THE THOUSAND FACES OF WAR

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The propaganda films made during World War I were primarily intended to convey to the nation and the world the image of a strong, victorious Austria that would do anything for the wellbeing of its citizens. Yet there are certain documentaries that, almost unintentionally, conveyed a very different message to the audience.

Pictures speak to us

The importance of certain propaganda films made mainly during World War I has often been discussed in Austrian film history. But while the aforementioned films were primarily intended to convey to the nation and the world the image of a strong, victorious Austria that would do anything for the wellbeing of its citizens, there are certain documentaries that, almost unintentionally, convey a very different message to the audience. Particularly noteworthy in this regard are two short documentaries made in 1917 and produced by Sascha Film. We are talking specifically about Ein Heldenkampf in Schnee und Eis and Der Stellungskrieg – Bilder von der Kaiserjägerdivision.

In the first documentary, for example, time is not devoted only to the war itself. In fact, the camera focuses mainly on the preparation for a battle and the moment when soldiers are busy climbing a high snowy mountain. The faces of the young soldiers appear in the foreground. The effort in accomplishing such a feat is great. What we see are mainly the effects of war on young men who risk their lives every day. Suffering, fatigue, but also fear become the great protagonists. The same is true when we finally reach the battlefield: bodies of wounded soldiers are carried on stretchers, everything is destroyed, some men even look at the camera. What is conveyed is the drama of war. The viewer is shocked and does not feel proud of his nation at all.

The same effect is also conveyed by the documentary Der Stellungskrieg – Bilder von der Kaiserjägerdivision. Here, however, the events start much earlier, mainly documenting the normal everyday life of the soldiers away from the battlefield. Each one of them chats with his comrades, seems relaxed, eats in company and lets his boots be cleaned. War seems only a distant thought. Then, in winter, everything changes: now it is time to go into battle and prepare for bloody combats. And so, we are reminded of Ein Heldenkampf in Schnee und Eis: here, too, we see the fatigue, exhaustion and fear of the soldiers before a battle. Here too, their faces are more eloquent than ever and once again show us that, just as Erasmus of Rotterdam theorised in his time, there are no just wars.

Yet, depending on the directorial approach chosen, things can completely change. In fact, alongside these two unique documentaries, there is another particularly interesting work. We are talking about Beim Johannesfall in den Radstätter-Tauern im Winter, made in 1916 and also produced by Sascha-Film. Here, the message that is conveyed is completely different and the documentary itself is almost reminiscent of a kind of commercial. The camera focuses, in fact, on the exploits of the soldiers before the battle itself. Here, too, the men are grappling with a snow-covered mountain. Here, too, the environments play a central role. Yet here, hardly any signs of suffering or fatigue are shown, but the feat itself is shown to us almost as if it were a sporting performance. The battles are never shown at all. A decidedly ‘neutral’ approach that further differs, therefore, from what was made at the same time.

And so, thanks to cinema, any message can be conveyed. Often even ‘unintentionally’. Not all propaganda films, in fact, focused on soldiers and their lives away from the battlefield. What had to be conveyed to the audience was something very specific. Yet, the camera often captured every subtle nuance. The power of cinema had been recognised, but people were not yet truly aware of its full potential, of its ability to capture every single emotion of its protagonists. History has subsequently given it credit.

Bibliography: Das tägliche Brennen: eine Geschichte des österreichischen Films von den Anfängen bis 1945, Elisabeth Büttner, Christian Dewald, Residenz Verlag
Info: the page of Ein Heldenkampf in Schnee und Eis on film.at; the page of Der Stellungskrieg – Bilder von der Kaiserjägerdivision on the website of the Viennale; the page of Beim Johannesfall in den Radstätter-Tauern im Winter on film.at