Tuesday, January 16, 2018

World War I Cameramen Behind The Lens

While researching our book American Cinematographers in the Great War, we came across an interesting collection of pictures from the collection of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. These are all from the records of the U.S. Signal Corps that was assigned to film and photograph America's involvement in the Great War.

U.S. Signal Corps crew filming American troops arriving in a village in Lorraine, France (1918)

Quite a number of these photographs show the U.S. Signal Corps cameramen at work on the Western Front in 1918. Thanks to research by Harry Kidd at the National Archives these pictures have been scanned and uploaded on the internet. Finally, after almost one hundred years, we can see how these official war pictures were made.

For a sample of these photographs here is a weblog by Geralt Novak, showing the activities of these World War I photographers.

Weblog: Behind the Camera Lens - World War I Photographers

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

"With Our Heroes on the Somme" (Germany, 1917)

In January 1917, the Bild- und Film Amt (BuFA) released Bei Unseren Helden an der Somme. Proclaimed by the Germans as a depiction of "the German will in war", the film was supposed to counteract the enormous success of the British film Battle of the Somme.                  

Movie poster for Bei Unseren Helden an der Somme (1917)

When this war documentary was shown on the screen the German authorities realized they were about to lose the propaganda war with the British. In the early years of the war the use of film for wartime publicity had been limited. As we described in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War, it took a lot of initiative for American cameramen to cut through military red tape and censorship and make movies with the German army. The effect of The Battle of the Somme, both at home and in neutral countries, changed all of this and it must have contributed substantially to the decision by the German government to intensify official film propaganda and set up the Bild- und Film Amt.

Bei unseren Helden an der Somme was BuFA’s first attempt at a feature length propaganda film and was largely unsuccessful in comparison to the British film. The film’s lack of success was due mainly to the strict censorship by the military authorities, which resulted in the absence of combat footage. Rather than sending cameramen to the front when audiences demanded this footage, the Germans created it using a combination of scenes staged in training areas and footage from previous wars.

Staging the Battle of the Somme

When the decision was made to produce a German film on the Battle of the Somme a problem first had to be solved: the Germans had not covered this campaign on film. Accordingly, although the first part of the film has some authentic footage, both the second and third parts were reconstructed to “show” what happened on the Somme front. These segments were compiled from films showing military trainings and previous conflicts. A forest - supposed to be at Saint-Pierre Vaast and an important fighting ground during this campaign - turns out to be completely free from damage. There are also inconsistencies in the type of helmet worn by German soldiers. Both the pickle and the steel helmet, which replaced the pickle in 1916, appear throughout the film.

Yet the German press campaign that accompanied the film dwelled on the film’s excellence. With Our Heroes on the Somme was presented as a documentary, but the gap between authentic and staged scenes was too big to allow for long-term success. The Somme movie however was instrumental in setting up German propaganda strategy during the Second World War, which was aimed at total media control.

A copy of this official war film from the collection of the German Federal Archives has been uploaded on our YouTube channel.


Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Filming Field Marshal von Mackensen (1916)

Nelson Edwards, circa 1914. Copied from the Baltimore Sun, 1944

In March 1916, Field Marshal August von Mackensen visited the Turkish capital Constantinopel. Von Mackensen was sent from Berlin as Kaiser Wilhelm's emissary to pay his regards to the Turkish Sultan and strenghten the military alliance with the Ottoman Empire. Mackensen - one of the best field commanders of the German army during the First World War - was filmed during this occasion. The historic footage is from the German Federal Archives and was probably taken by American cinematographer Nelson E. Edwards.

European Film Gateway

The film report was uploaded by the German Federal Archives to the webportal European Film Gateway in November 2014, as part of a program to digitize contemporary films of the Great War by all of the major European film archives. The film was exhibited in 1916 in German movie theaters as part of the weekly Messter newsreel. The cinematographer however probably wasn't German, but he was an American newsreel cameraman, Nelson Edwards.

Field Marshal von Mackensen, inspecting Turkish soldiers. Scene from Messter Woche newsreel (1916)

Edwards' experiences as a film cameraman in Europe have been described in more detail in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War. He was sent to Turkey by the Germans in early 1916 to publicize the recent defeat of Serbia by the Central Powers, as well as the resulting celebration of German-Turkish amity. Edwards filmed von Mackensen on his arrival in Constantinopel and covered his visit to Turkey closely. Edwards was quite taken with von Mackensen, a man he described as "a fierce, swift fighter, a brilliant strategist, a doer always of the unexpected."

The scenes that were shot by Edwards were shown in the Hearst newsreels in the United States in June 1916. On his return to Germany Edwards agreed to let Messter Woche newsreel use his footage by a letter dated 20 April 1916. And so these scenes were also exhibited in Germany, which explains how we found his film report of von Mackensen's visit in a contemporary German newsreel by Messter.

We have uploaded this film report from the Messter newsreel on our YouTube channel.