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If in Austria, the first production companies were founded relatively late compared to the rest of the world, only a few years after the seventh art had also spread nationally, people had to deal with a highly dramatic and unexpected event: the outbreak of World War I.

Images from the front

A somewhat bizarre history, that of Austrian cinema. If, in fact, the first production companies in Austria came into being relatively late compared to the rest of the world (officially around 1908, although already in 1906 photographer Johann Schwarzer was producing the first short erotic films with his Saturn-Film), only a few years after the seventh art had spread nationwide, people had to deal with a highly dramatic and unexpected event: the outbreak of World War I.

Could the emerging cinema not also take an interest in such a significant event? Absolutely not. And indeed, it wasn’t long before soldiers engaged on the front could also appear on the screen. And if, for some of them, being able to see themselves in films was a quite extraordinary event, for others the possibility of documenting the war and recounting it through images was an excellent means of conveying information even to those who lived far from the front line itself.

But were the numerous war reports made by the Austrian production companies founded for the occasion between 1914 and 1918 really totally faithful to reality? Some clarification on this issue is necessary.

The possibility of being able to document the war was certainly an excellent propaganda opportunity for the Austrian government, since the short documentaries made for the occasion were also exported abroad. And so, already shortly after the outbreak of World War I, it was the government itself that purchased special stations on the front line for film operators, within the sectors dedicated to war reporters. Just as many funds and means were made available in order to tell through images what was happening.

And if we think that in Austria, from the moment the first national films were produced, film operators opted exclusively for a documentary approach, just as the Lumière brothers had begun to do in France, then the same approach was taken when making these war films. Yet, as one can well imagine, since the image of a strong and victorious Austria had to be conveyed to the whole world, things were often faked, with lots of ad hoc filmed scenes, important omissions and well-thought-out editing. A purely documentary approach, then, with “hybrid”, purposely constructed scenes within it.

This concerned practically all documentaries made during World War I. Even when the film’s focus was on the anthropological aspect in its purest sense, without necessarily focusing on the war itself (just think, for example, of all the films by director and anthropologist Rudolf Pöch).

Cinema, then, spoke to the masses. And during the war it conveyed to them a very precise concept. Fear, violence, the numerous explosions and shootings, the shock caused, and everything that had previously been described by the soldiers in the letters they used to send to their families was now portrayed on the big screen, albeit with due manipulation.

And beyond any propagandistic intentions of the Austrian government, beyond the dubious faithfulness in the representation of facts, we can recognise something very precise: after an initial documentary approach, one was gradually approaching the production of fictional films as well. And – with sporadic exceptions that saw the creation of the first, very short fiction films as early as the beginning of the 20th century – from 1916 onwards Austria increasingly began to take an interest in the production of narrative films, which were aimed at pure entertainment. Austrian cinema, then, was about to experience another important turning point. But that, of course, is another story.

Bibliography: Das tägliche Brennen: eine Geschichte des österreichischen Films von den Anfängen bis 1945, Elisabeth Büttner, Christian Dewald, Residenz Verlag
Info: the website of the Filmarchiv Austria