War and technological innovation have often gone hand-in-hand. Advancements in weaponry are, of course, inevitable under the circumstances of armed conflict, but the necessities of logistical concerns like supply, transport, communication and medicine are likewise sources of invention. World War I, a global conflict the likes of which the world had never seen, yielded an unprecedented number of technical advances, the magnitude of which were commensurate with a conflict large enough to destroy the old world order. This was the first war that brought entire citizen populations under fire. As such, it was inevitable that the world’s governments should turn to the emerging technology of film to promote the righteousness of their causes and call for moral and material support on the home front. Technology provided an answer as powerful in its way as the guns that shelled troops on the Western Front, for film could inspire, frighten and anger entire nations like no other means of communication.
World War I was a cataclysm that had touched all of the technically advanced nations and it gave film, then a nascent form of artistic expression, its first great subject matter. Before the war, the flickering images that emerged from the strange new machine were a novelty, a
spectacle reserved for arcades and exhibitions. The war brought film into the cultural
mainstream, and transformed it from curious, light entertainment to a ready means for distributing propaganda and, finally, into a medium for poignantly expressing an event that tore apart the “civilized” preconceptions that governed the way nations interacted. World War I gave rise to distinct national cinemas in countries that had been changed by the experience. These film industries were also changed. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson described film as “writing history with lightning,” and so it was. Post-war film gave civilization a much more impactful way of preserving and interpreting history.
The men who orchestrated the carnage that played out on the fields of France and Belgium introduced a new dimension to the concept of war. This was nothing less than the utilization of all available military and civil resources in the defeat and subjugation of an entire nation, including its army, its government and its people. It became necessary to “win hearts and minds” to the cause, as propaganda would later come to be described. “The emergence of propaganda as the chief instrument of control over public opinion by 1918 was the inevitable consequence of ‘total war’In short, propaganda became an indispensable part of the equipment of the modern state at war” (Sanders & Taylor, p. 255). This new form of “public relations” had a palpable effect, with its combination of visual spectacle and national patriotism. War was depicted as an idealized expression of a nation’s virtue, and film gave people at home, who were naturally curious about the conditions under which their loved ones were serving, an idealized look at war from a distance.
Wartime films, at least those produced during the war, softened the brutal aspects of war, which was made to seem like a righteous crusade. Propaganda films emphasized the noble home troops defying their foes, who were made out to be evil aggressors capable of the worst depredations imaginable. Though not conceived as a propaganda film, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation showed just how powerful film can be when it makes a visceral appeal to its audience (in Griffith’s case, race baiting carried the message). Germany produced a series of short films that utilized creative story lines and effects to make patriotic appeals. In 1914, a patriotic “short” film showed King Neptune eating a banquet provided by British warships and supply ships sunk by German U-boats. Neptune is later seen, trident and all, exhorting German bank patrons to buy bonds to support Germany’s armed forces (Clements, 2004). Such fanciful representations were symptomatic of the war’s early years, when morale was high on both sides, but things changed as the war dragged on and casualty lists mounted.
But propaganda films continued to paint the enemy as somehow subhuman, near animals who made war inevitable. World War I helped give Allied film makers rich thematic fodder, which American studios exploited without restraint. “Movies with war-related narratives like The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin and The Prussian Cur (were typical). In these films “mustachioed German officerstossed babies out of windows, raped young women, and murdered innocent civilians” (DeBauche, p. 36). These films were popular in the war’s early stages. However, in the United States, which maintained an isolationist stance until relatively late in the war, the rapidly growing film industry remained primarily concerned with profit margins and progressively less concerned with promoting the virtues of the Allied cause.
In 1917-18, only about 14 percent of more than 500 films on record dealt directly with war-related issues, and roughly half of these were documentaries or newsreels (Ibid).
In Great Britain, the government sought an effective and efficient way to reach the British masses, particularly those illiterate citizens who could not be communicated with in any other way. Despite the initial outpouring of national enthusiasm for the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Asquith wartime Cabinet felt there would be a long-term need to produce official government propaganda, particularly beyond the boundaries of Great Britain, whose empire covered much of the globe (given the length of the conflict and the strain it placed on British and Commonwealth morale, this proved a remarkably foresighted policy) (Paris, p. 28). The government entrusted the establishment of a film propaganda branch, called Wellington House, to Charles Masterman, a former liberal M.P. who understood the ability of film to reach and communicate with people on a broad front. Not only was this aimed at countering German propaganda, it reflected Masterman’s understanding that cinema had a unique ability to reach those “‘immense illiterate populations’ who constituted such an important part of the target audience in many parts of the world” (Ibid).
in with the mud and the blank faces of soldiers who had seen things they could never bring themselves to talk about. The strict censorship that had restricted distribution of real war footage in the early years gradually yielded to increased interest in images that showed what it was really like on the battlefield. Filmmakers who wanted to deliver the realism that only a true account of the action could produce also lobbied for a change in policy. The public responded to the change in unprecedented numbers with “the release of the feature-length Battle of the Somme, not only the most successful propaganda film of the War, but arguably the most successful British film of all time” (Paris, p. 31). Clearly, increasingly sophisticated film audiences were ready for a change, and the war provided a solid foundation from which the post-war film industry would emerge.
had demanded their independence now found not only the freedom but the means to tell their own stories.
These stories owed much to the new sense of gritty realism that grew out of the horrific slaughter which took place after the Battle of the Somme. After the Somme, the Allied commanders turned to a brutal numbers game, in which the concept of “acceptable numbers of casualties” became commonplace. From 1916 to the end of the war, the volume of letters notifying bereaved relatives in England and France that their dear ones had been killed never slackened. In such a morbid environment, it was inevitable that artistic expression should reflect popular anger and the general sense that someone had to be blamed for such a staggering loss of life. France was the first nation to produce a film that encompassed the moral outrage which gripped the public in the war’s latter stages.
typify the post-World War I oeuvre, and for all subsequent movies which questioned the morality of war as a means to achieve peaceful ends.
J’accuse is the first war-era (1919) movie that portrays the many ways in which war destroys the “human community” while evoking the hope that a way can be found to end war once and for all (Welsh & Kramer, 1978). Gance set out to create a completely different look and feel to film, utilizing new techniques of color and composition to elicit pathos. “Tinting makes it possible to further explore the relationship of tone to psychological nuance: the red tints of the dead in battle scenes, the blues of rippling waters” (Ibid). J’accuse is also the first such movie to weave its story around a romantic drama, which adds considerable emotional power to the film’s pacifist message. Near the end of the film, as the dead arise and return to their homes, their loved ones are challenged to say whether they were worthy of the soldiers’ sacrifice.
Approximately 10 years after the release of J’accuse, the most important German anti-war film of the 20th century was released. All Quiet on the Western Front is the film representation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel, which is an indictment of the ways in which society promotes and romanticizes war, the senseless sacrifice of human beings and the shameful disenfranchisement and alienation of soldiers who survive to return home. The story follows a young German school boy whose teacher exhorts his students to enlist in the army and earn glory on the battlefield for the fatherland. Young Baumer finds that conditions on the front are not at all as described by the firebrands at home. The film explores the numbing monotony of life in the trenches, as well as the terrible psychological toll of indiscriminate and instantaneous death. All Quiet on the Western Front broke new ground not only its treatment of what was by then a decidedly anti-war theme in cinema, but in its portrayal of the war’s destruction of lives both during and after hostilities had ceased (Cook, p. 255). Lewis Milestone’s classic film took a newly panoramic view of war as a phenomenon created and sustained by willful ignorance.
The German Expressionist movement arose from the rejection of the realist convention in the mediums of painting and theater. In post-war Germany, with the nation suffering under the burden of its crushing war debt, economic circumstances helped foster a simplistic editing and stylistic approach that accorded with the new expressionist sensibility. The war also influenced expressionist filmmakers such as F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, who sought to portray a more
profound understanding of the world and of events that determine the course of human life.
Robert Wiene’s 1920 horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is widely considered the apex of this style of filmmaking. Produced by Germany’s UFA studio, the film’s intensely abstract look has the feel of an expressionist portrait, a nightmare landscape that captures the miasma of dread which hung over the defeated nation in the post-war years. Others contend that expressionist filmmakers were simply trying to differentiate German cinema from the growing influence of American production and storytelling styles.
The expressionist films made at Germany’s UFA studio followed in the abstract footsteps of Caligari. The fantastic, nightmarish quality of Wiene’s opus was succeeded, and some said exceeded, in 1927 by Fritz Lang’s science fiction classic Metropolis. The intricate interplay of story and mise en scene that distinguished Caligari is absent from Metropolis. However, Lang’s film remains a tour de force of technical effects, imposing backdrops and sets that were directly influenced by Lang’s impressions of the massive buildings he saw in the United States. Lang’s perspective on the future was one in which technology was used to hold populations in thrall, an outlook that may have been impacted by Germany’s economic malaise and the cultural ambivalence that marked the Weimar Republic era.
Expressionist cinema was, for the most part, typified by a portraitist’s vision and sensibility. In general, its emphasis was on interpretive scenery rather than on expensive accoutrements, a situation that some have attributed to the fact that UFA was trying to do “more with less” in a cash-strapped national economic environment. Indeed, by the late 1920s affluent American studios were driving Germany’s leading film studio out of business. The great
German directors were headed to Hollywood and the promise of lucrative contracts, unprecedented resources and a friendly tax situation in 1920s America. The death of UFA marked the end of an artistic “golden age” for modern cinema, but the impact of the German Expressionist movement on the development of post-World War I film has proven to be immense. “What no one disputesis that the dramatic use of mise en scene is one of the primary reasons German Expressionism was, and is, so visually distinctive and important to film history” (Pramaggiore & Wallis, pp. 87-88).
It has been said that World War I marks the boundary between the old world and the modern, industrialized age. This was clearly true when it came to technology, not only the technology of war but of other aspects of Western society. Film as a technological form of artistic expression was already well established throughout Europe and in the United States by 1914. In less than five years, the medium had evolved into a considerably more sophisticated means of storytelling. New editing techniques, the creative use of tinting and contrast and music elevated the form into a powerfully compelling means of expression, and no story was more compelling than the war itself. The very notion of narrative film was altered; inter-weaving story lines became commonplace and new film oeuvres - film noir, horror, science fiction - came into being, many through the German Expressionist school. The war also served to delineate specific national cinemas, with the once pre-eminent French and German industries giving way before the productivity and burgeoning economic power of America’s Hollywood film complex. World War I had industrialized war; it also industrialized the art of filmmaking.
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