[ Hauptseite | Film ]

2. Films critical of society

Table of contents

1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
2. The Remains of the Day (1993)
3. Forrest Gump (1994)
4. The Truman Show (1998)
5. American Beauty (1999)
6. Erin Brockovich (2000)

1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

The film is based on the novel by Harper Lee, which was first published in 1961 and which won an overnight recognition as a criticism of racial inequality and as a plea for social justice; for a long time, it has been an obligatory literary text for American high school students. As far as I know, there is only one monograph which recommends using the motion picture directed by Robert Mulligan for Foreign Language Teaching (FLT):

Mejia, Elizabeth A./O'Connor, Frederick H., Five Star Films. An Intermediate Listening/Speaking Text. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1994.

This includes: 'Dances with Wolves', 'Gone with the Wind', 'Casablanca', 'When Harry Met Sally' and 'To Kill a Mockingbird'. A review of the chapter dealing with Robert Mulligan's film (pp. 51-78) is presented in the following.

The book is based on the assumption that "the visual impression of film is important to complete the learner's experience with language" (p. VII). Although the authors maintain that the book is not to be put into use on short notice, they start with suggestions for practical procedure right from the beginning.

For warming-up, the authors recommend reading Dr. Martin Luther King's famous speech "I Have a Dream" (1963). In this context it is useful to remember that Harper Lee's novel was published in 1961 and that Robert Mulligan's motion picture came out in 1962, which may point to a possible connection between (filmed) fiction and politics in the 1960s. As a next step, some key terms from the film are introduced, including also elements of colloquial/informal English and slang forms such as "ain't", meaning "am not, is not, are not". This is followed by the task to complete a defective dialogue: that is, students, in pairs or small groups, write the contributions of one partner in it, which means that a comprehension check goes together with productive language practice. On the whole, these preparatory activities for the students are acceptable.

Next, the authors deal with the following six scenes:
1) Jem and Dill talk about Boo Radley;
2) Atticus and Ewell outside the courtroom;
3) The children near the Radley house;
4) The dining room at the Finch home;
5) The mad dog;
6) Atticus and Jem at the Robinsons.

This is a selection which is arbitrary somehow and therefore provokes two critical questions:
1) Why is no scene chosen which focuses on Jean Louise (Scout) Finch, from whose perspective, after all, most events both in the book and the film are related?
2) Why do the authors neglect all the scenes inside the courtroom? Atticus's final speech in court is generally regarded as the most significant scene in the author's plea for racial equality. However, one has to bear in mind that the analysis of the scenes chosen is to prepare the students to watch the complete movie rather than to discuss it systematically (p. VII). Before the students watch the whole film, they are told that the issue of race and racial discrimination is the central moral dilemma in To Kill a Mockingbird (p. 76).

As to the suggestions for classroom procedure, most of them are familiar ones. Again and again, the students are paired or put in small groups. They have to watch and to listen to the scene under consideration once or twice or to view it with the sound off. In the latter case, they are asked to produce so-called "action scripts". If understanding proves to be too difficult, the teacher could make use of the scripts offered in the appendix (pp.153-155). More or less regularly, watching a scene is followed by a comprehension check: the students have to undergo a cloze test or to do another kind of a fill-in-exercise for example. At the same time, there is ample use of the time-honoured question-and-answer technique and discussions in class. In order to promote the productive skills, the students are expected to write and to perform short role plays, or to write group reports of particular scenes, or to write and to tell each other stories from their own lives. Finally, the students who liked this film are advised to see other films about racial issues in the American South, such as In the Heat of the Night (1967), Roots (1977), Mississippi Burning (1988).

On the whole, the methodological suggestions follow traditional lines, and the level achieved is intermediate at best. I very much doubt whether this chapter is of much benefit for experienced teachers.

There is also one internet publication which may be helpful for the teaching of this film:

US Embassy Moscow/English Language Office (eds.), American Values through Film. Lesson Plans for English Teaching and American Studies, 2006.

This is a CD-Rom collection by ELT colleagues in Russia, which is meant to integrate films into the classroom. The texts of this CD may be downloaded from the following site in the internet:


It deals with seven American motion pictures; Robert Mulligan's film To Kill a Mockingbird is one of them.

This production, which was in black and white and released in 1962, received two Oscars for the best actor (Gregory Peck) and the best screenplay. The CD collection, however, does not aim at systematic film analysis: its contributions deal with different sections from the film only. That is, no more than partial aspects are discussed: sometimes the clips are used as supplementary video material in different contexts. This clearly shows that films are not regarded as teaching subjects in their own right, and the didactic and methodological suggestions are not only for FLT either, but for Sociology, History, Legal English and other subjects, too.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic trial film in the first place, thus political aspects such as the federal court system, stereotyping, prejudice, racism in the United States may be discussed in class. These aspects have to be understood against the background of the Depression era in the American South; film scenes are used as a vehicle for the discussion of American values, for example tolerance as a social, cultural and religious term. A popular illustration is provided by Atticus's final speech in court.

Another focus is on parent-children-relationships. One has to keep in mind that most of the novel is written from Scout's or Jem's perspective, and, in the film as well, the camera shows many events from the children's point of view. For them it is quite natural to ask many questions which are answered by their father Atticus with never-ending patience. His methods of education, his parenthood values are also an integral part of classroom procedure in this collection. Very often pre-, while- and post-film activities belong to the lesson plans.

The medium film is also to be used for the improvement of the learners' four basic skills. Again and again, there are presentations of key vocabulary, the students are asked to find synonyms and antonyms as well as to collect pros and cons in a controversy. True-false-statements are used for a comprehension check, but there are also more demanding tasks such as writing an essay or a film review. Moreover, the students are expected to answer guiding questions or to develop character sketches with the help of grids. Undoubtedly, the passages selected for instruction purposes have a large potential for discussion; a development of the students' web search skills may help them to form an opinion of their own.

And, as might be expected, the gamut of methodological devices also includes creative tasks. Thus, for example, the students are expected to write a role play in which they are the members of the jury and to discuss the case of Tom Robinson before they pass their final verdict on him. To my mind, this is a task particularly attractive because it is left to the students' imagination to fill a gap in the structure of the film (which may also be found in the novel). In such a case, instruction leaves sufficient room for independent students' work. As to the interpersonal dimension, students' activities also imply work in pairs and in groups. Solutions/keys to the exercises/suggested answers are rarely given.

Thus the authors offer different modules for instruction in varying contexts. As a result, their contributions are anything else but a systematic teaching model: there are even many examples of repetitions and overlappings. Partial aspects and details, then, have to be pieced together by the teachers in order to adapt these suggestions to their own teaching purposes. However, it cannot be called in doubt that all contributions provide practitioners with stimulating reading.

Anyone who is interested in using selected scenes both from the novel by Harper Lee and the film by Robert Mulligan for instructional purposes may consult the following contribution:

Baltes, Sabine : "To Kill a Mockingbird: Einsatzmöglichkeiten des filmischen Originals im Unterricht der Sekundarstufe II", (1998).

2. The Remains of the Day (1993)

This film, which is based on the novel of the same title by Kazuo Ishiguro, is a very impressive one featuring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, its director being James Ivory. Its year of release was 1993, and ten years later, it was recommended for foreign language teaching purposes by Jens Hildebrand, who is the author of the comprehensive and valuable monograph entitled Film: Ratgeber für Lehrer. He thinks it is possible to use this film in form 10, or possibly already in form 9 (p. 22): to my mind, this would be much too early.

Hildebrand's idea is that the film The Remains of the Day may be used for historical learning: the figure of the butler Stevens is used as a tool for illustrating "history personalized" (p. 22). Lord Darlington, the butler's master, felt that Germany, after the end of World War I, was treated unfairly, and because of this standpoint, he tried to influence British foreign policy. After World War II, however, he was accused of trying to appease the Nazi regime, and his castle Darlington Hall was described as a "traitor's nest" by the British press (p. 22).

Stevens does not accept such criticism. All his life long, he controlled his emotions, since loyalty to his master was of prime importance for him: "I was his butler. I was there to serve him, not to agree or to disagree". That means he does not want to reflect on his own role in critical terms. His female colleague, Miss Kenton once asks him: "Why do you always have to hide your feelings?" This is a question Stevens is hardly able to answer convincingly, thus her feelings for him are never taken seriously.

The film is now available on DVD: with this modern medium it is always possible to use English subtitles to ease comprehension (p. 22), but strictly speaking, such a procedure implies that the film is too difficult to understand: if the learners are offered subtitles, most of them will prefer reading rather than listening, that is, quite naturally, they will take the line of least resistance. There can be no doubt about the fact that both the novel and the film put heavy demands on the students.

Besides, Hildebrand does not offer an explanation for his standpoint that "personalized history" is relevant for the FLT curriculum. What is even more, it seems difficult to build a bridge from the novel's or the film's major characters to the students' experience of life: they can find neither identification models nor role models.

The Remains of the Day is ambitious and enjoyable both as written fiction and as filmed fiction (as to a brief characterization of the novel see "Schwerpunkt Roman, Knapptexte 7"). But I doubt whether it is a good choice for learners of foreign languages, particularly for 15 to 16-year-old adolescents it would be far from being an ideal one. Even if the teacher decides to use a successive progression in the presentation of the film ("Methode des verzögerten Sehens"; cf. p. 22) and even if he makes use of the photocopiable worksheets offered by the author (pp. 26-28), many difficulties are likely to arise in class. If the English teacher is interested in historical subjects, in my opinion, Red Dust is a more attractive film, but, this, of course, relates to another epoch and a different country.

Jens Hildebrand, "Historisches Lernen im Englischunterricht am Beispiel des Spielfilms 'The Remains of the Day'", in: Praxis Schule 5-10, Heft 3 (2003), pp. 22-27.

3. Forrest Gump (1994)

In this film the American Dream is dealt with much more directly than in American Beauty, which will be discussed below. Forrest Gump is the story of a naive and handicapped boy with an lQ of 75, who tells his own life. As he makes several fantastic careers, he becomes success personified: the concept of the American Dream, then, is successfully parodied. The role of Forrest Gump is brilliantly acted out by Tom Hanks while Robert Zemecki is the director of the film. It was released in 1994 and may now be had on DVD. There are several didactic publications which help the teacher to make use of this film in the foreign language class.

It was recommended for instructional purposes as early as 1997, i.e. ten years ago (cf. Offenburger, note 1 below). In this paper the motion picture was described as a tour of modern American history, which, among other things, included the Blacks' struggle for equality, information about Dr. M. Luther King as well as the struggle for desegregation in schools and universities. All this is linked up to Forrest Gump's chronology. In addition, the user is offered several worksheets, which will certainly be welcome to the teacher. All in all, the teaching unit worked out here takes six class hours including the viewing of the film.

This was followed by another didactic contribution in 2000 (cf. Porteous-Schwier/Ross, note 2 below). These authors also deal with the film as a subject in its own right, and differentiate between pre-, while- and post-reading activities, a distinction which has become a very popular one by now. After viewing the first scene the students are expected to verbalize their expectations concerning the content of the film. Then the following aspects serve as shaping principles for classroom procedure: (1) Forrest's childhood and adolescence, (2) his war experiences in Vietnam, (3) his after-war experiences, and (4) his life with Jenny and the end of the plot.

In order to finish the film's analysis, the authors suggest including the discussion of a review, an excerpt of which is used for testing purposes. This procedure very much resembles that which is recommended in the only fully developed teaching model concerning this film (cf. below). It is Graham Wilson who is the author of the following review.

Kornelius Nelles/Karsten Witsch, 'Forrest Gump', Film Analysis. EinFach Englisch Unterrichtsmodell. Paderborn: Schöningh, 2002.

It is not easy to write material for films which have become classics of our time: the elements of anticipation, guesswork and viewing comprehension are probably not as effective as usual because many pupils will already know the film. Forrest Gump has become such a film. Nevertheless, some teaching guides have been published in journals already (cf. below), and the Schöningh series of models has added the film to its repertoire.

Unfortunately, the authors do not present a very good case for dealing with the film in class as their considerations for teaching the film are limited to one page and their concept for the model fills just a little over one page. The arguments they mention for using the film are weak: to cover the stipulations of the Richtlinien and to be integrated into teaching sequences such as "American Dream" or "Visions, values, traditions, attitudes". They do not give reasons why they feel it could be integrated into "Black Americans" (unless they are thinking of Forrest’s friendship with the African American Bubba) or "Minorities". They also reason that the film has a humourous and exciting look at post-World War Two American history, a point which others have also made in journal articles, for example Offenburger.(1) They recommend a successive progression through the film, and the model splits the film into four more or less equal parts: Forrest’s childhood and adolescence, his war experience, his post-war experience and his social career. A fifth unit (called "component" in the Schöningh series) deals with "post-viewing activities".

The preliminary material does not convince either. There is a somewhat superficial list and description of the five main characters, 17 lines concerning the content of the film (most pupils will know this already), just over one page dealing with "the film and the novel by Winston Groom" (which in fact turns out to explain the sales figures of the book, a brief Tom Hanks biography, a brief Winston Groom biography and two paragraphs about the success of the film), plus a detailed, four-page scene-by-scene synopsis of the film with timer settings based on the "standard video version", which the authors admit has been based on another source.

Also at the beginning of the model are the written tests. I have pointed out elsewhere (see my review of Thaler's model on Dead Poets Society, "films dealing with school life ..., no. 2" ) that this practice is pedagogically unsound since testing should be adapted to teaching and not the other way round. The first test involves viewing comprehension of an early scene in the film in which Forrest breaks free of his leg braces with summary and description (including discussion of cinematographical elements such as camera work, sound track and character arrangement) plus an interesting choice of text production involving either a letter or a dialogue. The second test follows the same pattern for a different scene, namely a five-minute sequence from Forrest’s Vietnam experience. There is also an additional assignment with an extract of a veteran telling Time Magazine what the war was really like – the pupils have the interesting task of comparing this with the ironical way the film portrays the war. However, I personally ask myself why on earth the two written tests both deal with scenes from the first 45 minutes of a 130-minute film!

Throughout the book, the authors stress that they have written an introduction to film analysis (e.g. "das vorliegende Unterrichtsmodell … versteht sich als eine Einführung in die Filmanalyse", p. 19), this taking into account the effect it has on the viewer. But this brings me to my main criticism: the book is anything but an introduction to film analysis, and the great majority of the tasks could be used for a written text just as well. There is not one single page of vocabulary for film analysis, the pupils are almost never told how to talk about the relevance of and connection between camera angles and field sizes, cuts, music and sound effects, narrative techniques, character combinations. If you want this for the film Forrest Gump, then you have to look elsewhere, but the authors do not tell you where – as is often the case with the Schöningh series, bibliographical details are kept to a painful minimum.

There are some elements which could be understood as film analysis. The film is introduced by a look at the film poster and the expectations it might arouse, except that the pupils will no doubt have seen the film already. The analysis of the opening scene with its collecting of as many details as possible and the discussion of the relevance of the feather could be regarded as film analysis in the broadest sense of the word, but unfortunately there is no attempt to discuss cinematographic details except the comment that the feather is a computerised technique. Section 1.4 ("How to present characters in a film") concentrates on the first scene in the school bus and asks the pupils to look at how the way Forrest is presented in the scene reflects his character. As possible answers the learners might point out the close relationship to his mother, his self-confidence despite his handicap, the fact that the "camera moves with Forrest, mostly full shot or medium close-up, jump cuts between Forrest and woman driver".

In addition, the film techniques which underline the relevance of the relationship between Jenny and Forrest are to be discussed ("interruption of film sequence", "Forrest’s facial expressions", his opening comment, Jenny’s asking directly about Forrest’s handicap, "camera with jump cuts" and "change to romantic music") – the quotations are from the authors’ indication of the answers the teacher can expect, but where the pupils get this knowledge and how the teacher should help the pupils to these answers is not considered (despite the fact that this is intended to be an introduction to film analysis).

The same is true for the answers expected to the discussion of other scenes, such as the so-called "Drilling Scene" or the Vietcong attack. For the scene in which Forrest says goodbye to Jenny, pupils are asked to look at camera work, the soundtrack, character arrangement and the effect these might have on the viewer (pp. 47-49), but again with no help for the pupils, only the help for the teacher concerning what the authors think he can expect to hear. In component 5 (Post-Viewing Activities) the pupils are taught very carefully how to write a film review, with a photocopiable review by Scott Renshaw and a page of a step-by-step list of "how to write film reviews" – but to me this is text production and not film analysis. There is also a "comparison with a book segment", in which one could expect to compare a scene from the book and the way it is produced on the screen in the film – but this is merely sloppy formulation on the part of the authors: the pupils are expected to transform the text (with Forrest’s typical Southern State elements – not mentioned by the authors) into Standard English. There is then the question concerning "which aspects of Forrest’s self-portrait from the novel" (a 22-line extract!) "can be applied to Forrest in the film".

It may be that you will by now be thinking me a pedant, but if one buys a teaching model which claims to be an introduction to film analysis, that is what one should get. Teachers should also get well-formulated and precise teaching material and questions for their pupils. As Forrest says "Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get". This seems top be true for teaching material as well. A reviewer should also be careful when discussing the matter of influences of other work, but I do get the impression that some of the background elements and those involving film analysis in this model are also very much like material published in journals elsewhere (cf. below).

On the plus side, there is certainly interesting additional material here – song texts, reviews, internet and encyclopedic background information. There is also a varied supply of tasks for the pupils – collecting details of scenes, writing dialogues and letters, gap-filling activities, true-false-statements, etc. Most of these are related to the content of the scenes and could, as I have already said, refer to a written text. There is also the debate as to whether Forrest is an American hero, a very good activity with a good list of pros and cons for the teacher; and there is the discussion of the final scene and what the pupils think will happen to young and old Forrest (almost a "Forrest Gump, Part II"). The section dealing with film reviews is also good – see above.

For the historical background, the authors suggest that the pupils prepare 10-minute (maximum!) presentations on the topics "the United States and the Vietnam War", "the Hippie Movement of the 70s" and the "idea of the American Dream" before watching the film, but there is no indication as to where the pupils might find these facts. The presentation concerning the Vietnam War is somewhat wasted because the Hutchinson Encyclopedia entry is printed later in the model (pp. 34-35) and is obviously intended to be photocopiable material; the same is true for an internet entry to the Hippie movement (pp. 45-46).

All in all, then, this is not a volume I would recommend.

(1) Linda Offenburger, "'Forrest Gump'. A Guided Tour of Modern American History", in: Englisch betrifft uns (1997), Heft 3, pp. 8-15.

(2) Gunthild Porteous-Schwier/Ingrid Ross, "Life is but a dream? Der Film 'Forrest Gump' im Englischunterricht der Jahrgangsstufe 11", in: Neusprachliche Mitteilungen aus Wissenschaft und Praxis 53 (2000), pp. 29-38.

Graham Wilson

In 2002, still another article was published (cf. Hagemann below) which really focused on the analysis of this film. The author deals with such aspects as camera work, narrative technique, cuts, film music and develops stimulating ideas for 7-12 lesson plans. In doing so she starts from the assumption that a previewing of the whole film, either in public or privately at home is necessary; this is a recommendation which is still rather unorthodox. Moreover, she offers a selected lists of films for analysis in class.

Silke Hagemann, "Stationenlernen zum Film 'Forrest Gump'", in: Der fremdsprachliche Unterricht - Englisch 36, Heft 57/58 (2002), pp. 42-47.

4. The Truman Show (1998)

This film's director is Peter Weir, who also directed the motion picture Dead Poets Society . It was released in 1998, and, like Matrix, it presents a portrayal of man's manipulation. In Matrix, there is a manipulation by a computer programme so that mankind exists in a virtual reality. However, in this work the title hero Truman Burbank lives in a large film studio, in a pseudo-world called Seehaven. In it a permanent TV show is produced, that is, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, which serves the entertainment of the masses. The protagonist has been secretly observed by about 5,000 cameras all his life long. This has been the case for 30 years so that at the beginning of the film The Truman Show number 10,909 is coming out. Truman's life is something like everlasting reality TV.

When viewing the film, you do not only see the title hero but also many people from the audience, the film crew and Christof, the director of the show himself. At one point, the protagonist gets suspicious of the fact that he is being observed by a camera, and so the viewer gradually realizes what is going on in the film and what its intention may be like. Of course, 'Truman' may be considered as a telling name which, on the one hand, is to be understood quite literally because there is an authentic representation of his life by the camera. On the other hand, it also takes an ironic tinge because the protagonist's manipulation is so strong that it is incompatible with man's freedom.

Since 2002 a complete teaching model has been available (cf. note below); the teacher may also buy the text of the screenplay annotated for instructional purposes (cf. also note below). Because of its subject the film is a very topical one, an impressive warning of the future, which also implies social criticism.

Peter Bruck starts his publication by presenting some didactic and methodological considerations concerning film analysis (pp. 4-6). He draws attention to the fact that full-length films play a different role from that which used to be the case a few years ago. In several parts of our country, films have become obligatory teaching subjects in the new Foreign Language curricula. This means that media literacy or film literacy has become an important teaching aim. Thus it is impossible for the students to stick to a passive consumer's role any longer.

The methodological problems set in when the teacher has to decide whether to use an uninterrupted presentation of the film at the beginning or at the end of a comprehensive teaching unit or whether s/he prefers to split its presentation into different segments. Bruck pleads for a stop-and-go procedure and lexical pre-teaching in order to ease comprehension. Moreover, he differentiates between pre-, while- and post-viewing activities and recommends an introduction of film terminology so that the students may learn how to interpret a film as something that is more than the sum of its parts.

The lesson plan for The Truman Show is meant to cover about 15-18 lessons. It may be combined with those excerpts from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 which show how people have become an integral part of a TV show. Or it may be combined with the short novel Being There by Jerzy Kosinski (also edited by Peter Bruck), in which a naive gardener is pushed by the media against his will and becomes the candidate for President of the United States (pp. 8-9). (Both novels are summarized on this website: cf. "Schwerpunkt Roman, Knapptexte 6" and "Schwerpunkt Roman, Knapptexte 7".)

In order to facilitate the teacher's work the author offers a so-called film index which divides the whole film (length: 93 minutes) into 63 scenes, which again are arranged in five sequences (pp. 10-14). Up to this point I would call this book "teacher's delight".

Then something happens in this publication that is not really plausible. The author states it is sensible to proceed to the problem of lexical pre-teaching on two levels. The first refers to a semantic field concerning "real/unreal" and its synonyms: it is the students' homework task to collect them from a defining dictionary, and the results are written on the blackboard. This is a possible first step since the distinction between "real" and "unreal" is important for an understanding of the film (p. 14).

Next vocabulary lists for the five sequences of the film occur in the book (pp.15-16). These obviously fulfil a function similar to annotations in a literary text. They may be handed out to the students or introduced in class before the presentation of the corresponding scenes; however, they are neither explained in English nor translated into German. Then three different pages follow, which may be used as worksheets for the students and which - probably for reasons of attractiveness - are called copymasters (pp. 17-19). The terms concerning camera work are very well visualised, the glossary of film terms is arranged in five diagrams, each of which contains a semantic field. This is very nice and attractive learning material, but the reader does not get any suggestions for practical classroom procedure. It may be assumed that these pages refer to the second level of pre-teaching lexical items, but this is never stated in the teacher's book. Only the very first step of the teaching model, then, is described in terms of methodology.

Almost the whole rest of the publication is continued in the same way: for every sequence, there are copymasters (all in all, 15 pages of them; cf. pp. 17-31), which consist of viewing tasks for the learners, yet it is for the teacher to decide what use to make of them.

Probably no didactician will assume that each single scene of the film is viewed closely. In class, as a rule, some kind of selective procedure has to be practised. Bruck does not offer any criteria that help to decide which scenes should be selected for which purposes or may possibly be neglected because of time constraints for example. So it is left to the teacher and perhaps also to the learners to decide what is going to be the shaping principle of this teaching unit. The book probably offers more material than the teacher can use and the learners digest. Yet one may argue that the success of in-depth study and discussion depends on appropriate assignments.

As to the quality of the viewing tasks it is obvious that they refer to the actors (facial expression, body language), to the events, to the setting, to camera movement (to technical terms as well as to their effects), etc.: the list of tasks, which are sometimes supplemented by helpful stimuli or charts, is quite impressive. Most of them are closed questions and sub-questions rather than open assignments so that the correct answers may be given with reference to details of the film (oral work).

It is different with the post-viewing tasks which often imply text production, imaginative extensions and different text forms: in this case, of course, the tasks are more open, and, as a consequence, there is a large scope for possible answers. Anyhow, it is easily imaginable that the questions both for oral and written work may be successfully used for classroom work.

I can imagine that teachers will respond to this concept in two different ways. Some will probably be happy about the enormous amount of material offered and be gladly willing to derive their own lesson plans from it. Others will be disappointed because there are not any teaching suggestions so that they have to take all the methodological decisions by themselves. One possible procedure may be to use the following steps: 1) lexical pre-teaching on two levels, 2) presentation of the film scenes, and 3) discussion of the viewing tasks. This is very much reminiscent of a methodological procedure concerning full-length literary texts which has become obsolete by now, namely to use the time-honoured question-and answer technique only in order to organize classroom work. If this takes place more or less regularly, there can be no doubt that very easily monotony will be the result.

However, when describing pre-, while-, and post-viewing activities, Bruck makes some suggestions how to achieve variety in class. As one possibility he mentions silent viewing, that is the students have to watch a scene without sound so that they concentrate on the movements of the camera and the actors and try to work out what they might say. Another possibility is to use creative writing tasks, such as writing a diary entry, a dialogue or a conversation, an interior monologue of a character, newspaper articles (editorials, letters to the editor), a summary or a review of the film under consideration, etc. Practically in this field, there are no limitations to the teacher's imagination to aim at variety in class.

In addition the author offers three subjects for project work which are all based on information from the internet (p. 37), namely "The Critical Reception of the Truman Show", "Voyeurism and the Internet", "Voyeurism and Television". There may be individual work, team work, or group work, but in any case, research work on the world wibe web should take place in order to get topical information.

The rest of the book consists of suggestions for four test papers (pp. 32-37), of possible solutions for all viewing tasks (pp. 38-45) and for the written tests (pp. 45-47). It seems that all of them are precisely to the point. Since they are written in flawless English, they will help the teacher a great deal.

To conclude: Bruck offers a teacher's resource book with a sound theoretical foundation. It focuses on lexical problems in dealing with film analysis. The book contains more than sufficient material for the teachers to draw upon, but it is left to them to develop their own lesson plans for classroom procedure. As a whole, the present publication is certainly highly recommendable.

Peter Bruck, 'The Truman Show', ein Film von Peter Weir. Unterrichtshinweise und Kopiervorlagen. Stuttgart: Klett, 2001.

With Klett it is also possible to buy an annotated script of this film: Andrew Niccol, 'The Truman Show'. An Original Screenplay (Lernmaterialien). Stuttgart: Klett, 2000.
Of course, this can be used in order to support film comprehension and analysis.

5. American Beauty (1999)

This film was produced in 1999 and directed by Samuel Alexander Mendes, who got the script from Steven Spielberg. It depicts life in an American suburb and introduces quite an interesting constellation of characters. Although it is hard to classify, it contains, undoubtedly, a large potential for discussion. Since it got several Academy Awards, the film became very successful. To the best of my knowledge, there is only the following fully developed teaching model on the market:

Wiltrud Frenken/Angela Luz/Brigitte Prischtt, 'American Beauty'. EinFach Englisch: Unterrichtsmodell. Paderborn: Schöningh, 2001.

In their preliminary reflections for the use of the film in class, which is unfortunately written in German, the authors argue that the film's subject relates to the students' interests, because adolescents can easily imagine the problems of the three teenagers in the film (p. 14). Although this is only one aspect of the film as a whole, to my mind, this argumentation is acceptable since identification with the three teenagers may serve as an emotional access to it.

The authors start from the assumption that their teaching model is based on a DVD version. Therefore, among other things, they offer a survey of the different scenes of the film, 60 in number, which are briefly described in the target language (pp. 7-11). Generally speaking, this is a valuable help for the teachers, since they are enabled to choose any specific scene or a particular sequence of scenes for close viewing in class without any loss of time. However, sometimes the authors' descriptions are unnecessarily vague. To quote but a few examples:

In a preliminary scene, which may be compared to a prologue, the text runs: "Jane Burnham talks about her father" (p. 7). In the film itself, Jane says she hates her father Lester and wants him to be killed by her friend Ricky; this is paralleled in scene 40. Lester's death is also announced by himself in the very first scene of the film itself: these two elements set the tone of the film and foreshadow the protagonist's death right from the beginning. In scene 28, Lester's "drastic measures" (p. 8) against his boss are referred to. However, it is not mentioned that these are clearly criminal since they imply blackmail.
In scene 31, Lester applies for a job at a fast food restaurant (p. 9), but it is important to state that this job for Lester has the lowest responsibility imaginable. In scene 37, it is not true that Mr Fitts is angry about his son's going into his room (p. 9); the serious point is that Ricky touched one of his father's personal treasures, namely a piece of china which belonged to a leading Nazi once.

The model itself, as is usually the case with the Schöningh series of teaching models, consists of five so-called components, namely:

1. Understanding the film
2. The language of film
3. The relationship between Ricky and Jane
4. The relationship between Lester and Angela
5. Film reviews.

All of these will now be described in some detail.

Component 1
The authors present a song, which informs the reader about life in the U.S. 1970s, as a starter for the teaching unit as a whole, for it is this decade that Lester's dreams are about. Then, in several consecutive lessons, the film is shown in four parts which last about 30 minutes each. This seems to be a sensible procedure because during such an amount of time it is easier for the students to concentrate in FLT than to watch a 120-minute film at one sitting. It is true that the authors do not analyse the linguistic problems of the film. Yet by dividing the film into different segments they not only do justice to the difficulty of film comprehension but also enable the students to think in contextual categories of the film when its analysis proper is about to start.

The comprehension of the film is tested with the help of worksheets, which demand the matching of quotations and characters, true-false statements (unfortunately without correction of the false answers), multiple-choice-tasks, closed questions, etc. (p. 30, p. 32, p. 34). As a preparation of the third quarter, the students are asked to imagine what certain scenes may be like. As a preparation of the last part, they are expected to work out an ending. The students' versions are compared to that of the real film (p. 33). In principle this is acceptable, too.

The term American Dream is mentioned in the title of 1.1, but it functions as a mere label. To my mind, it would be preferable to speak about this influential concept at the end of the teaching unit, for example by having a brainstorming session in order to find out what the students know about the American Dream and how their knowledge relates to the film. But this is a point of minor importance, of course.

Component 2
This part deals with an introduction to film terminology, which seems to have become a standard procedure by now; cf. for example Bruck's teaching model about The Truman Show (cf. above), which appeared in the same year with the Klett publishing house. Now there is also Cornelsen software containing an interactive introduction to film analysis which is attached to each of their teaching models.

In the Schöningh model under consideration, the teacher finds a photocopiable page concerning different field sizes for example. The same is true of cinematographic points of view and camera angles. All of them are successfully visualized and applied to one of the first scenes of the film. This sounds recommendable, yet there are also aspects of criticism. Above all these concern comparisons between film and literature, which will be dealt with in a separate paragraph below.

Component 3
Now the film itself is analysed, that is the technical terms of film criticism introduced in the previous component are applied to the Ricky-Jane relationship. The authors plead for a close viewing of 13 scenes out of a total number of 60. Undoubtedly, this is the most comprehensive component of the whole teaching unit. An additional text (a poem) is used in order to draw the learners' attention to the significance of the imagination and the concept of beauty in the discussion of the film. This is meant to contribute to understanding Ricky's search for beauty even when he is filming things like a dead bird or a plastic carrier.

As practical devices for classroom procedure the authors plead for close viewing (for example by presenting a scene several times). They also offer viewing tasks to be found on worksheets (charts/diagrams), recommend group work, classroom discussions, creative tasks when the students, for instance, are told to write an interior monologue or a diary entry. Ricky's and Jane's characterization is to be done with the help of a mind map which has to be filled in; in addition a coherent text about the two is expected from the learning group, examples of which are offered in the model.

The expected answers or the solutions to be found by the learners are listed on separate sheets. It is somewhat disappointing that these are largely descriptive, particularly concerning cinematic devices: their functions are not explained. It becomes clear that the teaching model under consideration is factual rather than functional, descriptive rather than analytical. Although the significance of the terms' functions is emphasized, this demand turns out to be a mere label now. There are only one or two possible exceptions to the rule: the function of over-the-shoulder shots is said to shift emphasis from one person to another (p. 58, p. 59). Later on, the function of alternating shots is said to create tension (p. 74). These statements are so obvious that they are trivial.

From time to time comparative statements referring to film and literature occur which are somewhat disturbing. The authors maintain for example that a voice-over may convey the impression of a first-person narrator in literature (p. 37). Clearly, this is not the case as a voice-over may also be used as an 'objective' comment in literature: it may also be used in omniscient narration. Two pages later there occurs an example of a sweeping generalization when it is claimed that, in a novel or in a short story, the point of view does not change or hardly ever changes (p. 39). Particularly among the novels belonging to young adult fiction, there are quite a number of paradigms which are told from two perspectives, for example from that of a male and that of a female character as in The Pigman by Paul Zindel or in Kathy Stinson's Fish House Secrets. In addition, in Gillian Slovo's novel Red Dust there occur changes of perspectives from chapter to chapter or even within several chapters.
Again, the explanation of a point-of-view shot is misleading: "The scene is shot from a character's point of view, comparable to the third-person narrator in literature. The camera assumes a subjective position." (p. 40) The unfortunate thing is that a third person-narrator in literature very often is an omniscient, i.e. an 'objective' narrator. Later on the authors hunt for structural parallels between the sequence of some arbitrarily chosen film scenes and a classical drama or a short story: in my opinion, this verges on the absurd (p. 76).

Component 4
This is much less comprehensive than the previous one. The teaching model focuses on Jane's best friend Angela and Lester. Again viewing tasks (charts) are recommended, which now concentrate on Lester's day-dreaming. As a methodological variation, a scene is now presented without sound, the students write a script, then read it to the learning group or act it out in front of them. In the decisive scene between Lester and Angela, it turns out that Angela is not a young woman with a lot of sexual activities but an inexperienced virgin. Whenever she boasts of her sexual attractiveness, her behaviour is compensatory. She is a little girl rather than a self-confident young adult and still needs protection by someone like Lester, who, in the ultimate scene, comforts rather than abuses her.

This is where the analysis of the film comes to an end. On the one hand, one can hardly find any attempts to evaluate the different characters, on the other hand, there are also serious gaps in the teaching model as a whole. To begin with, Jane's behaviour may be considered as understandable. In her eyes, her father is a failure: he can certainly be no role model for her. Once she is slapped by her mother, so it is no surprise that she feels attracted by an adolescent like Ricky, and, as a teenager reaction, it is also understandable that she wants to run away from home in such a situation. On the other hand, it should also be discussed by the learners what they think of Ricky, who seems to be an enigmatic character. By nature he seems to be very irascible: once he came close to killing a person and had to spend some time in a mental hospital, but he does not fight back when he is violently beaten by his father. Besides, he is on his search for beauty, just like Lester he smokes pot, becomes a drug dealer, has no guilt feelings about it, claims to be not afraid of death ...
Thus it may be asked whether Ricky is believable as a person and what the students think Ricky's and Jane's future will be like. Ricky says that he knows many people in New York who are going to help him start a career as a drug dealer. This is hardly believable since drug dealers are ruthless competitors rather than helpful friends. Going to New York (cf. Frank Alpine in The Assistant) means going East which is the opposite of the traditional direction in the context of the American Dream of success: this may be evidence of the fact that the American Dream implies unfulfilled promises and that the young people's pursuit of happiness is going to fail.

Neither Lester's and Carolyne's relationship nor that of Lester and Colonel Fitts are dealt with in the teaching model. In the end, Carolyne seems to be determined to murder Lester. She is deeply disappointed by her husband as he is disappointed by her since she is apparently interested in material things only. But it is Colonel Fitts who finally kills his neighbour. His motivation for this does not become clear. He wrongly assumes Lester had sex with his son Ricky, and he pretends to hate homosexual people. On the other hand, he himself tries to kiss Lester, but is pushed back by him. From all these gaps it has to be concluded that in this teaching model Lester as the film's protagonist is neglected.

Component 5
This component turns away from the analysis of the film and deals with a different problem: namely reading, discussing, and writing a film review. By now this has become a recurrent pattern at the end of a teaching unit dealing with feature films; this is also recommended for example by Bruck in his publication about The Truman Show (cf. above) and by Nelles/Witsch in their teaching model concerning Forrest Gump (cf. Wilson's review above).

In component 5 one review is discussed in class, which is admittedly rather difficult, yet it is sufficiently annotated and commentated upon. The authors show how an interpretation of the stylistic devices may be practised in which the knowledge of the technical terms is taken for granted at this advanced level of foreign language learning. In this component, then, film analysis is supplemented by text analysis and text production. The authors offer a photocopiable page for the students how to write a review. This is meant to pave the way for a written test.

Suggestions for testing
As a first possibility the students are confronted with another review which is much easier to understand, and the tasks are probably not too difficult either. As an alternative the authors suggest an analysis of scene 60, that is the final scene of the film which will be presented twice with a temporal distance of ten minutes. This scene shows Lester speaking from beyond the grave voicing his opinion that the viewers of the film will understand him one day and share his feelings about beauty.
The last task of this test, which refers to the American Dream, has not been sufficiently prepared for in the teaching model. Nevertheless the students are expected to find out that Lester's and Carolyne's dreams do not come true, that the teenagers' dreams are very shallow, and that, as a consequence, the film "could not be called a hymn to the American Dream" (p. 22). That is: Frenken, Luz and Prischtt expect personal value judgements concerning the general level of the film that have not been dealt with in their teaching suggestions.

Moreover, the authors never ask what the theme of the film is: they never discuss its values, norms, ideals ... What has become of the American Dream in the 1970s and in the 21st century? What about American society as a whole? What about social life in the suburbs, where people obviously have a lot of money, possess large villas of their own, but in spite of living in luxury are unable to find a proper sense of their lives? Lester's and Carolyne's love for each other died a long time ago. That she commits adultery has no importance whatsoever for Lester. Probably Lester is yearning for love again, yet he turns to day-dreaming, Carolyne has a nervous break-down in the end, Colonel Fitts takes to violent action, the teenagers are more or less unhappy. To say that the film is no hymn to the American Dream is an understatement: as a matter of fact, it is a complete destruction of the American Dream.

In this motion picture, American beauty just means generous villas surrounded by neat gardens. It refers to outward appearances only that are obviously deceptive, and the title of the film has to be understood as irony. It is a fact that no figure in the film has any reliable values any longer; thus it must be said to contain severe social criticism. In my opinion, neither does the film deal with the problems of three adolescents nor with Lester's midlife-crisis only: its implications are much more important.

Probably the authors hope to create motivation by the medium film, yet their model is task-orientated and by focusing on the teenagers' problems only, it is also one-sided. Apart from one statement in the preliminary considerations, the reader does not find any reasons for selecting some scenes and neglecting others. The students are shown the whole film right at the beginning, yet after watching it they are never given the chance of choosing some scenes they would like to speak about. There are no students' talks, no learning by teaching, no attempts to promote learner autonomy. Therefore the model in question may be called feasible, down-to-earth, and close to classroom reality, yet it is anything but student-orientated. Neither is it innovating nor stimulating nor inspiring.

And there are some linguistic errors. First of all, the authors speak of the American Dream in the "70's" ( cf. p. 5 and p. 25). I know that many native speakers are careless in such a case, yet the apostrophe is wrong because we are confronted with a prepositional case rather than with an s-genitive. To my mind, the next mistake would never be committed by a native speaker. In the teaching model there occurs the form accidently (p. 31) rather than the correct adverb accidentally. And there is another serious error in linguistic respect: "As authors in literature, directors also use different points of view in order to tell a story" (p. 39). This means that it is quite normal for film directors also to be literary writers. What, in all likelihood, the authors want to express is that there exists a similarity concerning story telling in written fiction and in filmed fiction. So the correct version should run: "Like authors in literature, directors also use different points of view in order to tell a story." On page 82 in the term methaphor the first "h" has to be deleted.

In one case, I even cannot understand the authors' German. On p. 84 they write: "Es erscheint obsolet, zu dieser Aufgabe eine Musterlösung anzubieten." I wonder whether they know the meaning of the term obsolet in German, which is "veraltet, überholt, nicht mehr gebräuchlich", because I don't see how this meaning fits into the context. Ultimately I feel that in general it would be preferable to have the whole booklet written in the target language so that the permanent code switching between German and English is avoided.

To conclude: this is a teaching model which raises many questions and objections and gives few answers only. It is a publication with many deficiencies which call for a correction or an improvement.

6. Erin Brockovich (2000)

The film Erin Brockovich was released in 2000 and directed by Steven Soderbergh. Julia Roberts, who acted the part of the title heroine, got an Academy Award for the best actress. The film is based on a true story which happened in California and may still be looked upon as a very topical variation of social criticism since it refers to ecological problems.

The protagonist Erin Brockovich, a single mother of three children, discovers a public scandal concerning water pollution, which causes a lot of fatal diseases such as different types of cancer. With the help of a lawyer, she passionately fights for the victims so that the Court awards them sufficient indemnifications and that they can get at least a good medical treatment. All details of the film are certainly difficult to grasp in the foreign language, though its general intention should be clear to everybody. Young adults can certainly identify with Erin and the ethical significance of her attitude, thus finding an easy emotional access to the film.

According to Mühlmann, the film is appropriate for forms 10 or 11, and he speaks of a case where it was chosen by the pupils themselves. He pleads for viewing the whole film as an out-of-class activity (p. 423); the reason for this is that viewing just a few bits prevents the learners from recognizing the over-all reference frame (cf. p. 421f). Certainly this is an idea which is still rarely recommended. However, Mühlmann does not say how the pupils came to choose this film and how this kind of pre-viewing is organized. And he does not say anything either concerning its running time (120 minutes) and its linguistic demands.

In order to have the film discussed in class the author proposes four questions: What is presented? How is it presented? What does it mean? What does it mean to me? This is a familiar set of questions which may be used in class 10 already. After viewing the film Mühlman recommends using a student-centred approach: it is the students themselves who analyse it by group work and then report back to the class (p. 424). In doing so they should use different techniques of presentation. A written test is possible, too.

In this project, film analysis is not just a supplement to textual analysis, it has become a subject in its own right. At present this is the only paradigm in the canon of films suggested for FLT whose main subject is an ecological problem. Therefore it may be warmly recommended, but I would use it with more advanced students. Without any doubt, water-pollution, air pollution, eco-criticism, environmental problems in general will gain in importance in times of the man-made climate change, and it is highly important to sensitize not only the students but also the general public for obviously no less than mankind's survival will depend on it. There is a recent volume edited by Mayer/Wilson which contains many excellent contributions for practical classroom procedure:

Sylvia Mayer/Graham Wilson (eds.), Ecodidactic Perspectives on English Languages, Literatures and Cultures. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2006.

This volume also includes an essay dealing with the use of the catastrophe film 'The Day after Tomorrow' in class, which was released in 2004 and directed by Roland Emmerich.

Cf. Sylvia Mayer, "Teaching Hollywood Environmentalist Movies: The Example of 'The Day after Tomorrow'", in: Sylvia Mayer/Graham Wilson (eds.), Ecodidactic Perspectives on English Languages, Literatures and Cultures (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2006), pp. 105-120.

The didactic considerations put forward in this excellent article, however, are mainly directed at undergraduate university students.

Horst Mühlmann, "Selbstständiges Lernen am Beispiel einer Filmanalyse: Erin Brockovich - a true story", Praxis Fremdsprachenunterricht 1:6 (2004), pp. 421-425.

In 2006 the following interesting publication came out (cf. above):

US Embassy Moscow/English Language Office (eds.): American Values through Film. Lesson Plans for English Teaching and American Studies.

This is a CD-Rom collection by ELT colleagues in Russia, which is meant to integrate films into the classroom. The texts of this CD may be downloaded from the following site in the internet:


All in all, it refers to seven American films, among others also to Erin Brockovich. As it is indicated by the title, this collection does not aim at film analysis itself, but it is meant to discuss American values through the use of motion pictures in class, of which, as a rule, only clips, episodes or fragments are presented.

This implies that there are several contributions which deal with different aspects at different levels and are also meant for different subjects: they do not refer to FLT only, but also to courses in sociology, gender and ecology studies, etc. As to the motion picture Erin Brockovich, there are more than 210 pages of interesting material as well as didactic considerations and methodological suggestions, and there are also many links to interesting websites.

Moreover, one has to bear in mind that this film is based on a true story which happened in the community of Hinkley, California: a compressor station of the Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) corporation was built in 1952 by using toxic chromium in order to prevent corrugation. Its consequences for the health of countless people were felt during the following decades (cf. below), the legal case was finally settled in 1996 only, that is just a few years before the release of the film in March 2000.

In this publication, two thematic aspects are emphasized again and again: on the one hand, environmental problems and, on the other hand, the role of women in civil society. As to the former, one may mention the use of toxic chromium (chromium VI), which results in contaminated groundwater, with negative effects on the lives of birds, animals and human beings: it may cause serious diseases such as chronic asthma, dangerous tumours, kidney disease or heart failure for example. As to the protagonist, one has to realize she is a single parent, who apart from her job and her problems as an individual woman in society, has to care for her three children. Yet she becomes a passionate crusader, a female activist, for the victims of chromium VI: a lot of additional information is offered as background material in which female liberation and ecofeminism are generally described both in American and Russian social contexts. In such cases, a film becomes a starting point and a tool for dealing with political and sociological issues.

As to classroom procedure, practically all authors differentiate between before-watching, while-watching and after-watching activities or at least between pre- and post-film watching tasks. Their common aim is to develop the four basic skills, which means the pre-teaching of essential topical vocabulary, the screening of the film (possibly directed by viewing tasks) and comprehension checks such as true-false statements, multiple-choice tasks, fill-in exercises, jumbled sentences, or matching quotations from the film with items of the key vocabulary introduced, etc.

Dealing with parts of this film implies in-class assignments like answering guiding questions, the use of grids for character sketches or charts illustrating the characters' relationships, the listing of many talking points for discussion. It also includes the use of role plays and interviews, the writing of essays, articles, letters, film reviews, and creative tasks, for example rewriting scenes from a different perspective or follow-up texts of the film, etc.

Work in pairs or in groups is recommended as well as round-table talks. Getting information from English-English dictionaries, reading additional material, using search engines on the internet are popular strategies recommended in order to actively engage the students in the learning process. Project work and structured presentations by the learners are also recommended. Transcripts of rather long individual film scenes are included so that it is possible to apply the so-called sandwich method, i.e. to have the students read the text of scenes chosen before actually viewing them.

All of these contributions make stimulating reading. Yet there is one thing teachers should not expect, namely a coherent and systematic model for teaching the film as a whole. It remains their task to find a shaping principle in order to conceptualize a teaching unit, that is, both to choose their own teaching objectives and to adapt classroom procedure to the level and to the needs of their particular classes.

Last Updated by Dr. Willi Real on Wednesday, 24 October, 2007 at 7:30 PM.

[ Hauptseite | Film ]