Film Screening: An Image of India

From the German point of view, India has been a distant but important point of reference, a place of longing, since the beginning of the 19th century. Ethnological collections in German museums, with their enormous holdings on South and South-East Asia, reflect this interest in Indian culture. The aim of scientifically recording it, explaining it and making it accessible to a local audience was also pursued by ethnographic instructional films of the early 20th century. One such film, the newly digitized short documentary Indiens steinerne Wunder or India’s Stone Wonders (1934) from the Federal Archives in Berlin, is the starting point for a discussion about the visual appropriation and handling of Indian cultural heritage.

The film accompanies the director and author Heinz Karl Heiland on his last trip to India, as the opening credits announce. Heiland, who was known as the author of travel literature and educational films, is presented as the protagonist of a didactic expedition and as a connoisseur of ancient Indian temple architecture and its “form language” in parts of Southern India, among other places. From a post-colonial point of view, the double constriction of the camera catches the eye: On the one hand, it is guided by the authoritative research personality to focus on an ancient, historically distant India. On the other hand, the temple complexes Heiland captivated on his film reels are doubly framed and explained, through the filmmaker’s gestures as well as with the help of a commentary voiceover. However, despite this restrictive perspective, there are also traces of those contemporary infrastructure that made the filming possible in the first place: the production team’s car in the field, the anonymous local carriers of the equipment, or passersby and residents who are drawn into the narrative of the picturesque ruins.

What image of India was produced and what kind of knowledge was to be conveyed to the newsreel audience? In what ways does the film draw a connection between the reality of life in India and Germany? Does the image that was formed of India within the framework of such formats reveal anything about the German self-image or its claim to power on a global political level during the 1930s? How do we deal with difficult heritage today?

Following the film screening, the guests will discuss the film from the perspective of their respective research fields and enter into a conversation with the audience.

Johanna Függer-Vagts and Tanya Talwar (HU Berlin)

In discussion
Eva Ehninger (HU Berlin)
Henning Engelke, art historian and film scholar. He is a Heisenberg Fellow of the German Research Foundation at the Institute for Media Studies, Philipps-Universität Marburg.
Habiba Insaf, doctoral researcher at Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH), Berlin. Her PhD is funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.

Date: 6 May 2022
Time: 6.00–7.30 p.m. (CET)
Location: Babylon Kino, Berlin