Researching World War I On Film

Ron van Dopperen

21 November 2017

The centennial of the First World War has brought about a renewed public interest in this major military conflict.  When I first visited Belgium as a history student in the 1980s there were still veterans around who had been in the trenches. They were there to hear the Last Post under the Menin Gate, and I remember vividly how impressed I was by the ceremony and the sight of all these names of the soldiers who had found an anonymous grave in the Ypres Salient.

As the saying goes ‘Old soldiers never die, they simply fade away’. It is the same with the films of the Great War. Stored on highly flammable nitrate stock, the film legacy of World War I presents scholars and film fans all over the world with an amazing historical source. The footage to be sure is slowly fading away. Unless preserved on safety stock or digitized we are losing by decomposition an invaluable part of our cultural heritage. I recall the first time I went into the nitrate vaults of the Library of Congress in Culpeper, Virginia, with my esteemed fellow author Cooper Graham, looking for lost film of this war. I was feeling like a kid in a candy store. In one of the cans we found footage mentioning The German Side of the War, a movie that had been produced by the Chicago Tribune in 1915. When reeling that film on a viewer we found ourselves in underground bunkers on the Eastern Front, and that’s when we discovered the film had been misplaced. We were looking at a completely different film that was shot by Albert K. Dawson, cameraman with the Austro-Hungarian army!

Albert Dawson directing war films on eastern front 1915

My fascination with these old war films started when as a history student I first read Kevin Brownlow’s book The War, the West and the Wilderness. Kevin is one of the first historians to research World War I films. He also was fortunate enough to interview some of the cameramen who  recorded the Great War, at a time when they were still around. We dedicated our book American Cinematographers in the Great War to Kevin Brownlow because as film historians we all stand on his shoulders. These war pictures, as described by Brownlow, were a window on a different world. This was a time when cars and planes were the latest thing, when women could not vote, when it took ten days to cross the Atlantic, when trench warfare devastated a way of life that belonged to the 19th century. Despite the static shots and primitive camera technique these films and newsreels are truly mesmerizing.

The First World War was a modern war that surprised all combatants as well as the people at the home front just because it was so ‘modern’. It was also the first media war. Film propaganda was not invented by Goebbels but by Wellington House, UFA and the Committee on Public Information in America. Admittedly, wars had been filmed before 1914 but this was the first time in history when the huge publicity potential of this young medium was discovered and exploited.  As I dug deeper into my film research together with my American colleagues Cooper Graham and Jim Castellan I also got intrigued by one simple question: how did these guys do it? How did they manage lugging these cumbersome movie cameras with tripod and all to the battlefield? How did they deal with censors, military red tape and the risks of having their movie camera mistaken for the equipment of an artillery spotter? Why did they even run the risk of becoming a prime target? We were on uncharted territory basically, as most of these cameramen – like the soldiers of World War I – had slowly faded away. We interviewed relatives in the US and many of them did not even know that their Granddad had been a cameraman in World War I. But the stories that we found on their photographic work and their life are definitely worth preserving, just like their films. In some rare instances we could even match their personal story with the pictures that they made at the front. It’s a strange experience to watch a movie that was made one hundred years ago, as seen through the eyes of the cameraman you get to know so much. As a writer you feel transported back in time. For a brief moment you become the cameraman.

Just like these cameramen who had been pioneers in their trade – the first film correspondents – we had to start most of our film research from scratch. I should give proper credits here to Cooper and Jim for their outstanding work on reconstructing Wilbur H. Durborough’s  feature film, On the Firing Line with the Germans, a unique film report made during the German drive on the Eastern Front in 1915. By using the paper roll collection at the Library of Congress they managed to identify each separate scene from that movie, not including the lost scenes that were retrieved in TV documentaries and the World War I Signal Corps collection. This is another aspect of this kind of film research: how to piece all of these segments together? World War I film research is a giant jigsaw puzzle because a lot of contemporary footage has been recycled or cut into stock footage. It takes a lot of patience to get the bigger picture.

Sniper attack in Russian Poland. Scene from On The Firing Line with the Germans (USA 1915)

The last years researching World War I film have been a great ride. We have brought back on the screen Durborough’s war film which has been wonderfully restored by the Library of Congress. The premiere at the film festival of Pordenone together with Kevin Brownlow as a special guest was just great. This kind of film research never really stops, so after publishing our book we started a weblog Shooting the Great War which has the latest updates on the latest World War I films that we have found and identified. The blog has been seen now by over 100,000 people. So, we definitely have an audience out there!

Video trailer for Shooting the Great War:

Ron van Dopperen studied history at the University of Utrecht (Holland) where he wrote his Master of Arts Thesis on the American World War I documentary films. Since 2011 he publishes on World War I film, starting with a series of articles for Film History journal. He is also co-author together with Cooper C. Graham of Shooting the Great War: Albert Dawson and the American Correspondent Film Company (2013) and together with Jim Castellan and Cooper Graham of American Cinematographers in the Great War (2014) which was sponsored by the Pordenone Silent Film Festival.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Call for Papers: IAMHIST Blog – ‘A Day at the Archives…’ series

Call for Papers IAMHIST Blog PDF

The IAMHIST Blog is place for analysing film, radio and television history in a discursive context, and offers scholars working within these areas a space to disseminate their findings, knowledge and research.

A new series for the Blog, entitled ‘A Day at the Archives…’, aims to discuss different researcher’s experiences (from PhD student to Professor) of using a variety of archives and/or museums from around the world, particularly those which may help to contribute to and inform our knowledge of film, radio and television history, and thus work to advertise and highlight useful avenues for historical and empirical research for other scholars working within these areas.

If you would be interested in writing a piece for this series, which is intended to run indefinitely, then please email the IAMHIST Blog Editor, Llewella Chapman, with your suggestions and ideas:

llewella . chapman @ gmail . com

It should be noted that researchers are also very welcome to write about their own research projects for the IAMHIST Blog (separate from this series), and if you are interested in writing a more general piece for the Blog then please let Llewella know.

Please refer to the ‘IAMHIST Blog Guidelines’, which can be found [here] if you wish to contribute a piece for the Blog. For this specific series, the title of your piece for the Blog should be ‘A Day at the Archives/Museum… Name of archive/museum, location’. An example of this would be:

‘A Day at the Archives… The National Archives, Kew (UK)’

Tobias Hochscherf and Roel Vande Winkel have recently published what is hoped to be the first piece as part of this series, which can be viewed here: [link].

N.B. Offering to write a piece for this series works on a first-come-first-serve basis. If the archive/museum which you wish to write about has already been suggested by another scholar, then you will be offered the opportunity to write about another archive/museum of your choice (which hasn’t already been claimed).

A Day at the Archives… The German National Archive (Bundesarchiv) in Berlin

Tobias Hochscherf and Roel Vande Winkel

26 September 2017

Germans really believe that the early bird catches the worm. This, at least, is our impression. Having been to the Bundesarchiv (Federal Archive) on countless occasions, we’ve never managed to be there first, getting the prestigious locker key number one. And we’ve tried, believe us! Last June we met in Berlin Mitte for a quick coffee at 7:00 am and took the S-Bahn to Lichterfelde West on time for the opening of the archive … only to find out that many others were already waiting in front of the massive steel gates of the former garrison in which the Berlin branch of the national archive is located.

Apropos location, the place of the national archives alone breathes history. Whereas some archives were purpose-built to accommodate the various materials, the national archives in Berlin-Lichterfelde [link] seem rather provisionally located at a military garrison that could well be regarded a monument about 20th century German history. Built from 1873 to 1878 for Prussian cadets next to a newly designed bourgeois neighbourhood for officers and their families, the barracks were later used by the Leibstandarte-SS “Adolf Hitler”, the German dictator’s personal bodyguards during the Third Reich. During the “Night of the Long Knives”, several murders were committed within the military compound to eliminate SA men.

After the war, the barracks were then used by American troops who renamed the place as Andrews Barracks [link]. Throughout the entire complex, this problematic heritage could well be seen, including the exercise yard, SS-Statues that were concealed by concrete but are still at the entrance gate, and what looks suspiciously like Übermensch-statues at the gates to an enormous swimming pool one passes on the way from the main gate to the reading room of the archive. The people who decided to turn this old garrison – which was built to wage war – into an archive ought to be complimented for this decision. Right where some atrocities of the 20th century were planned, people are now able to study even the dark moments of German and European history. The site of the archive thereby also represents a modern-day democratic Germany.

It is somewhat odd to be reminded of what has happened at exactly this location through the years under Nazi rule after walking down from S-Bahn station Lichterfelde through the leafy and peaceful neighbourhood with its many stunning villas, parks and children’s playgrounds. The area does not really feel like being somewhere in the German capital but rather like staying at a small affluent town.

During busy days at the archive – looking through the maximum allowance of 50 files a day – it’s good to go for a walk. There’s plenty to see for film historians nearby, including the grave of German film star Renate Müller, who fell out of grace with the Nazis and was under constant surveillance by the Gestapo prior to her sudden death in 1937 (the circumstances of which are still unknown), or the former houses of the Jewish-German television entertainer Hans Rosenthal, the actor Götz George (son of Heinrich George) or the industrialist Werner von Siemens.

But coming back to the archives, such institutions are of course somewhat linked to national character traits. We have visited many other invaluable archives for media historians, including the lovely BBC written archives centre in Caversham, Berkshire (if you haven’t been there before: GO!), the National Archives at Kew and others. Yet no other place is quite like the Bundesarchiv. It is very German – in a good and a bad way. The online database and tool for ordering documents INVENIO is bureaucratic and not really self-explanatory [link]. Some members of staff may seem distant, but they are very helpful. Never try to enter the reading room with your coat on or bringing a backpack (which is generally true for all libraries in Germany and Austria). Some people have tried and what followed wasn’t really something you folks want to try! And always remember: don’t take pictures at a desk without the corresponding sign – it doesn’t matter who you are or what you are in fact doing at the archive. There are no exceptions.

Yet, there is something we love about the archive, something the archive shares with Berlin: its makeshift atmosphere. You can bring your own mobile phones or tablets to take pictures, the mundane locker room looks like a forlorn train station somewhere in the remote parts of the USSR during the Cold War. Even the prices of the instant coffee machine seem to be from 1989. Yet you find the most interesting people there, going for a walk outside or a coffee. Scholars of audio-visual media and history, holocaust survivors researching their family history, pensioners trying to find information about their former companies or family homes, etc. Everyone seems to have the same shining eyes, being fascinated by piecing together information from original archival documents to make sense of their history(ies). Like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson during their adventures, they are beguiled by what they have found or – like academic gold diggers to use another image – by what they might find soon. They all feel the excitement when they open up hitherto closed files or personal records, helping them to understand what has happened. The Bundesarchiv really is a treasure trove for researchers – one of the archives where academics and the general public can get access to documents almost without restrictions. Everyone who has ever received documents in which some government officials or lawyers redacted lengthy passages, will be happy to see that this is generally not the case at the German national archives.

Given the wealth of information, the Bundesarchiv’s pilot project to take pictures of documents with your own devices is ever more welcome. In the past, users had to order photocopies of documents which arrived a few weeks later by post. Although the cost was – compared to other national archives – quite reasonable, extensive research could still amount to considerable sums of money. Certainly an investment into one’s future – but nevertheless not easy for all. This was a problem especially to those who could not rely on the generous support of research institutions or other sources of funding, including many early-career researchers and pensioners. Under the regulations of the current pilot project, costs can be kept at a minimum. There are, however, restrictions on documents related to individuals: those documents can be photocopied, but not photographed. The logic escapes us. There must be something odd about German privacy/data legislation.

If you plan a trip to the Bundesarchiv, order all documents at least a day before. The use is free of charge and you may bring a pencil, a laptop or mobile electronic devices. The holdings are massive, including, for media scholars, the surviving documents of Goebbels’ ministry of propaganda, of Ufa and the other German film companies from the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era or the German Democratic Republic’s DEFA. The archive is open from 8 to 7 during regular workdays, except for Friday, when it closes at 4. It is closed on Sundays and national holidays. Nota bene: if you are interested in the Bundesarchiv’s holding of films and publications about films, you should go the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, which will move to Lichterfelde eventually, but is currently still in the centre of Berlin, at Fehrbellinerplatz. In comparison to the Bundesarchiv in Lichterfelde, the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv is much more formal. Part of the building at Fehrbelliner Platz is inhabited by a branch of the Bundesnetzagentur (Federal Network Agency) that regulates telecommunications as well as electricity, gas, post and railway markets in Germany. Because of security concerns, access is very restrictive and you are only allowed into the building by appointment. Perhaps this will change when all Berlin branches of the archives will be moved to Lichterfelde. Let’s hope so.

Please send us a message and a photograph if you are ever able to beat the Germans in getting locker key number one for a day at the archive!

Tobias Hochscherf and Roel Vande Winkel are both members of the IAMHIST council. They are working on various themes relating to Third Reich cinema for some time. While they usually collaborate through skype and other means of online communication, they welcome the opportunity to meet face-to-face when going to archives. Tobias is professor for audiovisual media at the University of Applied Sciences Kiel and the University of Flensburg. Roel is professor of film & TV studies at the LUCA School of Arts in Brussels and the University of Leuven, Belgium.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

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