What was the first media war

First World War

Bernd Kleinhans

To person

Dr. phil., born 1960; Research assistant at the University of Education Schwäbisch Gmünd and lecturer at the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University Heidenheim; PH Schwäbisch Gmünd, Oberbettringerstraße 200, 73525 Schwäbisch Gmünd. [email protected]

The theater has lost its magic. We don't want the dream, we want reality! "[1] A few weeks after the beginning of the First World War," Der Kinematograph ", a high-circulation trade journal for the German cinema industry, formulated a challenge to traditional forms of civil entertainment in a tone typical of the times Peace-time escapism, demanded the paper, should now give way to authentic reporting, and the cinema seemed to be the appropriate medium for this: although film was still quite young - moving images were first projected in front of an audience in Paris and Berlin in 1895 it is already firmly established in all warring nations. At the beginning of the war there were more than 2,500 movie theaters in the German Empire alone, which were visited by around 1.4 million people daily. In addition, there was a barely manageable number of traveling cinemas, which also included remote rural regions During the war the number of cinemas should a Increase to over 3,000. [2]

Even before August 1914, the cinema had also developed reporting structures that underlined its claim to be accepted as a serious information medium alongside the press. In addition to entertainment films, the cinemas also showed short documentaries in the form of "nature shots" and "current events". Topics were exotic countries, natural disasters and the appearance of political celebrities. In many cases, these reports were even the real attraction of the cinema programs, as they promised an unadulterated view of otherwise inaccessible realities. Just a few years after the turn of the century, the current reports began to be summarized into short cinema journals that were shown at the beginning of every cinema show. Initially leading were French companies such as Société Pathé Frères. They built up an international network of correspondents and marketed their "Wochenschau", as the journals were also called because of their weekly publication, worldwide. Even in the pre-war German empire, the French journals dominated current reporting in cinemas.

After the outbreak of war, the expectations of the cinema were high. "The general restlessness that has seized the audience out of the uncertainty of upcoming events has meanwhile been reflected in a greatly increased attendance at the cinema. The audience is impatiently waiting for the definitive news," [3] reported "Der Kinematograph" in early August 1914.

The strong interest in cinema was also due to the special features of the First World War. Because of the large number of soldiers involved - in the German Reich alone, more than 13 million men were called up in its course - and the complete involvement of civil society by converting the economy to the war economy (General Erich Ludendorff was to later call this the "total war" [4 ]) - practically the entire population was affected. On the other hand, the fighting remained invisible to most people in the areas far from the front, while at the same time there was a great need to learn as much as possible about the fighting and the fate of the relatives. In contrast to the written press reports, which always showed the war from the subjective perspective of a reporter and barely offered a view of what was happening in the war, the cinema promised not only credible reporting, because the photographic image was apparently objective, but also a visual participation in the war events. In the eyes of many contemporaries, the cinema screen was nothing less than an open window to the front: "Here is the truth. The cinema picture brings it to all cities in Germany; German men took part. "[5]

First phase of the war: restrictions and censorship

In practice, however, it turned out to be difficult to meet the high expectations. After the liquidation of the French newsreel companies immediately after the war began, several dozen German companies tried to get into the war reports business, [6] but hardly any had experience in war reporting, and none was able to cover the long front lines in the east and west even approximately to be covered. There was also little support from the military. Convinced that the war would end victoriously within a few months, they saw in the cameramen above all an unnecessary disruption of military processes.

In order to be able to shoot at the front, the approval of the Supreme Army Command was required. The newsreel companies, it was demanded, had to "be purely German and be under patriotically-minded German management" and "only German recording equipment, German manufacturing facilities and German film material were allowed to be used". [7] In fact, most of the 64 companies that applied for a license for the front were turned down. [8] Only the "Eiko week" produced by the Berlin Scherl-Verlag and the "Messter week" by the national conservative film producer Oskar Messter were able to establish themselves firmly throughout the war. The military continued to determine on the spot whether, when and what could be filmed. But even the recordings made with permission were still subject to military censorship. [9]

But those were not the only difficulties the war correspondents had to struggle with: unlike in the Second World War, in which the newsreelers had highly mobile handheld cameras, the "camera operators" of the First World War were, because of the heavy equipment that relied on tripods, comparatively immobile. A flexible reaction was just as impossible as close-ups of events at the front. During the fighting, it was hardly possible to take pictures outside the trenches because the cameramen put their lives in extreme danger with their exposed tripod assemblies. In addition, the film material of the time was not very sensitive to light, so that in the darkness in which most of the fighting took place, it was hardly possible to take pictures. The Austrian cameraman Heinrich Findeis wrote almost resignedly in the spring of 1915: "If you have reached the army area after much effort, in most cases you arrive too late and see nothing more than an empty battlefield. Once you have the opportunity to take part in a warlike action to come, it is night. "[10]

In the cinemas it was not usually the hostilities that the audience had hoped for (and if so, they were mostly re-enacted [11]), but images from the stage, of preparations for war and the destruction of buildings after the fighting. "Who is satisfied with our war footage?" [12] complained the film magazine "Lichtbildbühne" as early as the spring of 1915. Even with a generous interpretation, hardly more than ten percent of all weekly news reports in the cinemas could have shown real fighting. [13] Above all, however, the censorship fell victim to all the images that showed death and suffering at the front. If death occurred at all, it was in pictures of "heroes' graves, criss-cross, where our heroes rest in a strange earth as in their fatherland". [14] The dying in the hospitals, the desperation of soldiers in the trenches, the poor hygienic conditions in many shelters and, last but not least, the corpses on the battlefields could not be seen in any cinema.

The war reports thus conveyed a picture that the military leadership wanted of a well-ordered and well-organized war with well-supplied soldiers. The recurring subjects of destroyed houses, active reconstruction, supplying the population, eating soldiers and preparing war equipment suggested civilian work rather than documenting a cruel war. The filmic staging also supported the calming effect of the war images. The camera was mostly in a stationary position, pans and tracking shots were used only rarely and very cautiously. In connection with the mostly used setting sizes of the long and medium long shots, the war became an optical tableau that the viewer could view from a certain distance and conveyed a calming feeling of life on the front.