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