A Q and A With Film Critic and Theorist Vinzenz Hediger

News subtitle

The newest Montgomery Fellow studies the rise of cinema in global megacities.

Portrait of Montgomery Fellow Vinzenz Hediger
Montgomery Fellow Vinzenz Hediger, a professor of film studies at Goethe University in Frankfurt, will deliver a public lecture in Loew Auditorium on April 3. (Photo by Katie Lenhart)

Growing up in a small Swiss town with two cinemas, Vinzenz Hediger fell in love with movies at an early age and later became film critic first for BLICK, Switzerland’s largest newspaper, and later, for a shorter period, of Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the country’s equivalent to The New York Times. Pursuing his doctoral degree at the University of Zurich, he crisscrossed America, delving into countless archives to analyze a little-studied genre: the film trailer.

Hediger is also an expert on industrial cinema. More recently, he’s begun to explore how cinema produced in megacities across the globe is challenging Hollywood’s historic dominance.

Formerly the Krupp Foundation Professor for Documentary Film Studies at Ruhr Universität Bochum, Hediger is now a professor of film studies at Goethe University in Frankfurt. He’s spending a month in Hanover as a Montgomery Fellow, team-teaching classes with Associate Professor Film and Media Studies Mark Williams and Ayo Coly, the Class of 1925 Professor of Comparative Literature and African and African American Studies. On April 3, he will deliver a public lecture on African Giants and the American Hegemon

“Vinzenz comes to us from the same institution that gave us Mannheim, Adorno, Fromm, and Marcuse. He more than holds his own among such glittering figures,” says Steve Swayne, the Jacob H. Strauss 1922 Professor of Music and director of the Montgomery Fellows Program. 

In a sun-filled living room at Montgomery House, where he is staying with his wife and two teenage children, Hediger spoke with Dartmouth News about how his childhood infatuation with movies blossomed into a fascination with the way they are made, marketed, and distributed throughout the world.

Dartmouth News: Your father was a painter, and you and your parents and brother spent a lot of time watching movies. So maybe it’s not surprising that you grew up to be a film critic and theorist. Was that a straight or winding path? 

Hediger: I grew up thinking, “OK, cinema matters.” But my first career wish was to be a foreign correspondent. I wanted to be a political journalist. Then both the cinemas in my town closed down. One of them reopened as an art house and started programming interesting off-center underground films that were happening in the ’80s. I was 15 or 16 at the time and went up to the guy who ran it and said, “I’m going to do your press work.” I thought that was my ticket into journalism. I started writing press releases and pre-reviews of some of the films. But the political journalism thing didn’t go out the window entirely. One of the things I understood early on was that cinema was also a political space, that a lot of what was important in society would show up on screen and be discussed there, and in the hands of great artists, be framed in a relevant way. And so I stayed with cinema. It was a teenage love that’s lasted a lifetime.

Dartmouth News: Fast forward to your dissertation on a topic which, up until that time, had rarely been studied.

Hediger: This again goes back to the cinema where I worked as a teenager. The guy who ran it would retain prints of the trailers he liked and would screen them as part of the program. We kept the trailers because they were so great at setting the tone for the main show. I became fascinated by the format and started asking myself how they were made and who made them. As I went to university and branched out into cinema studies, I realized that nobody had ever written about trailers. I thought that was interesting because trailers are in every theater. There are three or four of them in every showing. It’s the main interface of communication between the producers and the audience.

Dartmouth News: What did you learn? 

Hediger: I asked three questions: Are there rules? Do they change? And if so, why? There are rules. It took me a while to figure them out. Prior to the 1970s, the trailers tend to not tell you the story, but just hint or gesture towards it and play up the stars instead. And then suddenly, in the late ’70s you have a massive shift towards the standard model that you now see in theaters, where they tell you who the protagonist is, what their problem is, what the conflict is, and it ends with a cliffhanger. So it’s basically two-thirds of the story condensed into a two-minute film. That’s the type of trailer that people complain about when they say trailers give away too much. But these trailers are designed not just to lure people into the cinema, but to keep those for whom the film is not made out of cinemas. They’re specifically designed to tell you, “This is exactly what you’re going to get. And you want to be careful in making your choice, because if you go see a film that’s not made for you, you will hate it and you will tell your neighbors about it, and you will totally destroy the film’s commercial chances.” So basically, the key medium in film advertising is not the trailer—it’s word of mouth. And you do not want to have disappointed customers saying bad things about your film to their friends and neighbors.

Dartmouth News: You also became interested in industrial films. How do you define that genre?

Hediger: It includes corporate image films, and also documentaries that were produced for the cinema and were not obviously promotional. But if you look at them more closely, they actually are. There’s a fantastic German film called, in English, “Only the Fog Is Gray.” It was produced in 1964 by the Thyssen steel works, and the cinematographer was Sacha Vierny, the French cinematographer who rose to fame through his films with Alain Resnais. That level of artistic achievement was brought in to make a film about their latest modern plant. It was actually a recruitment film because there was a shortage of labor and they were showing this film in cinemas to tell people two things: It’s OK to live in the Ruhr valley, which had a bad reputation for pollution, and it’s better to be working in our steel plant than as a banker or on a construction site, because you’re inside all the time and you have regular hours; you don’t have to get up at 5 in the morning. So that was a targeted piece of corporate communication. But it’s also an artwork. I’m interested in these double missions where there are two logics at work.

Dartmouth News: Do you see your role as film critic—film theorist in this case—to create transparency around films like that, so people know what they’re seeing?

Hediger: Yes. Those are historical documents, but corporations still function in the same way. They want to co-opt popular entertainment, the arts. And if they do so, they usually have some intention behind it.

Dartmouth News: Is Hollywood still dominating the cinema landscape as it did when you were younger? Or are you now questioning American hegemony as you look at the rise of cinema in other countries, such as Nigeria?

Hediger: What got me interested in the Nigerian situation is that Nigeria inherited a film production company from the British and turned it into a national film industry. There were independent filmmakers as well. The National Television Authority was an important producer. They produced sitcoms and soap operas that were hugely popular. And then in the late ’80s, the International Monetary Fund imposed a painful austerity program on the country, the Structural Adjustment Program, because Nigeria’s state finances were considered to be out of whack, and they were forced to cut back wherever they could. The Nigerian government basically shut down the film industry, and almost everything came to a standstill except for state-related documentary filmmaking. That’s when private entrepreneurs stepped in. It was a unique situation where suddenly you didn’t have enough films for an audience that was very interested in films.

Vinzenz Hediger in Montgomery House at Dartmouth
Vinzenz Hediger in Montgomery House at Dartmouth, where he is staying with his family this term. (Photo by Katie Lenhart)

Dartmouth News: So in some sense is Nollywood a kind of replay of the economic shifts that gave rise to Hollywood in the Golden Age of the ’30s?

Hediger: Exactly. I’m always looking at the parallels between the emergence of Hollywood and Nollywood. Nollywood is the term that Nigerians adopted, primarily for their English-language film industry. There are now multiple regional industries, including the Hausa language industry known as “Kannywood” because it has its center in the city of Kano in Northern Nigeria, the largest city in the Sahel. The Pakistani writer Fatima Bhutto wrote a book on the emergent new production centers around the world. She doesn’t cover Nigeria, but she talks about Istanbul, Mumbai, and Seoul. And what we can observe is that in these major new megacities with 15 million or more in population, you have local television and film industries that first cater to the population of those cities and then go beyond national markets into international markets. Turkish television dramas are now hugely popular in South America. Brazilian television dramas used to be popular in Nigeria, and now it’s going the other way. So we have these cultural flows that are really new and made possible by the emergence of digital technology.

What we’re observing is what Bhutto calls the emergence of a new world order of culture of production. In India, people still turn out to watch Indian films almost exclusively, but these films increasingly reach global audiences across East Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe and the U.S.

South Korea is another interesting, complex case. There was a state-controlled industry, and the industry really started to flourish once the state pulled out and only focused on infrastructure and trade frameworks, and gave filmmakers free reign of the topics they chose.

So yes, the ascendancy of Hollywood is being challenged. But Hollywood’s key to market control has never just been production. The key really has been distribution. You have the largest home market in the world: highly affluent, relatively speaking. It’s unevenly distributed, but it’s a rich country, well-educated, technologically advanced. And it’s coherent. It’s got one language and shared cultural values. You can leverage that into global dominance if you have a global distribution network and if you manage to be as accommodating to international audiences as you are to the different groups in the U.S. I don’t see at this point any competitor that has the same kind of reach. Netflix is an American company that creates a lot of the visibility for Korean films, Nigerian films, Indian films. The ascendancy of Hollywood continues through Netflix.

Dartmouth News: What drew you to the Montgomery Fellows program, and what do you hope to give in return to the Dartmouth community?

Hediger: Being here is an enormous privilege. This is the best gig in academia. The house is absolutely wonderful. I’m here with my family. We’re enjoying it, and the people are wonderful. They’re very open and like to tell you stories. I learned in the first week from a conversation with the guy who runs the used record store on Main Street that his grandfather, Orton Hicks, Class of 1921, was once a vice president of Dartmouth as well as a former film distribution executive. Just when I’m particularly interested in the political economy of distribution and culture, I come to a place that used to have a vice president who was a pioneer in 16-millimeter film distribution and then became an MGM executive in the ’50s. Hicks was also instrumental in building the film studies program here. So what I’m finding is that Dartmouth, among all the Ivies, may be the most open to cinema and the most connected to the film industry. That makes me feel right at home.

What I hope to achieve through the Montgomery Fellowship is for the Goethe University of Frankfurt to collaborate more closely with Dartmouth, because we have a lot of overlap. The work we are doing in Nigeria, the work we’re doing in archives, some digital humanities work on film—all that really resonates with what Mark Williams and Ayo Coly, and the African and African American Studies Department, are doing here. I hope our research will be of interest to Dartmouth students and faculty, and that we can make this the cornerstone of a longer-term collaboration.

Hediger’s talk will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 3, in Loew Auditorium.

Charlotte Albright