension. They did extensive research on the military’s psychological and other warfare, and they demonstrate that on screen. And then they did extensive research as to how the resistance cells operated. It’s very intense. The music—everything. It’s a masterpiece. It’s deeply researched, so in that sense, it’s fairly true to history.
Has working on films changed how you approach your own academic writing?
Not so much my academic writing, but my teaching for sure. I teach cinema, I teach war, and I teach fascism. When you’re in a project from the beginning as a consultant, you see that there’s a narrative arc and a dramatic tension that the production wants to be sustained to keep the viewer in. So you really learn more about how films are constructed, and I’m able to take that into the classroom. It’s a nice synergy between learning about things, from what I know from my own research and writing about film, and seeing how it’s put together. So ideally, when you’re a faculty member, your research and any other activities you do all inform your teaching. And that’s the case here.