DURING WORLD WAR I – PART I

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During World War I, numerous documentaries and fictional feature films with a propagandistic character were made, and each of them is distinguished by a different approach and a marked personality.

War and Peace

During World War I, as we have already often observed, cinema was strongly influenced. In these years, in fact, a very specific image had to be conveyed to the citizens and the whole world: the image of a strong Austria, in which, despite everything, everything was done to guarantee the citizens a certain prosperity, which was also the result of a balanced co-operation between the citizens themselves. Numerous documentaries and propaganda films were made during these years and each of them, in certain respects, is distinguished by a different approach and a marked personality.

But were these films really able to faithfully depict reality? In this regard, two documentaries in particular are especially interesting, two almost antithetical documentaries, each of which shows us a different reality, each of which is distinguished by a completely subjective approach. We are talking about Kaiser Karl I. wird als Karl VI. zum Königin von Ungarn und Kaiserin Zita zur Königin von Ungarn in der Matthiaskirche zu Ofen gekrönt – made between 1916 and 1917 – and Gorizia distrutta, from 1916.

The first of these two films focuses on the figure of Emperor Charles I of Austria, who, having recently ascended the throne after the death of Emperor Franz Joseph I on November 21, 1916, is crowned – together with his wife Zita of Bourbon-Parma – King of Hungary. Before examining the documentary, however, a brief digression must be made.

The situation in Hungary during World War I was quite dramatic. Here, both livelihoods and labour were becoming scarce, most men were at the front, the population was fleeing and hunger and famine reigned. Life was by no means easy. And yet, despite everything, this is not what we are shown in the documentary Kaiser Karl I. wird als Karl VI. zum König von Ungarn und Kaiserin Zita zur Königin von Ungarn in der Matthiaskirche zu Ofen gekrönt, which was filmed between the 27th and 30th of December 1916, precisely when Charles I and his wife Zita were crowned in Budapest. Four days of shooting, then, meant four days of festivities.

And so the film, through an elliptical structure, shows us the carriage in which the two sovereigns are travelling as it crosses the bridge and is greeted by the jubilant crowd. Thousands of white handkerchiefs are waved to welcome the imperial couple. Everyone is happy, everywhere there is pomp and magnificence. It does not look like the documentary was filmed in wartime. At the end of the film we are shown, by a backwards tracking shot, the same bridge we had seen at the beginning. These seem to be images of a perfect world in which harmony reigns. Yet, at the same time, there is a strange atmosphere, almost a disturbing feeling of death.

Things are quite different, however, in the documentary Gorizia distrutta, made a few months earlier and premiered on March 10, 1916. Here, in fact, we are shown the city of Gorizia, which at the time was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but where Italians were fighting against Austrian troops. The footage here was shot between the 4th and 5th Battles of the Isonzo. Soon Gorizia would no longer be part of the empire. In any case, the images shown here are much more realistic than in the other films.

The documentary begins with a pan shot that, from a hill, shows us immense expanses of green, slowly arriving in the city. Initially, everything seems calm and peaceful. Once in the city we are immediately shown the most impressive buildings: theatres, cinemas and luxurious hotels. Yet there is no sign of prosperity. The city is totally empty, human beings are absent and next to elegant buildings we can see buildings destroyed by bombing. Everything is more realistic here and the consequences of the war are evident. This is a moment of central importance for the history of Gorizia and of the Empire. The camera filmed everything.

Two documentaries, two different approaches to reality, two totally different realities. And cinema could really show everything. During World War I, however, not only documentaries were made, but also important fiction films with propagandistic purposes. Here the discourse changes. 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: Gorizia distrutta on the Youtube channel of the Cineteca del Friuli