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Coronavirus — seen it all before in a movie?

Jochen Kürten db
August 19, 2020

A film expert looked into how TV series and cinema foreshadowed the COVID-19 pandemic years ago. Here's why we should have been watching more closely.

Film still Phase 7, a man wearing a protective helmet
Image: Koch Media

Should we have seen this coming? Should politicians, scientists and social institutions simply have watched more movies? Haven't numerous pandemic films and TV series in fact shown what happens when diseases spread around the globe at breakneck speed?

These are questions we should deal with even if no one claims that fictional movie and TV material should be used one-on-one to plan the future.

Denis Newiak
Film expert Denis Newiak analzyed various films and TV series about pandemicsImage: Kathleen Friedrich

Pandemic not surprising, says film expert

What most surprised German media and film expert Denis Newiak was how unprepared everyone was, how overwhelmed people were — especially politicians, for example in the US. "It is incredible that people have been watching these kinds of films and series for the past 10 years, but now, they are surprised," Newiak told DW.

While working on his doctoral thesis on loneliness in film and television and the community-building functions of TV series, Newiak also came across the topic of pandemics in film and TV — and wrote a book on his findings: Alles schon dagewesen: Was wir aus Pandemie-Filmen für die Corona-Krise lernen können (It's all been there before: What we can learn from films about pandemics for the coronavirus crisis). The book has just hit the market, a hot topic just months after the outbreak of a pandemic that has not yet run its course.

Pandemics nothing new in film and on TV

It was soon clear this was an "issue that would be relevant at some point, experts have been warning about it for a long time," said Newiak, who has experience working in emergency management and has also worked as a volunteer paramedic.

Film still Contagion, a man and a woman with a backpack in her hand on the street, both wearing face masks
 A classic pandemic film: Steven Soderbergh's 'Contagion' starring Kate WinsletImage: picture-alliance/Everett Collection

After spending countless hours in movie theaters and watching TV, Newiak said he found it "astonishing" "that a pandemic has been played out so vividly on the screen so many times, that millions of people saw the shows — but still the hospitals and the governments ran out of medical-grade face masks so quickly." While he didn't want to accuse anyone in a global crisis, he said, "the films and series should be a warning not to underestimate real dangers and to better prepare ourselves for them while we have the chance."

Argentine film and the subtleties of the face mask

But should we turn to film and TV shows for advice? Can the disaster genre provide concrete models for the planet?

Newiak is convinced that mankind can learn a lot from fictional scenarios — and points out Phase 7, the 2010 satirical film from Argentina about a pandemic that "goes into great detail about the way people handle wearing face masks."

Some characters in the film are taken by surprise by the crisis: "People don't really perceive how the world around them is coming to an end. They put on face masks — just like we sometimes see people today on TV news broadcasts — haphazardly, or not at all, or their noses aren't properly covered." People watching the film two years ago wouldn't have cared about such details, Newiak said, but today, that "takes on a whole new urgency."

The film expert noticed the subtleties in several pandemic films but he also concluded that "the genre deals with larger issues like fake news and conspiracy theories; it looks at how businesses profit from fear and sales of ineffective fake drugs as well as how society increasingly becomes polarized."

'I am Legend': Will Smith in isolation

The 2007 Hollywood blockbuster I am Legend is another good example, according to Newiak. Will Smith plays a man who believes he is the only survivor in New York of a global virus outbreak. How does the character deal with this sudden loneliness?

Pandemic genre films often feature characters that have to come to terms with loneliness, who have to remain isolated and stay home because it's too dangerous outdoors, Newiak said.

Film still I am Legend, a man and a dog look out of a car window
The last man alive in New York: Will Smith and a dog in 'I am Legend'Image: picture-alliance/United Archives

I am Legend shows how the protagonist tries to deal with life as the alleged last person on earth. That may be crass, Newiak said, but "the phenomenon that people suddenly find themselves having to work permanently from home, or find themselves in quarantine, can within certain limits be transferred to the filmic narrative world in a way that provides insight." And people usually draw the parallels between fiction and reality, he added.

Hollywood blockbuster offers code of conduct

The film suggests, he said, that daily routines are important, "including regular meal times and physical exercise, perhaps growing your own fruit and vegetables, keeping your home tidy as well as getting in touch with virtual communities, precisely via film and television, that allow people to continue to take part in society."

Film still Sloborn, two people in full protective suits carry a screaming woman out on the street
The German-Danish TV series 'Sloborn' offers frighteningly realistic scenesImage: ZDF und Stefan Erhard

Watching films in preparation of crisis situations is not that far-fetched, according to Newiak. "People enjoy films and TV programs primarily as entertainment, but of course they always unconsciously absorb patterns of behavior from these series and movies," he argued. People remember the bits they can use in their everyday lives or in exceptional situations, he added.

Newiak is convinced that in particular series offer plenty of tips for everyday situations. "It's not just a phenomenon reserved for Hollywood movies," the German scholar said. "TV series have a very decisive influence on how a society is organized, how truths are constructed, and how people negotiate differing opinions and positions on, for instance, how to deal with pandemics."