War and the Beautiful: On the Aestheticizing of the First World War in Film Yesterday and Today

War and the Beautiful: On the Aestheticizing of the First World War in Film Yesterday and Today
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  THIS IS A POST-PRINT VERSION OF THE ARTICLE WHICH HAS NOW BEEN PUBLISHED: Fengler, S. & Krebs, S. (2007). War and the Beautiful: On the Aestheticizing of the First World War in Film Yesterday and Today. In Reinhard Heil et al. (eds.). Tensions and Convergences. Technological and Aesthetic Transformations of Society  (pp. 305–316). Bielefeld: Transcript.  War and the Beautiful: On the Aestheticizing of the First World War in Film – Yesterday and Today Silke Fengler/Stefan Krebs This paper is an enquiry into the medial construction and aestheticizing of the war in present day TV documentaries on the First World War. The analysis refers mainly to the exemplary 90-minute documentary "Der Moderne Krieg", which the German-French station, ARTE, broadcast last summer. 1  Two temporal phases converge here: at the first phase it can be seen how film, as a new medium during the First World War, lent a hitherto unknown aesthetic dimension to the industrialized war events, which oriented itself at the same time toward traditional image forms and motifs. In the second, present-day phase, this film material is respliced and loaded with additional meaning. Both temporal phases are inseparably intertwined – both construe the modern myth of the clean war: each in its own manner, each according to its own era. In general, the official pictorial propaganda put forth an effort to blot out the horror of the industrialized waging of war. Instead, it perpetuated the scenario of a pre-modern, romantic war (e.g. Hüppauf 1997: 887f.). One outstanding motif of German film reporting, as well as of war photography, was the front, i.e. pictures from life at the front line. On the other hand, a contemporary photographic iconography and aesthetic of destruction were also developed. Thus, the improved photographic technology and faster shutter speed made possible a new type of presentation of the dynamics of war, e.g. in the shots of soldiers using their equipment. Film technology was used for the first time for the construction of the reality of war as visual battleground. Thus, soldiers themselves participated in combat exhibitions that were staged especially for the camera (e.g. Paul 2004: 106). 1  On the occasion of the ninetieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War One ARTE broadcast the contribution "1914-1918. Der Moderne Krieg" by Heinrich Billstein and Matthias Haentjes (Germany 2004, first broadcast July 30, 2004, at 10:15 p.m. on ARTE).  2 Overall, wartime film material remained indebted to popular aesthetic conventions and delivered with its manifold staged scenes, which were filmed without sound, hardly a realistic view of battle events. The fictional portrayal of war in cinema films, starting in 1916, which wrote played-out scenarios into real war experiences, further blurred the difference between fiction and reality, turning war into entertainment. In 1992, William Mitchell attempted to rehabilitate thinking in and about images with his concept of the pictorial turn. Gottfried Boehm (2005: 40f.), who first coined the term iconic turn,  recovered the picture as an autonomic authority to the core of hermeneutics and philosophy with his conceptual recommendation. The demand went so far as to analyze, as much as possible, all contemporary visual fields – pictures of the mass media, from natural sciences, plastic arts, etc. – using a logic of images, to be developed gradually. But how can an assumed logic of images be decoded? The focal point here is in the analysis of film material with respect to its specific formal language, and the contents and messages connected to it. We shall concentrate on the moment of the aestheticizing of the war, asking how it is mediated over the composition of pictorial contents and edition, but also over the later combination with audiovisual elements. Firstly, contents and themes of the film images are to be determined and grouped according to selected aesthetic categories. These are foremost the categories beauty  and sublimity . In the second phase of the enquiry, they are to be complemented with the categories of the comical  and tragic . Wartime reporting took up traditional iconographical stylistic methods and pictorial aesthetic conventions. The category beauty played a central role. Beauty in the aesthetic sense showed itself in perfection, purity, the right measure, clarity, order and symmetry of the individual pictorial motifs. In propaganda film, but also in still life photographs of World War One beauty is represented in the classical subcategories of the idyllic , of the  picturesque , but also cleanliness and  order  . The idyll of war coheres with its supposed picnic character. 2  A frequently recurring scene shows soldiers preparing or distributing food. In these images, the impressive abundance and plenitude of the food available is meant to show the wartime viewers the excellent efficiency of the supply lines at the front. The happy faces of the soldiers reflect the enjoyment of a simple meal in undisturbed nature. Just as the picture of a soldier calmly smoking a pipe, 2  In the Crimean War, the photographer Roger Fenton took numerous photographs for the British Royal House which idealised war events as a picnic (e.g. Becker 1998: 73).    3 these images emphasize the impression of the picturesque. They are reminiscent of the genre painting of the 19th century. The picturesque as an aesthetic category rests upon the variety- and contrast rich properties of a mostly untouched, yet bizarre natural landscape. This conventional model was in part reproduced with the help of new film technology, in part, though, an aesthetic of destruction all of its own was developed. In the aerial shots as in the panorama of destroyed forest landscapes the impression of harmony and calm is preserved. Thus, nature loses nothing of its beauty, in spite of the most brutal destruction. Contrary to the factual chaos of war, the film images suggest a constant, perfectly preserved order that permeates both the everyday life of the soldiers and the waging of battle, i.e. the actual combat. Shells stacked horizontally or in many graded rows for storage show neat, straight lines in the pictorial composition. The traditional commander’s eye view of the battlefield, i.e. the view from an elevated point of observation of a field that disappears into the horizon, a field on which soldiers are at once no more than tiny figures, was also reproduced in wartime films. In an exemplary scene, one sees a chain of artillery projectiles stretching vertically into the picture and, on the horizon, row upon row of riders riding toward the front line. In contrast to the aesthetic category of the beautiful, the sublime is not so much associated with feelings of joy or pleasure, as with those of terror, of fear or of disturbance. This emotional reaction is called forth by the grandiose , the splendid  , that which transcends  that which can be sensually experienced, or which is majestic . In order for the observer to experience the sublime, some distance from the image is necessary. Especially the sublime in its negative variation – the threatening , the  fearsome , death , and  power   – incites wonder and fear at once in the observer; the aesthetic enjoyment necessarily requires that the observer be not immediately threatened by the experience. For only the distance, as a rule physical distance, enables him to gain some overview of the entire matter as well as the quality of individual aspects, while at the same time experiencing the sensual-emotional effects of the observed image (e.g. Sontag 2002). As already in the case of the presentation of the beautiful, the images of battle equipment and the battlefield contribute little to the portrayal of the reality of the industrialised war. Artillery guns were as a rule portrayed as imposing military machinery. Whether the cannons seemed threatening and intimidating or offensive to the observer depended upon the camera perspective chosen. Sometimes the observer gazed quasi from the front into the barrel –  4 wherewith the threatening aspect of the weapon was immediately given. Usually, though, wartime propaganda filmed cannons either from the side or diagonally from behind, so that the camera gazed along the weapons barrel, or seemed to follow the line of fire. The expressive images of exploding shells follow a recurring aesthetic of the immensely threatening: earth splattering up, and in its midst, a rising column of dark smoke. In the portrayal of artillery, the new medium film could still outdo photography: the quick loading of cannons by the artillery teams, the turbulent dynamics of the discharge and the impact of the shells develop their destruction aesthetic only in moving pictures. It is conspicuous in the differing film images that the artillery shells almost always impact on a field completely deserted by people; the effect of the shells on a human body thus remains hidden. This is firstly a hint as to the artificial character of the pictures. Secondly, the observer is thus not confronted with the actual reality of injury, death and suffering, but can yield himself over completely to the clean aesthetic enjoyment of the scene. The proverbial firepower was also illustrated by pictures of the employment of the flamethrower. This new weapon seems especially threatening when the stream of flames moves toward the camera, and thus toward the observer. The viewer is thus given a perspective that is usually exclusively reserved for the mortally threatened victim of the attack (e.g. Hickethier 2001: 65). But instead of being exposed to the real terror of the column of fire spray accelerating out of the picture, the distanced observer experiences a queer thrill at the fascination of the power of arms. Death on the battlefield was unwelcome in propaganda, and is therefore rarely shown in wartime films (e.g. Paul 2004: 126, 129). The images of dead soldiers all have in common that the camera remains mostly distant, and that the scenes appear rather peaceful. This effect was achieved by the use of extremely slow camera movement, or the resting of the camera in one position. Nor do any mangled corpses appear in these scenes, but rather dead soldiers who, corporally unscathed, appear to be sleeping. Much less ambiguous are the photographs of horribly disfigured war victims, such as those published by Ernst Friedrich (2004) in his book "Krieg dem Kriege" in 1924. The pictures have their srcin in the documentation of injuries for didactic and research purposes in medicine. The feeling of displeasure that befalls the viewer of these blunt pictures is transformed into a softened horror. 3  The spectators' emotions sway between pity for the victims and the apathy of the voyeur: the horrible becomes a spectacle (e.g. Sontag 2002). 3  The concept of the softened horror is from Edmund Burke.  5 The TV authors rely in their portrayal of the First World War largely on historical film material. The portion of srcinal footage, i.e. films and still photos recorded later in film, amounts to nearly three quarters of the entire broadcast duration. The compilation film 4  derives its claim to have portrayed the past as authentically as possible from the extensive use of historical footage. This effect is also intended by the reduction of the stylistic devices employed in the new type of contemporary historical documentary successfully introduced in the 1990's by the German TV historian Guido Knopp. These rely mainly on witness testimonies and historical film footage to tell history and to enable the TV viewers to gain a direct emotional access to historical reality. Other classical stylistic devices of the compilation film, such as expert interviews and the audiovisual citation of historical documents, sink into the background (e.g. Lappe 2003: 97). If Siegfried Kracauer's paradigm (1993) is followed, the documentary film draws its authenticity from the depiction of supposedly non-staged, real actions. In its efforts to show past events the way they really were, modern historical documentaries aspire to objectivity. The supposedly unchanged reproduction of the srcinal material is intended to lend credibility to the historical feature. At first sight, the film footage of World War One seems then very well to open a window 5  to the war, to document its hidden reality. As the analysis of motifs and scenes above shows, however, instead of an authentic depiction of the reality of war, rather a veiling of it with an aestheticizing and glorification of war events occurs. This can hardly be surprising considering the srcin of the film footage in war propaganda departments of the participant armies. Before this background, it appears secondary whether the reality of war can even be portrayed, as the propaganda film's depiction of war is bent on achieving exactly the opposite (e.g. Paul 2003: 60). This brings us in the following section, in which we turn our attention to the contemporary phase of documentation, to the question of how TV authors treat film resources. Whereas the first part of the paper deals with the analysis of individual pictorial motifs, the television viewer is confronted with the film resource not as a single picture, but as a sequence. The process of pictorial editing creates narrative and aesthetic structures which themselves produce the narrative continuity of the documentary. 4  In the production of compilation films, historical cuts, which have been extracted from their srcinal context, are recombined on the editing table and thus placed into a new context (e.g. Hattendorf 1999: 203). 5  This is in the sense of Leon Battista Alberti’s window metaphor.
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