Is this your first film course?

Maybe this beginner‘s guide will help.

by Crystal Dreisbach

February 2000




Besides the strategies gathered from my own experience, this guide contains excerpts from A Short Guide to Writing About Film--Third Edition, by Timothy Corrigan. I really recommend it. It‘s basic, concise, and very helpful for the film class novice. I hope this information will be useful to you. Good luck!



The Guide

Glossary of film terms

Taking notes on a film and discussing it in class

Coming up with a film paper topic

Writing the film paper

More information

Check out my list of books about German film and film Web sites.

And here‘s a list of German film directors.


Renting a movie

Want to see a particular film? Scarecrow Video is what you need!

They have almost everything, and if they don‘t, they‘ll order it for you.

Check out the online rental inventory at the store‘s site:

5030 Roosevelt Way NE

Seattle, WA 98105

Phone: (206) 524-8554

Fax: 206 524-4851







Glossary of Film Terms

angle: The position of the camera or point of view in relation to the subject being shown. Seen from above, the subject would be shot from a „high angle"; from below, it would be depicted from a „low angle".

auteur: means „author", usually refers to auteur theory, a view of film making in which the director is considered to the be the primary creative force in a motion picture.

close-up: An image in which the distance between the subject and the point of view is very short, as in a „close-up of a person‘s face".

composition: The arrangement and relationship of the visual elements within a frame.

continuity editing: An editing style which follows a linear and chronological movement forward, as if the image is simply recording the action. Because it creates the illusion of reality, it is often called „invisible editing".

crane shot: An image depicting the subject from overhead, usually with the camera mounted on a mechanical crane.

cutting: Changing from one image to another; a version of this linkage is sometimes referred to as „montage".

eyeline match: The editing or joining of different shots by following the logic and direction of a character‘s glance or look.

formalism: A critical perspective that attends mainly to the structure and style of a movie or group of movies.

frame: The borders of the image within which the subject is composed.

genre: A critical category for organizing films according to shared themes, styles, and narrative structures; examples are „horror films" and „gangster films".

ideology: An analytical approach that attempts to unmask the stated or unstated social and personal values that inform a movie or group of movies.

long shot: An image in which the distance between the camera and the subject is great.

mise-en-scene: The arrangement of the so-called theatrical elements before they are actually filmed; these include sets, lighting, costumes, and props.

montage: the production of a rapid succession of images in a motion picture to illustrate an association of ideas.

narrative: The way a story is constructed through a particular point of view and arrangment of events.

point of view: The position from which an action or subject is seen, often determining its significance.

scene: A space within which a narrative action takes place; it is composed of one or more shots.

sequence: A series of scenes or shots unified by a shared action or motif.

shot: A continuously exposed and unedited image of any length.

sound effects: Any number of uses of sound other than music or dialogue.

take: The recording of an image on film, usually used in writing as a temporal measure, such as a „long take" or a „short take".

tracking shot: The movement of the image through a scene, photographed by a camera mounted on tracks. A dolly shot creates the same movement with a camera mounted on a mechanical cart, while a hand-held camera is mounted on a cameraperson‘s shoulder.

voice-over: The voice of someone not seen in the narrative image who describes or comments on that image.

zoom shot: The movement of the image according to focal adjustments of the lens, without the camera‘s being moved.



















Taking notes on a film and discussing it in class

First, here‘s a glossary of film terms to help you take notes and discuss the film.

You‘ll probably see the film one time in class, a second time on your own, and then you might watch particular scenes with your class section.

At the first viewing, just relax and watch the movie. You can jot down the things that strike you as important, interesting, or odd. Keep in mind any „things to watch for" hints that Wilke might have given you before the movie started. See the questions below --think about these basic topics that come up when people talk about films, but don‘t worry about getting every detail out on paper.

Later, when you‘re watching the movie on your own, you‘ll be able to stop the tape to take more careful notes or rewind to see something you missed.

See also Prof. Wilke‘s Film Evaluation Sheet and Scene Analysis Worksheet for more note topics, and check out the University of Houston German film class‘ great guide called

Be an Armchair Critic.

The Basics:

• About the movie: title, director, year, version, actors, film company, etc...

• Who are the characters? What are they like?

• What are the movie‘s main themes?

• What is the movie‘s narrative? What happens in the film?

• Is there a climax? If so, when does it happen?

• Is there anything interesting or unusual about the costumes and sets?

• Is there anything interesting or unusual about the shots? Weird angles? Framing?

• Is there anything interesting or unusual about the sound? The music?

• How does the movie make you feel?

• Does the film have a message?

• How would you categorize this film? Is it a documentary? An experimental film?

If you‘re really gung-ho about the film note-taking business, see Chapter 2 of Corrigan‘s book for the film critic‘s shorthand. „cu" for close-up; „ps" for pan shot; „ha"for high angle, etc...


Coming up with a paper topic

I found that the most difficult part of writing Wilke‘s protocols is choosing a topic that you can write about it some detail, but that also follows her „2 pages or less" rule.

My suggestion is to concentrate on just one very, very small aspect of the film. (Smaller is better than bigger.) That way, you can give a ton of examples to support your argument and appear to have a very focused paper. Check through the notes you took while watching the film and look for recurring themes, motifs, instances of whatever that you thought were significant. That way, you already have your examples all lined up for yourself if you want to use them to make a point.

So, according to Corrigan, there are 6 basic approaches to choose from when writing about film. Here are a few of his suggestions of paper topics, and how to think about them:

1. National Cinemas

If the film is foreign, think about what exactly distinguishes it from the American ones, for example.

How does the meaning of this film change when seen outside its culture?

2. Film History

What was happening at the time the film was produced? How did it affect the making of the film?

How are certain historical events portrayed in the movie?

Does the movie stand out in history, or is it part of a historical trend?

3. Genres

Identify for yourself what the structures, themes, and common stylistic techniques are for the genre.

When did this type of movie first appear?

What are the antecedents outside film history--novels, opera?

How has the genre changed through history, and why?

Does the story of the movie you are analyzing fit the genre it seems to be placed in?

4. Auteurs

Auteur criticism is one of the most widely accepted and often unconsiously practiced film criticisms today: it identifies and examines a movie by associating it with a director or occasionally with another dominant

= figure, such as a star. For example, referring to a „Steven Spielberg movie" is in itself a critical act.

Ask yourself how the historical conditions of film production encourage or discourage the auteurist unity you find in his/her work.

Were the films made as part of a studio system, in which the influence of the studio might be more noticeable than the influence of the director?

Or did the filmmaker have a great deal of independence, and thus control, over how the film looks?

What are the most distinctive signs of the filmmaker‘s control over the film: Editing? The stories themselves? The themes? The setting?

Are your expectations about a film conditioned by what you know about its director?


5. Kinds of Formalism

Formalism is a name often given to film criticism concerned with matters of structure and style (such as themes, narrative, or mise-en-scene) in a movie, or how those features are organized in particular ways in a movie.

Whether you are examining a single shot or a pattern of images, ask yourself what is most interesting and significant about the formal features and how they add to the story and themes.

Is it the mis-en-scene that appears most crafted or, rather, a series of camera angles?

If you concentrate on a single scene or sequence, how do the sound, lighting, and camera movement interact to comment on or support the action of the story?

How would you connect the formal features of the film with its themes?

6. Ideology

In one sense, ideology is a more subtle way of saying „politics".

With an ideological approach, begin by trying to pinpoint what message or messages a film aims to communicate about its world and, by implication, our world.

What is it saying explicitly?


What does the film suggest about how people relate or should relate to one another?

Is individuality important? Is the family important?

Is the film straightfoward and direct about those values and what they demand, both gains and losses?

Are the values depicted as „natural"? If so, why?

Does the movie challenge the beliefs of its audience or support them? Why?

How do the politics of the film and the way it entertains intertwine?

• See also Corrigan‘s book for lots of sample essays. They help spark lots of writing ideas and show you what makes a paper a „good" one.

THE NEXT STEP: Writing the film paper









Writing the film paper

If you follow these general guidelines, you‘ll probably write a pretty good protocol:

• Come up with a paper topic if you haven‘t already.

• Remember that these protocols are not just reaction or response papers, they are little essay. So you‘d better have a plan of how you‘re going to make a point and prove it in less than 2 pages. Writing an outline is a really good idea. You‘ll be able to see that the aspect you chose to write about is too big if your outline is already 5 pages long. Or you‘ll see that you need to think about things a little more if you have very few concrete examples from the film to support your thesis.

• Wilke and the T.A.s will always tell you not to give „plot summaries". They really hate that. That means, don‘t retell the movie‘s plot in your paper, even to make a point. Always assume that your reader has also watched the film 2-3 times.

• Use concrete language, and avoid cliches, generalizations, and „film babble". Ask yourself: Have I explained my point clearly and concisely? Have I made myself understood? Are all the terms I‘ve used defined by examples?

• See Corrigan‘s Chapter 5 for more great film paper tips.























Finding books on German film

Here‘s the University of Houston‘s very comprehensive list of German film books:

University of Washington Library

(Use the directors‘ and actors‘ names, „film", or „German film" as keywords, for example)


Some books from the UW library:

Corrigan, Timothy. A Short Guide to Writing About Film, 3rd edition. New York: Longman, 1998.

Corrigan, Timothy. New German Film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Elsaesser, Thomas. New German Cinema. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

Frieden, Sandra, ed. Gender and German Cinema Volume 1: Gender Representation in New German Cinema. Providence: Berg, 1993.

Frieden, Sandra, ed. Gender and German Cinema Volume 2: German Film History/German History on Film. Providence: Berg, 1993.

Linville, Susan E. Feminism, Film, Fascism. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Rentschler, Eric. West German Film in the Course of Time. Bedford Hills: Redgrave Publishing Company, 1984.

Silberman, Marc. German Cinema. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995.


*** See also Cinema Books, a bookstore in the U-District, at 4753 Roosevelt, near the Seven Gables theater.***









Links to German film Web sites:


To look up a movie and get basic information about it, check out the

Internet Movie Database.

It‘s the largest, most comprehensive one I‘ve found.

This site has a lot of specific information on German movies, actors, and more.

Another good general database is the All Movie Guide.

At Yahoo!‘s film and movie page, you‘ll find links to sites on all aspects of film.

Here‘s the University of Pennsylvania‘s film studies resource list.

The German-Hollywood Connection: A Chronology of the Cinema in Germany and Elsewhere.

The Internet Source Book for Early German Film

The Deutsches Filminstitut Web site will have an English version soon.

Check out their Film- and Bild- archive.























(Some) German film directors (**= women directors)

Herbert Achternbusch

Robert van Ackeren

Percy Adlon

**Claudia Alemann

Walter Bockmayer

Hark Bohm

Peter F. Bringmann

**Jutta Brückner

Alf Brustellin

Jor Buttgereit

Hellmuth Costard

**Doris Dörrie

**Harriet Eder

Ingemo Engström

Harun Farocki

Rainer Werner Faßbinder

Eberhard Fechner

Peter Fleischmann

**Katja von Garnier

Hans W. Geissendörfer

Marcel Gisler

Wolf Gremm

Peter Handke

Reinhard Hauff

Werner Herzog

Jochen Hick

Andrew Horn

Peter Kern

Erwin Keusch

Roland Klick

Alexander Kluge

Theodor Kotulla

Vlado Kristl

Norbert Kückelmann

Thomas Kufus

Fritz Lang

Klaus Lemke

Peter Lilienthal

Ernst Lubitsch

**Marianne Lüdcke

**Elfi Mikesch

F.W. Murnau

Werner Nekes

Max Ophuls

**Ulrike Ottinger

G.W. Pabst

Wolfgang Peterson


d Philipp

Emiliano Piedra

**Rosa von Praunheim (transvestite man)

**Dana Ranga

Edgar Reitz

Leni Riefenstahl

Christian Rischert

Gil Rossellini

**Erika Runge

Ottokar Runze

**Helke Sander

**Helma Sanders-Brahms

Johannes Schaaf

Ulrich Schamoni

Niklaus Schilling

Christopher Schlinensief

Volker Schlöndorff

Daniel Schmid

Eckhart Schmidt

Werner Schroeter

Peter Sehr

Bernhard Sinkel

Robert Siodmak

Douglas Sirk

**May Spils

Manfred Stelzer

**Ula Stöckl

Jean-Marie Straub

Hans-Jürgen Syberberg

Rudolf Thome

**Monika Treut

**Margarethe von Trotta

Tom Tykwer

Michael Verhoeven

Martin Walz

Wim Wenders

Klaus Wildenhahn

**Bettina Wilhelm

William Wyler

Christian Ziewer