year marked the 100th anniversary of one of the bloodiest battles in history,
the Battle of Verdun, fought through most of 2016 from 21 February to 18
December on the French border with Germany. “Verdun, Looking at History”
chronicles the story of the Battle of Verdun through the eyes of those who
fought there. Part documentary and part drama, it was shot on location between
1927 and 1928 a decade after the battle by French filmmaker Leon Poirier with
assistance from veterans who fought there and may well be one of the first
Battle of Verdun was one of the largest battles of WWI, lasting nearly a year
and resulting in an estimated one million casualties with about one third of
that number representing those killed. The French and German armies fought the
battle on the Western Front in the Northeast part of France near the border
with Belgium and Germany where the bombardment began after breakfast and ceased
by dinner time each day. The German’s goal was to inflict heavy casualties on
the French in order to drive them to surrender. The German plan ultimately
failed as the French held out, but the countryside was devastated by the
continuous and heavy artillery bombardments in such a small area for nearly a
year. The physical scars on the countryside are still present in the area to
hit a low point among the French during the summer of the battle. French
soldiers were indeed summarily executed for “collective indiscipline” and were forbidden
from surrendering. Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 classic “Paths of Glory” gives one a
sense of the absurdity of such military policies. In May of that year a French lieutenant
at Verdun wrote, "Humanity is mad. It must be mad to do what it is doing.
What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to
translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!"
say the emotional and physical scars resulting from the Battle of Verdun, both
on the people, the landscape and the French military, had an impact on the
French people goes without saying. The movie touches the surface of the impact
war has on those who fought and died and survived. It visualizes this for us,
but as is the case with all art, it gives us a taste of how those lives were affected
so we can experience a small part of it.
in the movie are identified generically through inter-title cards as “A French
Soldier,” “A German Soldier,” “A Mother,” “A Farmer,” “A daughter” and “A
General.” You get the idea. While we do not know the characters by name, I feel
like Poirier was trying to make each character the face for a thousand other real
people drawn in to this battle. His use of low angle shots in the recreated
battle shots with the camera literally in the trenches as soldiers crawl
through the mud really draws the viewer in.
movie moves between shots of the German generals and soldiers planning battle
strategies, the French soldiers planning and defending and the civilians as
they evacuate or say goodbye to family and sweethearts before joining the fight.
Shots of maps and inter-titles explaining communications help move the story,
but in an almost documentary style. Divided into three parts; “Might,” “Hell,”
and “Fate;” the 151 minute movie is an epic masterpiece of not only French
cinema, but in movie history.
DVD from Carlotta Films for this release contains three fascinating documentary supplements, all in
French with English subtitles. The first, “Restoring ‘Verdun,’” is 13 minutes
and recounts the interesting history of this film which was nearly lost until prints
were discovered in Russian film archives. The Germans confiscated all prints of
this movie and many others during the occupation of France in WWII. At the end of the war, the
Russians brought this and many other movies back to Russia from Germany, storing
them in their film archives. The battle footage recreated by Leon Poirier was
so realistic that it was used in many documentaries and movies over the years to
represent actual WWI combat footage. Poirier served in the French army at
Verdun which accounts for the accurate depiction of the battle. The Germans are
not depicted as caricatures of evil, but rather the movie is a statement on the
horror of war and becomes one of the earliest cinematic anti-war films.
Poirier’s filmmaking style was influenced by contemporaries D.W. Griffith,
Cecil B. DeMille and Sergei Eisenstein.
second feature, “Visions of ‘Verdun,’” is an 18- minute discussion by several French
cinema historians on the battle, the restoration, the music and the impact of
the movie and the battle on French culture and cinema. The final supplement is
a 29- minute documentary, “The French Take Their Revenge in Verdun”, created
using archive footage edited by the Film Department of the French Army in 1916.
released on 8 Nov 1928 near the 10th anniversary of the end of WWI, the movie
was rescued and restored in 2006 by La Cinematheque de Toulouse and this 2014 DVD
release by Carlotta Films US looks beautiful. The timing of the projection
speed is perfect and the inter-titles, including animated maps of the battle
front, were restored with English subtitles which aid the non French speakers
in appreciating this movie made in the pre-sound era. No silent film was ever
truly silent and this movie is no exception. It is filled with sound effects and music, which
was typical of the silent era. The piano score from the original release was newly
recorded for the restoration and cues on the sheet music aided in the proper
movies are certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but as a snapshot of the
origins of cinema, this movie is well worth a look. The narrative style and
realism is certainly ahead of its time in this landmark film. Well worth a look
for fans of military history and classic cinema fans.