The following list was compiled for Bristol Radical History Group in Jan 2014.
Germany 1930 Directed by P.W. Pabst
Westfront 1918 (aka Comrades of 1918) was the first talkie effort from German filmmaker G. W. Pabst, which he made for Nero Films, a production company headed up by Seymour Nebenzahl. Like the contemporary Hollywood production All Quiet on the Western Front, Pabst’s film is a bitter, melancholy anti-war statement. The story concentrates on four German soldiers, sent to the front in the waning days of World War 1. The futility of killing an enemy who is already dead spiritually, and of being killed for a cause that has for all intents and purposes been resolved, is brought home to the viewer with both barrels. The astonishingly fluid camerawork of Fritz Arno puts the spectator in the thick of the battle, and the effect is both terrifying and heart-breaking To watch only a few moments of Westfront 1918, one might think that Pabst had been making sound pictures all his life, rather than a mere couple of months.
Germany 1931 Directed by P.W. Pabst
Valliant effort to use a mining catastrophe as a vehicle to pronounce this director’s distaste for war. The audience not only learns a great deal about early mining rescue procedures but, we learn that Europeans at the interval between WWI and WWII, had concerning pacifists (for lack of a better term). The speeches given by both representatives of each country at the end of the film, are inspiring given the time
Kameradschaft (Comradeship) was a French-German co-production; it was financed by Gaumont (French) and Nero-Film (German). It’s a strong follow-up to Pabst’s previous anti-war picture Westfront 1918. Pabst yearns for the two countries to overcome their natural mistrust and makes the film as a plea for peace. Many consider this film the high point of German socialist film-making of the period. But with the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in 1932, the film after receiving honours for its technical and artistic achievements was quickly forgotten by the world, disparaged for being naive or completely ignored in Germany or criticized for being a fairy tale.
LA GRANDE ILLUSION (Grand Illusion)
France 1937 Directed by Jean Renoir
But if “Grand Illusion” had been merely a source of later inspiration, it wouldn’t be on so many lists of great films. It’s not a movie about a prison escape, nor is it jingoistic in its politics; it’s a meditation on the collapse of the old order of European civilization. Perhaps that was always a sentimental upper-class illusion, the notion that gentlemen on both sides of the lines subscribed to the same code of behaviour. Whatever it was, it died in the trenches of World War I.
“Neither you nor I can stop the march of time,” the captured French aristocrat Capt. de Boieldieu tells the German prison camp commandant, Von Rauffenstein. A little later, distracting the guards during an escape of others from the high-security German fortress, the Frenchman forces the German to shoot him, reluctantly, and they have a final deathbed exchange. “I didn’t know a bullet in the stomach hurt so much,” he tells the German. “I aimed at your legs,” says the German, near tears. And a little later he says: “For a commoner, dying in a war is a tragedy. But for you and I–it’s a good way out.”
What the Frenchman knows and the German won’t admit is that the new world belongs to commoners. It changed hands when the gentlemen of Europe declared war. And the “grand illusion” of Renoir’s title is the notion that the upper classes somehow stand above war. The German cannot believe that his prisoners, whom he treats almost as guests, would try to escape. After all, they have given their word not to.
J’ACCUSE (That They May Live)
France 1937 Directed by Abel Gance
As war approached Europe in the mid-1930s with the rise to power of Adolph Hitler in Germany, famed French filmmaker Abel Gance felt the need to make an artistic statement regarding his pacifistic leanings and deeply humanistic concern for the survival of mankind. The end result was this heartfelt, unrelentingly powerful and deeply moving drama. The setting is the First World War which supposedly was “The War To End All Wars.” A group of French infantrymen have been chosen by lot to be members of a “death patrol.” All are certain to die in battle. A soldier named Jean Diaz volunteers to replace one of the men, who is the father of four children. All eventually are killed, except for Diaz. Ironically, they are fated to be the final casualties of the war. Diaz goes on to be haunted by the memory of his fallen comrades. The battle scenes all are graphically real and utterly shattering. They are loaded with potent symbolism, such as the image of a dead dove sinking to the bottom of some murky, polluted water and a statue of Christ lying lopsided after being destroyed by a bomb. By far the films highlight is the celebrated and visually potent “Return Of The Dead” sequence, among the most famed of its type in motion picture history. Here, the ghosts of the wars deceased victims collectively rise from their graves and march in unison. Many of the extras in this sequence were real-life World War I veterans who had been wounded and scarred in battle. In French with English subtitles. 73 minutes.
JOYEZ NOEL (Merry Christmas)
France 2005 Directed by Christian Carion
In 1914, World War I, the bloodiest war ever at that time in human history, was well under way. However on Christmas Eve, numerous sections of the Western Front called an informal, and unauthorized, truce where the various front-line soldiers of the conflict peacefully met each other in No Man’s Land to share a precious pause in the carnage with a fleeting brotherhood. This film dramatizes one such section as the French, British and German sides partake in the unique event, even though they are aware that their superiors will not tolerate its occurrence
JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN
U.S.A. 1971 Written and directed by Dalton Trumbo
A young American soldier, hit by a shell on the last day of the First World War, lies in a hospital bed, a quadruple amputee who has lost his eyes, ears, mouth and nose. He remains conscious, and able to reason, and tries to communicate to his doctors his wish that he be put on show in a carnival as a demonstration of the horrors of war.
The movie ends with no political solutions and without, in fact, even a political position. It simply states a case. Here was a patriotic young man who went off and was grievously wounded for no great reason, and whose conscious mind remains a horrible indictment of the system that sent all the young men away to kill each other. The soldier’s own answer to his situation seems like the only possible one. He wants them to put him in a sideshow, where, as a freak, he can cause people a moment’s thought about war. If they won’t do that, he wants them to kill him. The army won’t do either, of course.
Csillagosok, katonák (The Red and the White)
Hungary 1967 Directed by Miklós Jancsó
The Red and the White (Hungarian: Csillagosok, katonák) is a 1967 film directed by Miklós Jancsó and dealing with the Russian Civil War. The original Hungarian title, Csillagosok, katonák, can be translated as “Stars on their Caps” (literally ‘starries, soldiers’), which, as with a number of Jancsó film titles, is a quote from a song. The film was listed to compete at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, but the festival was cancelled due to the events of May 1968 in France. It was voted as “Best Foreign Film of 1969” by the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics.
The film, a Russian-Hungarian co-production, was originally commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia in which the Bolsheviks seized power. However, Jancsó chose to set the action two years later in 1919 and showed Hungarian irregulars supporting the Communist “Reds” in fighting the Tsarist “Whites” as the two sides battled for control in the hills overlooking the Volga river. As well as deviating on the required setting, Jancsó also chose to use a radically different approach to the film than that expected. Rather than shooting a hagiographic account of the birth of Soviet Communism, Jancsó produced a profoundly anti-heroic film that depicts the senseless brutality of the Russian Civil War specifically and all armed combat in general.
Uomini contro (Many Wars Ago)
Italy 1971 Directed by Francesco Rosi
Italy 1917 – society is violently split down the middle over the question of whether to continue intervention in the war. Anarchists and socialists are intent on causing so much trouble that continued intervention is impossible. Railway lines are ripped up, battle lines are drawn. On the Isonzo front a General smells socialism behind the troops reaction to his orders, a disastrous Italian attack upon the Austrian positions leads to a mutiny among the decimated Italian troops.
Mutiny on the Western Front
Australia 1979 Directed by Dick Dennison
An account of the 119 Australian soldiers jailed by the British Military for desertion in 1918 (they later received a royal pardon). Possible re-master and re-release coming next year.
France 1996 Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
Conan (Philippe Torreton) burns his way across the chaotic battlefield while slashing throats and causing violent destruction. He commands a group of fifty “warriors” who differ in his mind from the “soldiers” of the rest of the army. Their method of attack is close and brutal, and lacks the impersonal technologies of war. They function as killing machines who feel alive amidst the dark recesses of trenches, camps, and the bloody battlefield.
In his new film Capitaine Conan, acclaimed French director Bertrand Tavernier (‘Round Midnight, Sunday in the Country’) takes us into the French army in the Balkans during the conclusion of World War I. The story begins in the days before the signed Armistice, and it quickly showcases the dark and destructive nature of the war. But this is not a typical war film in the vein of Saving Private Ryan or Gettsyburg. Instead, a majority of the film focuses on the time following the end of the actual war.
C.K. dezerterzy (The Deserters)
Poland 1986 Directed by Janusz Majewski
The story begins in what is described in most synopses as an Austro-Hungarian prisoner-of-war camp. That may be the case. Although it’s not stated in the English subtitles for the film, there could be visual clues or something in the Polish dialogue indicating this setting. At any rate, it’s amusing that there only seems to be one man present who is clearly a prisoner of war, an Italian who is taken off of janitorial duty and adopted as the personal assistant of the new Lieutenant, von Nogay (Wojciech Pokora). Von Nogay even has the Italian taking care of his parrot, to whom he teaches anti-war, or at least anti-Austro-Hungarian phrases. Still, the rest of the soldiers on base are usually called “politically suspect” in most synopses, and it’s at least clear that they’re an ethnically diverse group (accurate for the demographics of Austria-Hungary at the time) of layabouts and troublemakers. In fact, their reputation for being an undisciplined group of partiers and subversive practical jokers is what precipitated von Nogay’s appointment to the base in the first place. Von Nogay is a tightly wound German, as were most officers in the Austro-Hungarian army, a strict disciplinarian—he’s almost abusive, who dedicates himself to getting the troupe back into shape. He’s outraged at their facial hair. He’s outraged that they do not know the German anthem. He’s outraged by just about everything he sees, and he probably has a right to be.
Horvatov izbor (Horvat’s Choice)
Croatia 1985 Directed by Eduard Galic
It is 1918, the evening of The Great War. Austro-Hungarian Empire is collapsing, and all around Croatia there are outlaw deserters, fighting in forests. A city journalist decides to become a country schoolteacher, just to find some peace in that restless political situation. But, neither the village is safe from the militaristic policy of the imperial government.
Lalie Polne (The Lilies of the Field)
Slovakia 1973 Directed by Elo Havetta
Havetta made his second film, The Lilies of the Field, during the period of so-called “normalization,” as a sort of postscript to the 1960s. The Lilies of the Field is the story of men who had returned home from World War I—not deserters, but soldiers who had been discharged and who did not know how to fit back into society, who did not know why they should go back to tilling the soil and looking forward to the harvest. Their disengagement is contrasted with the traditional life of farmers, which does not question life’s values and which considers work as natural as breathing. The young men, in their roles as vagrants, outcasts, and beggars―like the birds of the field that do not sew nor reap, yet sing beautifully―ask whether such life is not as valid as a life of work and a career.
OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR
THE MONOCLED MUTINEER
PATHS OF GLORY
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT
THE GREAT WAR
Episode Fifteen – Touches on mutiny among the French Regiments.
Episode Eighteen – Covers the rebellion on the Russian Front and the subsequent revolution.
Free DVD copies of the complete series were issued free with the Daily Mail. Copies can sometimes be found in charity shops or at car-boot sales.
WORLD WAR 1 in Colour