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Institute of Biomedical Ethics and History of Medicine (IBME) Center for Medical Humanities

Medicine and Film

Bioethics in film

Hardly any medium, hardly any art form can move and touch people so directly and in so many ways as film. And hardly any area of everyday life can affect and challenge people as profoundly and comprehensively as existential crisis and borderline situations, in which bioethical questions and conflicts arise and groundbreaking decisions have to be made for the individual. Just as there is hardly a member of Western societies who is not familiar with films and film viewing, for whom certain films may be of particular individual importance, there is hardly anyone who will find it difficult to measure and understand the subjective implications that bioethical borderline situations can have for the person concerned. In spite of the immediacy and universality that both areas, film and bioethics, connect in a certain way, film still plays a rather subordinate and neglected role in medical and bioethics.
There is a large and growing number of feature films that take up bioethical themes and problem constellations and address them more or less explicitly. This form of pop-cultural thematization, which can include hospital and doctor series produced for television, showing everyday medical life and clinical practice, has now also become the subject of numerous scientific studies. In addition to fictional narratives, filmmakers also repeatedly choose documentary forms to address medical and bioscientific questions. Usually topics of particular socio-political explosiveness with a rather journalistic approach are illuminated and critically questioned, be it to denounce grievances of the public health system (SICKO, USA 2007, Michael Moore), To work through the dark sides of medical history (WENN ÄRZTE TÖTEN, D 2009, Hannes Karnick & Wolfgang Richter) or to present already realised and future scenarios of biomedically assisted reproduction (FROZEN ANGELS, D/USA 2005, Frauke Sandig & Eric Black; GOOGLE BABY, IL 2009, Zippi Brand Frank).


Film in Bioethics

While bioethical topics often appear in films whose main purpose is to tell exciting stories (feature films) or to draw attention to social conditions (documentaries), film is increasingly used in medicine and medical ethics as a medium that is suitable for teaching, training and further education and is a thankful didactic tool. Thus, courses can be introduced and loosened up through the use of film excerpts by showing and discussing film examples. In addition to the media variety and didactic attractiveness, selected film examples can also be used to thematise contents of good medical-ethical relevance, for example by jointly interpreting and evaluating the behaviour of a doctor shown in the film in order to discuss principles and various models of the doctor-patient relationship. Particularly in the USA, the concept of so-called cinemeducation has been pursued for some time in order to bring medical students and doctors closer to ethical aspects of topics such as doctor-patient communication. 

In addition to its use in ethics education, which is limited to the medical and medically related professional sector, film can also play an important role in bioethics on another level, which goes far beyond the training and sensitization of the professional groups involved. This is where a fundamental aspect of film comes into play, which distinguishes the medium as an art form, especially with regard to its reception conditions and logic of effect. Film is a collective medium in a double sense, i.e. both production and production are always teamwork, and distribution and reception always take place in a community – at least in the classic case of cinema attendance. It follows from these structural peculiarities that it is precisely films that enjoy widespread distribution or are at least aimed at a broad audience that can be interpreted as carriers and indicators of socio-cultural basic moods and time-specific interests. In this respect, films represent an important element of cultural self-understanding in modern societies, which inspires cultural psychoanalysis, for example, to read cinematic films as ‘cultural symptoms’, as indicators of deeper socio-cultural sensitivities and changes, thus revealing the depth structure of our current cultural sensitivities. For the role that film can play in bioethical discourse, it follows from all this that the images of illnesses, of doctors, of existential borderline and medical-ethical decision-making situations that can be seen in the cinema reflect both certain sensitivities of the time and society from which they originate, on the one hand, and have a decisive impact on social ideas of and attitudes towards medicine, on the other.

What medical interventions can mean for the individual, how they are understood and assessed by the individual and his or her environment, can hardly be communicated more vividly and clearly than in the form of stories. In stories that a patient tells about his life and experience before, during and after a questionable medical treatment, ambiguous and contradictory aspects become tangible and thus necessary for as comprehensive a treatment as possible.



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