As a concept, this war will surely only ever be portrayed in the arts as a time-dictated, great and insanely bloody event… (1)
– Gerrit Engelke
As the focus of scholarship has shifted from the acknowledged worthies of the cinematic arts to a broadminded study of more populist fare, our understanding of how cinema historically functioned has increased exponentially. In terms of Weimar cinema, certainly Siegfried Kracauer’s 1947 classic From Caligari to Hitler perceived a common thread connecting an artistically outstanding production such as Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Paul Leni, 1924) with more popular, but less critically embraced films such as the Frederick the Great series. But oddly, Kracauer spent little time on war films; his summary treatment of these works is perhaps partly responsible for their later neglect, even though the logic behind his theories has come in for questioning. The appearance of a book in English on Weimar cinema’s response to World War I is reason enough to take notice, but the depth of research Bernadette Kester exhibits here makes Film Front Weimar especially worthy of praise.
Germany lagged far behind the Allies in her use of film as a propaganda medium, although the astonishing documentary Majestät brauchen Sonne (Peter Schamoni, 2000) makes clear that the Kaiser himself certainly understood its powers. While the Allies were drenching the movie-going public with images of Huns raping Belgium, the Huns themselves were propagating a much weaker nationalist message (of course, the Germans learned their lessons by the next war). Only at the end of 1916 did the government finally create an organisation to counter the anti-German message coming through so forcefully, but as Wolfgang Mühl-Benninghaus makes clear, the impossible restrictions placed on cameramen at the front resulted in war movies and newsreels with little punch: “None of the suffering, death, dehumanisation, nor the destruction of the countryside, of cities, or of industry itself, all of which were part of this war, are to be found in the images of war from 1914-1918 – images which continue to shape our visual memory even today” (2).
Unlike a number of European cinema industries, German film emerged out of the war’s ashes in a better state than in 1914, mostly thanks to the increase in national production after foreign products were removed from German screens. Kester is concerned with films made after the war, and expressly those works that deal specifically, rather than obliquely, with the fighting. In an appendix she lists 31 titles, of which about three quarters are analysed at length. Most surprising, and largely unremarked upon, is that the first of these (not including Der Doppelmord von Sarajewo [Rolf Randolph, 1920], which ends before war is declared) is Namenlose Helden (Hans Szekely), an Austrian production from late 1925. Notwithstanding the trauma experienced by a defeated nation, and the resulting desire for escapist fare rather than plots drawn from the battlefields, it is extraordinary that the German film industry waited seven years before seriously addressing the recent past. This was fully four years after the scabrously anti-German American blockbuster The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rex Ingram, 1921) caused outrage within Teutonic embassies worldwide. As Thomas J. Saunders points out, in 1919 the German Foreign Office considered requesting a clause to be inserted into peace treaties prohibiting the distribution of hate films in signatory countries (3), so it is surprising that they didn’t quickly attempt to counter the anti-Hun sentiment with films showing Germans solicitously caring for the populations of conquered territories, as is shown in a later work such as Deutsche Frauen – Deutsche Treue (Wolfgang Neff, 1928).
When the German film industry did finally begin to address the war, a principal concern was an attempt to counter the Kriegschuldlüge, or war-guilt lie. The humiliating treatment of Germany in the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919 has been much discussed, but again it seems surprising that the film industry would wait until 1925 to address the collective feeling of global mistreatment and misunderstanding. As a defeated nation, Germany had a particular need for cinematic representations that crafted a blameless image of herself as the non-aggressor. Even anti-war films such as Westfront 1918 (G.W. Pabst, 1930) needed to present the German soldier as an object of compassion, even heroism.
Kester is strongest in her thorough analyses of contemporary press criticism, and she has a proper understanding of the necessity of identifying the political leanings of the newspapers and journals of the period. Weimar society was deeply divided politically, and Kester proves surefooted as she contextualises the various responses to the cinematic output, ranging from the communist Die Rote Fahne to the Goebbels-supervised Der Angriff. She understands the need for balance and thankfully doesn’t forget the middle either. Considering how much film from this period is lost, the use of reviews and censorship reports to reconstruct plots and public as well as critical reception is invaluable.
Pabst’s anti-war monument Westfront 1918 is surely the best known of the films discussed, but Kester rescues from historical neglect such popular works as Die Weltkrieg I & II (Leo Lasko, 1927 & 1928), 1914. Die Letzten tage vor dem Weltbrand (Richard Oswald, 1931), and Tannenberg (Heinz Paul, 1932). She presents an excellent discussion of the documentary qualities of a number of these films, and how their attempt to present a factual picture of the causes of the war were in line with the contemporary discussions over the Neue Sachlichkeit, or “New Objectivity” movement. By presenting films full of actuality footage, maps, and troop movement charts, producers could emphasise the documentary aspects, making their own take on the war guilt question appear to be backed by incontrovertible history.
Especially fascinating is the discussion of Die Andere Seite (Heinz Paul, 1931) and Niemandsland (Victor Trivas, 1931), both looking at the war from the other side. The former, based on the English play Journey’s End, deals with a group of British soldiers at the front, while Niemandsland concerns various nationalities from all sides of the conflict trapped together in no man’s land. Both films utilise national stereotypes, and while they have divergent messages about the war, the “view of the enemy”, with its implication of the humanity of all soldiers, proves fascinating, appearing as it does just two years before Hitler’s rise to power.
The fifth chapter, on navy films, is one of Kester’s strongest. She explains the historical support for a strong German navy and is conversant with the literature on post-war naval-nostalgia societies. She makes the excellent point that films set amidst the orderliness and cleanliness of battleships are better geared to heroic mythologising than those set in the filth and inhumanity of the trenches. Missing from the discussion however are the Militärklamotten films, comedies set among sailors and soldiers that could also provide insight into Weimar attitudes towards the war. Hollywood cinema of the period is certainly littered with these sorts of comedies, and a comparison between the two would be profitable in the future.
Weakest of the chapters is the last, in which Kester deals with gender and the home front. Perhaps she was racing against a deadline, for her reasoning seems rushed and she tries to tackle too many ideas in one section. Given the meticulous reasoning behind the earlier chapters, it is surprising to find statements that appear to contradict earlier assertions. She states that “we rarely, if ever, find any negative stereotypes of the former enemy in German war films” (p. 200), yet she details the anti-Russian bias of films such as Kreuzer Emden (Louis Ralph, 1932), and 1914, not to mention the unflattering portrayal of the French-African soldier in Westfront 1918. She makes this statement while discussing Deutsche Frauen – Deutsche Treue, suggesting the reason for being circumspect with images of enemy soldiers was “because Germany, being involved in the Versailles negotiations, could hardly afford to offend the Allies” (p. 200). This is an odd statement, as the Versailles treaty was signed nine years earlier. In addition, she claims that “little, if any, attention was paid to matters such as famine” (p. 223), and yet earlier she describes the representation of hardship on the home front, and specifically the food queues: “Just as the devastated landscape between the trenches belongs to the fixed idiom of images of films about the First World War, so does the representation of the home front usually involve images of people queuing for food” (p. 206). Finally, in a brief discussion of actress Olga Tschechowa, Kester refers to her as a “later Hollywood star”(p. 214). Although Tschechowa did make a few films in Britain – most famously Mary (1930), the German version of Hitchcock’s Murder (1930) – and she starred in at least two German-language versions of Hollywood films, she never made an English-language talkie, and never achieved any celebrity in the U.S.
In the end these are minor slip-ups when considering the importance of Kester’s research. Unfortunately, she is ill-served by her translator and her editor: awkward, unintentionally humorous sentences that cannot possibly reflect the original Dutch crop up throughout the text, combined with numerous typographical errors, such as missing letters and incorrect punctuation; in addition, the alphabetising in the bibliography is off. Perhaps most unfortunate is that all the numerous quotations in German are left in their original language. Translating the German texts would certainly have increased the length, but it is a pity that given the decision to publish the book in English, presumably to increase its readership, so much text remains in German. However, final judgment must rest upon Kester’s prodigious scholarship, which is exemplary. In her thorough familiarity with a wide range of war films, she is able to counter Pierre Sorlin’s assertion that German, unlike French or British, cinema treating WWI, attempted solely to depict the collective, rather than the individual, experience of the soldier (4).
Film Front Weimar. Representations of the First World War in German Films of the Weimar Period (1919-1933), by Bernadette Kester, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2003.
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- Quoted in The Lost Voices of World War I: An International Anthology of Writers, Poets and Playwrights, ed. Tim Cross, Bloomsbury, London, 1998, p. 83.
- Wolfgang Mühl-Benninghaus, “Newsreel Images of the Military and War, 1914-1918”, in A Second Life: German Cinema’s First Decades, ed. Thomas Elsaesser, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 1996, p. 183.
- Thomas J. Saunders, “German Diplomacy and the War Film in the 1920s”, in Film and the First World War, eds. Karel Dibbets and Bert Hogenkamp, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 1995, p. 213.
- Pierre Sorlin, “Le cinéma allemand et la Grande Guerre”, in Les Cahiers de la Cinémathèque, no. 69, November 1998, p. 38.