IMAGES FROM THE FRONT – FICTION OR REALITY?

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In the documentaries made during World War I, it was the camera and editing that decided what was to be shown to the viewer, which images from the front could best convey the idea of war and impress the audience, while at the same time conveying the image of a victorious Austria.

Reality becomes spectacular

Images of war arrive in the theatre particularly vivid and pulsating. Even when watching a simple documentary. Even when cameras are still rudimentary and people are still experimenting with this new invention, cinema. Images from the front with a particular visual and emotional impact are therefore the first thing that remains impressed in war reportages made, precisely, during World War I. These documentaries are particularly interesting not only from a historical point of view, but also from an aesthetic point of view.

In these films, in fact, it was the camera and editing that decided what was to be shown to the viewer, which images from the front could best convey the idea of war and impress the audience, while at the same time conveying the image of a victorious Austria. And the end result was carefully studied and inspired by what had been realised in the rest of the world.

Particularly indicative in this respect is the documentary Die unvollständig wiederhergestellte Station in Kopyczynce (“The not yet fully restored station in Kopyzynce”), made in 1916 and produced by Sascha-Film. The documentary is set in Galicia, on the border between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia. A strategic location, which during the war was often the scene of bloody battles.

However, here we find ourselves in the Kopyzynce station (whose name can be clearly read in one of the shots), considered a strategic logistical point. The most significant scenes of the film are set here. It is winter. A group of particularly excited children anxiously await a military parade. A small group of particularly uncoordinated soldiers march through the streets of the city, saluting the mayor and the authorities. Then, suddenly, something unexpected happens.

At this moment, in fact, a soldier appears on the screen. It is not, however, just an ordinary soldier, but a real fictional character. A character that the great Ernst Lubitsch would later include in his film The Wild Cat (1921). It is here, then, that reality and fiction come together to create something totally new and innovative for the time. But that is not all.

The second half of the film, in fact, is particularly interesting. At this moment, the Russians set fire to some petrol stations. Smoke and flames become the big protagonists. Even when the camera moves towards the port. Numerous shots are dedicated to this particular event and, indeed, the visual impact of the flames is further accentuated by the use of colours through the virage technique. Reality becomes spectacular and, at the same time, everything increasingly resembles reality. The images from the front gave the viewer the impression of being part of the world filmed by the camera.

Fiction and reality, then, had found a particular meeting point and created a hybrid product. A valuable document of war in which, however, it was the camera itself that decided what was to be shown and how. Cinema was becoming more and more self-conscious.

Bibliography: Das tägliche Brennen: eine Geschichte des österreichischen Films von den Anfängen bis 1945, Elisabeth Büttner, Christian Dewald, Residenz Verlag
Info: the page of The Wild Cat by Ernst Lubitsch on iMDb