Verdun: Looking at History

Verdun: Looking at History
Directed by Léon Poirier
Kino Lorber Home Video, 2016
151 minutes, in B&W with color extras
DVD, $21.00

Léon Poirier’s silent classic, Verdun, Visions d’histoire, cast veterans as actors and extras in 1927-28, providing the most realistic view of the battle possible since 1916. Poirier filmed outdoors, unusual for the 1920s, and on the original battlefield using actual explosives. He mixed a documentary-style history of the 10-month battle with stories of fictional French and German soldiers and their families. It’s a seamless weaving together of 1928 film footage with footage shot during the battle, including re-creations with the original participants, like Pétain delivering for the camera his famous declaration, “They Shall Not Pass.”

Poirier did not portray the Germans as subhuman brutes but as fellow victims of the real enemy, War itself. (This was very controversial in 1928 France, sometimes eliciting violent reactions in theaters.) Some of the most emotional scenes use “special effects” extremely well, like the double-exposure sequence of ghost-like French and German mothers retrieving together the souls of their dead sons from the battlefield.

Three supplemental features discuss the creation of the original film, the 2006 restoration of it, and show footage filmed at Verdun in 1916. The only complete print of the film was found in a Moscow archive. It was seized in Berlin by the Soviets at the end of WW2 after the Nazis stole it from France. Fortunately, the entire music score was with that print. This allowed the restoration team at La Cinémathéque de Toulouse to add the piano music that would have been played live in the theater with the film in 1928.

Verdun: Looking at History not only provides an important window into the Battle of Verdun but is also a significant milestone in the history of world cinema. It has French and German intertitles (depending on who is speaking), and optional English subtitles.

Reviewed by Steve Suddaby, past president WW1HA

Real Stories of Love and Loss: 14 War Stories

Real Stories of Love and Loss: 14 War Stories
Directed by Jan Peter
BBC America, 2014
430 minutes, in color and B&W
Standard Edition DVD, $29.98

14 War Stories deftly presents a human perspective on the First World War that is simultaneously wide-ranging and personal. The title is a pun in that it dramatizes the lives of 14 ordinary people whose lives were upended by the events of the summer of ’14. All of their words are from their diaries and letters; some have been published and others have languished unseen in archives and private collections for a century.

Among the fascinating people you’ll meet are Yves Conger, a young boy from Sedan who lives under German occupation for four years; Marina Yurlova, a Russian Cossack girl who becomes a soldier fighting on the Caucasian Front; and Louis Barthas, a forty-something barrel maker and socialist who survives the war as a French poilu. Even WW1 readers who have read widely will probably know how the lives of only a few of the 14 turned out, creating true suspense.

This is truly an international production. Jan Peter is a German documentary filmmaker who insisted that the 14 storytellers speak in their own languages—seven in all. Curiously, these are rendered into English sometimes in subtitles and sometimes with voiceovers. The dramatized footage was filmed in Alsace, a place that combines German and French history, and in Quebec, where the use of an abandoned quarry made it possible to construct realistic trenches and create actual explosions. The dramatizations are juxtaposed with carefully restored archival footage that creates a realistic feel to the unfolding events.

This documentary consists of eight episodes that follow the lives of the 14 storytellers in roughly chronological order. There is a bonus feature that describes how 14 War Stories was made.

Reviewed by Steve Suddaby, past president WW1HA