One-shot #5: Wartime Filmmaking

Filmmaking had only been around a very short while at the outbreak of the Great War, but it was used extensively to capture newsreel footage, as well as footage that could be brought back to generals and the political elite to show the realities of the front. Youtube is full of silent film footage from the newsreels, including numerous reels featuring the Somme (some set to cheesy music). Here is a glass stereoview of one of the filmmakers in action – or at least, pantomiming action:

Somme 16 – “Coin de champ de bataille” (“Battlefield Corner”), on 6x13cm glass positive from LSU. Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.

I am under the impression that this was not for a newsreel, but rather for either historical documentation, or for the aforementioned dispatches sent to military and political leaders. The subject at which the movie camera is aimed is a deceased soldier at the Battle of the Somme – hardly the sort of thing depicted in most of the silent newsreels of the day, especially with morale already low and many of fighting age resisting the drives to enlist!

However, it’s entirely possible that this stereoview is posed, as might be any footage taken by the filmmaker – in the same manner that H. D. Girdwood staged most of his stereoviews depicting “dead” soldiers for his Realistic Travels series. The irony of the company’s name does not escape me. Girdwood’s method: simply get live soldiers to lie down in a trench, far away from the action, and play dead. Here’s one of Girdwood’s:

Ah, the Aisne – where the soldiers fought in nice, clean, shallow trenches, with still-super-clean uniforms, and died in German (“Bosche”) bombardments without a single visible bloodstain or wound, their rifles still gripped in their hands, as the fall, dead, into completely comfortable looking positions, covered by no rubble. At least that’s how I remember it. From my collection.

Still, Girdwood’s cards told a story – if somewhat, ahem, unrealistically. And this glass stereoview and accompanying footage may – or may not – be doing the same. Let’s take another look at the presumed corpse:

Closeup of today’s subject stereoview.

There isn’t a visible mark on the man, although that certainly does not mean that he isn’t dead – it simply means that we can’t see anything from this angle that would lead us to believe that he is. The positioning of his hand looks a bit awkward, but that might just be my own interpretation. Perhaps the movie camera is seeing something I’m not. But there’s one other thing that seems a bit off about this to me, and that’s the papers scattered around our purported victim:

He’s been here long enough that his rifle & helmet have been stripped (as would be expected), but strangely not his boots. And in this time, the wind hasn’t blown hard enough to move the papers from their aesthetically pleasing location near the soldier at rest. This seems a bit fishy to me, but who am I to say?

Michael Haneke, my favorite living director, said that “film is 24 lies per second in service of truth”, a play on the classic quote by Godard (“Film is 24 truths per second; every cut is a lie”). One of them is right about this image – if the image itself is not a lie (that is to say, if the camera is even loaded, and if the cameraman is actually filming, or planning to film this scene – ie, if this is not entirely a setup). Either this is a setup made for some purpose, or it is an honest-to goodness image of a filmmaker filming a soldier who died at the Somme.

But even the location is unknowable, to me, in 2018, examining the image. Because the caption could be false. It probably isn’t, but it could be. We can take the image at face value, along with its title, its subject, its realism. We can also question these things. Point is, we don’t really know anything besides what we can discern from the image itself.

I’ll leave it to the viewer to look at the image and decide for themselves, or to do as I have done, and simple accept that it’s a pretty awesome stereoview either way, and that the truth is likely unknowable and pretty much irrelevant in this case. And I’ll leave it to viewers with red/cyan glasses to enjoy the anaglyph of today’s image:


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