Sunday, 2 June 2013


This is a familiar picture - a French soldier, attacking with his comrades, is shot as he approaches the enemy trenches.

But is he?

Here is another photo that makes a regular appearance, depicting a French soldier being dragged from a muddy slough by sympathetic German soldiers.

But does it?

And here is a third, showing troops and vehicles moving along the Voie Sacrée towards Verdun.

But does it?

And the answer to all these questions is 'No'.

They are all stills from a feature film. Verdun: visions d'histoire was written and directed by Léon Poirier, and starred Albert Préjean, Jeanne Marie-Laurent and Suzanne Bianchetti. It was produced by the Compagnie Universelle Cinématographique, and released in 1928. It was one of three major films all released on or about the tenth anniversary of the Armistice - the others were Verdun tel que le poilu l’a vécu (Emile Buhot, 1927) and Le Film du Poilu (Henri Desfontaine, 1927).

Préjean portrays a soldier serving with the chasseurs à pied, who leaves for the front, and takes part in what one correspondent of the Internet Movie Data Base, phantom2-2, refers to as 'the now nearly-forgotten world war one trench battle of verdun' (Sigh. Dearohdearohdear. Has s/he been living under a bucket?). Préjean's unit is a dramatic device, of course, that allows him to be present at most of the battle's critical episodes. And in fact all the actors are mostly ciphers while the director concentrates on reconstructing the battle. The film is divided into three 'visions' - Force, which set the scene with the forces gathered at the front, Horror, which covers the German attack, and Destiny, which covers the French counter-attacks.

Poirier had made his name in the theatre before moving into cinema in 1926 with the documentary film La Croisière Noire. He retained a documentary style for his film on Verdun, using actors who were also ex-servicemen, and filming on the actual battlefield, including the forts of Vaux and Douaumont. He refused to apportion blame, either for the battle or the war, but by depicting the battle as accurately as he could, hoping in that way to demonstrate the futility of war. As one veteran-turned-actor later commented to the director, 'Your film will do much to promote peace by bringing together France and Germany because we both need to better understand the spectacle of our common suffering.' The film remains one of French cinema's greatest war films. An essay by François-Olivier Lefèvre, in French is here; a shorter anonymous essay in English, here. There's also a Region 2 DVD of the film available down the usual Brazilian river.

Such is the 'authentic' appearance of the film that stills and short clips are now frequently represented as 'real', as actual reportage - the frequent appearance of the first picture in books on the Great War is surely adequate testimony of that. But is it dishonest to use the photos in this way, without any mention that they are part of a reconstruction? Or just lazy? A recent documentary on the Great War, 14-18 le Bruit et la Fureur, was broadcast on the TV channel France2 (and is still available on a well known video sharing site). It makes extensive use of both contemporary newsreel footage as well as films, such as the one by Poirier, and by others such as D.W. Griffiths, Raoul Walsh and Lewis Milestone, as well as more recent works such as Oh what a Lovely War and Fragments d'Antonin. Apart from a single caption when the first clip from the film was shown, nothing besides the quality of the print differentiated between newsreel (which, even if some measure staged, has some grounding in reality) and film (in which all is artifice for the purposes of dramatic effect). Does this then result in our vision of the past being transformed into that of a film director? Does that matter, or should we just retreat into a Post-Modern World, where there are no facts, only interpretations?

Since my first post in February, this blog has now seen 2,000 page views. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to check it out. 

Pictures: all stills from the film - a French soldier is killed; a French soldier is rescued from the mud by some Germans; troops on the Voie Sacrée; Albert Préjean in the uniform of the 59th Chasseurs - he had served as a fighter pilot during the war, and became one of French cinema's most enduring leading men; more stills from the film - French soldiers being shelled, a French attack, another bombardment; and a French and a German poster for the film.