War films have been a staple cinema genre since the silent era, though the particular conflicts and approaches taken have necessarily varied by by time, country and with political shifts. In this season we present images of the Great War as seen through the eyes of Russian, French, Italian and German filmmakers, to show something of the diversity of approaches beyond the more familiar All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory.
The End of St Petersburg
Vsevolod Pudovkin | USSR | 1927 | 80 minutes
A peasant comes to St. Petersburg to find work. He unwittingly helps in the arrest of an old village friend who is now a labor leader. The unemployed peasant is also arrested and sent to fight in World War I. After three years, he returns ready for revolution.
Verdun, visions d’histoire
Leon Poirier | France | 1928 | 80 minutes
Verdun, visions d’histoire is a dramatised account of the key World War I battle in which French troops, fighting alone and often in desperate hand-to-hand combat, had to halt the German advance at all costs. The film uses newsreel footage, Poirier’s own highly realistic reconstructions of the conflict and some dramatic scenes to add a thread of personal interest to the events.
The film is told from both sides and is surprisingly sympathetic to the German point of view, considering when it was made. Poirier’s pacifist stance is revealed in several moments, notably in one scene when two angels descend onto the battlefield and extract the souls of two soldiers, one German and one French, and place them together on a stretcher which they carry up to heaven.
G.W. Pabst | Germany | 1930 | 75 minutes
A group of German infantrymen of the First World War live out their lives in the trenches of France. They find brief entertainment and relief in a village behind the lines, but primarily terror fills their lives as the attacks on and from the French army ebb and flow. One of the men, Karl, goes home on leave only to discover the degradation forced on his family by wartime poverty.
Raymond Bernard | France | 1932 |110 minutes
Bernard ‘s approach (transferring a best-seller for the screen) is almost documentary. We know almost nothing about the three leads, one a worker and another a law student. The intermixing of the social classes is not, however, the main subject as in Renoir’s La Grande Illusion. Rather, it is to show that the horror of ware is timeless and transcendent.
“If you do not get the military Cross , you’ll get the wooden cross ” the soldiers sing. The prologue tells it all: ranks of soldiers become ranks of crosses.
Ludwig Schmid-Wildy / Hanz Zöberlin | Germany | 1934 | 118 minutes
Co-directed by Hans Zöberlein from his own published front-line experiences, Strosstrup 17 was designed to counter the pacifist message of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, with Hitler even penning a brief introduction to the text.
Zöberlein himself was involved in the 1923 Munich Putsch and went on to become a Werewolf leader at war’s end. He was sentenced to death for the murder of Penzburg’s socialist mayor on April 28, 1945, but that sentence was commuted, and he served a prison term until 1958.
Francesco Rosi | Italy | 1970 | 97 minutes
On the Italian/Austrian front during World War I, a disastrous Italian attack upon the Austrian positions leads to a mutiny among the decimated Italian troops.