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 SommeWhen 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.