The First World War had far-reaching consequences for many. This most violent war devastated large parts of Europe and claimed millions of victims. During the 1910s war and its atrocities were captured and reflected on the young medium of film for the first time. Footage of earlier conflicts such as the Boer Wars or the Balkan Wars exists, but never before was a conflict recorded so comprehensively by film cameras. Selected cameramen operated practically on all fronts, bearing witness to the events and battles.
The slideshow on the NECSUS home page features four photographs from the collection of the German cameraman Wolfgang Filzinger, held at Deutsches Filminstitut (Frankfurt). While none of the film footage he shot is known to have survived the photos he took and that show him at work give an account of the conditions camera operators shooting in combat zones dealt with.
Wolfgang Filzinger, born in Dresden in 1889, was an engineer. After being involved in building the first Pathé theatre in Paris in 1911 he returned to Germany in 1913 and started working as a front cameraman when the war broke out. Filzinger had a keen interest in the technical and mechanical challenges filming on the front posed and spent much of his time exploring possibilities for improving his equipment to facilitate his work. As all other camera operators at the front, he suffered not only from military censorship but also from technical restrictions such as big, heavy, and immobile equipment that took a relatively long time to set up, making it almost impossible to capture actual combat operations. In 1915 Filzinger wrote about the dangers that come with filming at the front for the German journal Lichtbild-Bühne:
[t]he apparatus must always be completely assembled, equipped and adjusted, for it to work at any second. In order to shoot in a trench, you have to be familiar with the conditions therein. It is not easy to find a suitable spot in a trench. It is best to film through an embrasure or from an observation stand. The cranking of the camera is a dangerous business, as it can easily happen that one is hit by shrapnel when shells detonate nearby. (‘Etwas über die Kino-Aufnahmen im Felde / Something about cinema pictures in the field’, Lichtbild-Bühne, 8.31, 1915: 14-22)
Two of the photos chosen for the slideshow depict Filzinger with his camera – a hand-cranked Ernemann-A built in Dresden. Figure 1 shows him at the Pontfaverger airfield (Marne Department, France) in March 1915, and Figure 2 shows him in a typical position lying down in the field, making use of a short tripod built by him and his assistants. This handy tripod came into use a lot, as it allowed filming in recumbent positions which reduced the danger of Filzinger becoming a target himself. In the texts published by Filzinger he also reports on cloaking devices he invented and employed to shelter himself from both soldiers staring curiously into the camera, thus destroying the aura of authenticity, as well as enemies spotting him. Other safety measures he employed included a system of mirrors he installed in trenches and dug-outs so he could film without risk.
Both images show how the size and weight of the camera as well as tripods would restrict the work of the operator – a reason why action often had to be captured from a fixed viewpoint in the distance using a wide angle. This wide angle would also allow operators to capture spectacular events or detonations, as one was always unsure where exactly they would occur. As a consequence the aesthetic quality of such images in terms of composition or depth of field was often mediocre. It is known from his reports that Filzinger tried to improve the visual quality of his footage by working on the diaphragm control of his object lens.
The other two photos featured in the slideshow were taken by Filzinger while he was filming in the rear. These photos have a staged quality that also characterises some of the film footage that survived the war years. Figure 3 shows soldiers in a trench, most likely on the occasion of an exercise or a public demonstration (note that nobody wears a helmet), while Figure 4 depicts soldiers (also not in combat uniforms) relaxed with a phone. Just like these images, most often it was not the actual battles that were recorded by the camera but in fact manoeuvres, military training, or re-enactments in the rear which offered better and safer shooting opportunities for the cameramen. Nevertheless, depictions of battle scenes, regardless of whether they were authentic or re-enacted, served as powerful tools of propaganda and were used by all combating powers to re-enforce notions of military and moral superiority over opposing forces.
Filzinger left three photo albums that show him and his team at the Western Front. It is not known who he was working for but seeing that governmental film production in Germany did not start before 1917 it is likely that Filzinger worked for one of the few private production companies that were allowed access to the front. After the war Filzinger continued his work in the film sector and is known mostly for conducting early sound film experiments with the Swedish film pioneer Sven Berglund.
The parts of the Filzinger collection at Deutsches Filminstitut that are related to his work during the First World War were digitised within the scope of the EU-funded project European Film Gateway 1914. This project, on the occasion of the centenary of the war, provided the means for 25 European film archives to digitise roughly 3,000 films and 5,000 film-related materials from and about the First World War and to make them available in open access at www.europeanfilmgateway.eu/1914.
Julia Welter (Deutsches Filminstitut)