AFS Essential Cinema Preview: Films of WWI
The latest Austin Film Society Essential Cinema series, "Films of World War I," runs on Thursdays at 7:30 pm, from June 5-24, at the Marchesa. The following column from programmer Chale Nafus offers some background on the movies selected to screen.
In August 1914, World War I broke out in Europe, ostensibly because of the assassination of the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But Germany and France had been itching for war, the former to extend her territories, the latter to regain Alsace-Lorraine, lost to the Prussians in 1870. A series of interlocking treaties pulled Great Britain, Italy and Russia into the maelstrom until the entire continent was up in flames and running red with the blood of millions. Each side thought it would win and be home for Christmas.
Four years later, when the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918 (because of American military power entering the war in 1917 and exhaustion on the part of all combatants) nearly 10 million people (soldiers and civilians) had died. Three empires (Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman) fell and were carved up by greedy neighbors or ethnic groups with long memories. Monarchies disappeared, to be replaced initially by well-intentioned attempts at parliamentary governments, but many of those would turn fascist in the 1920s and 1930s. Diseases, especially influenza, traveled home with soldiers and decimated civilian populations. The world was forever changed by The Great War, only to begin the entire process over again on an even larger scale 20 years later.
Motion pictures were in their adolescence when World War I began. Italy started making feature films in 1913 about the glorious Roman empire, and in the US, D.W. Griffith was filming his racist masterpiece The Birth of a Nation (1915). By the end of the war, the feature-length film was the new norm for film producers all over the world. World War I inevitably became a subject for narratives. Many such movies would question the entire endeavor. One of the first to do so was by French filmmaker Abel Gance.
With the war in its death throes, Gance joined the French army and photographed actual scenes of battles. He was an idealist with a mission – to show the horrors of war so there would be no more such cataclysms. Gance also dreamed of a postwar society that would consist of fully actualized humans eager to live poetically and spiritually.
For the story of J'accuse! (1919) -- which screens on June 26 -- the French director showed how two men in a small village dealt with the awkward fact of loving the same woman. The brutal husband seemed to have the upper hand, but never underestimate a good-looking poet’s amorous abilities. Only in the heat of battle, where new heroes could be born in a flash, did the two men forge a friendship and promise that the survivor would care for Edith forever more. In this masterpiece of silent cinema, using tinting, understated acting, and dramatic editing, Gance proved that cinema was truly the seventh art.
In the midst of World War II, the British director Michael Powell and his Hungarian-British screenwriter/producer Emeric Pressburger created a sprawling Technicolor film which touched on three wars involving Great Britain: the Second Boer War (1899-1902), World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945) The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) screens on June 5. The film's main character, Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy, participated in the first two with distinction, but, like the pot-bellied subject of the newspaper comic strip Colonel Blimp, by 1943 Candy is out of touch with the dramatically transformed nature of war.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill feared that British morale, both civilian and military, might suffer if anyone thought the top brass had not adjusted to blitzkrieg, so he tried to prevent the movie from ever reaching British screens. He failed and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp became a huge success in the UK, mainly because of its humor, its strong presentation of solid British values and the love that Candy and a German officer feel for a British "ideal woman" represented in three different eras by Deborah Kerr.
François Truffaut's Jules and Jim (1962), which screens on June 19, also has a love affair between a woman and two men. This movie is scarcely a "war film," but is included in this series to lighten the mood. The story's events transpire before, during and after the Great War. The prewar segment begins with a wonderful friendship between Jim, a French writer/translator and Jules, a German writer/translator. It is the early 1910s in Paris when the Bohemian lifestyle can be cheaply achieved. The two new friends discuss literature and philosophy in bars, cafes and modest apartments every single night. They are each successful with women, whom they apparently share.
But then Catherine comes into their lives. Initially the friendship between the two men remains intact. Catherine has already loved many men and makes her own decision to share these two. In the first act of the film, Jules and Jim is effervescent in its depiction of capacious hearts and great passions. But war interrupts this delightful amour a trois. Although they renew their friendship at war’s end, everyone has changed, Catherine perhaps most of all.
The fourth film in our "Films of World War I" series, which screens on June 12, is the darkest and most disturbing. Unsurprisingly the only woman in the film has a brief appearance as a very frightened German captive being forced to sing to a roomful of French soldiers who have only hours of leave before returning to their trenches to continue the senseless war.
Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957) is a visually and emotionally stunning indictment, not only of the meaningless of war but of the class system dividing officers from foot soldiers – a system that allows the former to easily dismiss 50 percent casualty rates among the latter, provided goals can be achieved. If the soldiers fail, they must be punished by the officers for cowardice and failing to engage the enemy. With his brilliant mise-en-scene and pacing, Kubrick proved himself to be a visual artist who could attack the big questions of life.
Chale Nafus is Director of Programming at the Austin Film Society.