Cultural historians Eksteins Winter and Mosse

The lack of interest in German war films cannot simply be attributed to the limited number of films that have been preserved. True enough, more than half of them are lost, but those that are still there have hardly been examined. I have defined these films as war films because of the fact that the war plays a prominent role in the narrative, in other words, the characters' actions are in large part determined by the war. 'Documentary' films are films that explicitly take the war as their starting point. This means that a film such as Fridericus Rex (1923) or any other film about a Prussian topic and the so-called mountain films, which contain latent references to the war, are here left out of consideration. My criterion for defining a film as a war film has been whether it is an explicit depiction of the war or not.

Now that we have looked at the attention film historians have given to the First World War films, the question arises whether cultural historians have actually offered a valid contribution, especially since they are slowly losing their diffidence with respect to (audio-)visual sources and have begun to engage in the study of historical representations. Three major cultural historians who have studied the war experience and the process of coming to terms with the First World War, and who have in addition given relatively much attention to post-war Germany, are Modris Eksteins (1989), George Mosse (1990) and Jay Winter (1995).51 The works of these authors have been a major inspiration for the present study, especially because of their use of non-traditional sources. Even though these authors approach their subjects from different angles, they share an interest in phenomena connected to mass culture, representations that were aimed at mass audiences, the people who had no access to the written press and the (audio)visual media. This is especially true for Mosse and Winter. The work of these three cultural historians is closely connected to the recent rise in interest in the history of mentality and experience.52

The main starting point of Modris Eksteins' Rites of Spring (1989) is the notion that the First World War has been a decisive factor in the rise of cultural modernism and the pursuit of emancipation. Germany was the most progres sive country in Europe both in terms of economic modernisation and the development of art. Germany was, in Eksteins' words, 'the modernist nation par excellence'.53 Eksteins also has an eye for the positive consequences of the war. In his view, the war not only put a heavy burden on society but later produced what he calls 'a celebration of life'. While Kracauer saw this period mainly as a state of escapism, paralysis and artistic decline, Eksteins emphasises the élan vital that was expressed in, for example, an anarchic attitude towards the existing values and norms. In the field of music, jazz became popular. The short dress became fashionable, and if women really wanted to look modern, they cut their hair in the boyish 'Bubikopf'style. Sexual etiquette became more liberal as night life for homosexuals flourished, especially in the larger cities. An increased objectivity and functionality could be observed in architecture and design (Bauhaus).54 One might expect Eksteins to pay much attention to films that mirrored this vitality, or to films that caused a sensation because of their modernity. One need only think of the first German screening of Eisenstein's Bronenosez Potjomkin (better known as Battleship Potemkin'), avantgarde Bauhaus experiments, Fritz Lang's Metropolis or Walter Ruttmann's Berlin, Symphonie einer Grossstadt.55

However, Eksteins tells us nothing about these films, nor does he pay much attention to war films. This is remarkable when we read the following passage: 'If the past had become a fiction and if it all was indeed flux, then perhaps the cinema, some witnesses felt, was the only appropriate vehicle for capturing the movement to the abyss.'56 Eksteins devotes one chapter to Remarques's bestseller Im Westen nichts neues, but the film version of the book is hardly discussed at all. He did, however, write an article about this film in 1980.57 There was an upsurge in war literature in the wake of Remarque's novel and, Eksteins emphasizes, also of war films, the 'war boom of 1929-1930'.58 Nontheless, Eksteins fails to notice that this upsurge was not confined to this period alone. On the contrary, most war films were made between the years 1926 and 1931. According to the author, the relative rise in interest in the war can be explained with reference to the confusion and disorientation troubling the generation that had grown up during the war. The war had cut this generation off from the psychological and moral ties with the home front and thus from post-war society. According to Eksteins, this made Remarque's novel 'more a comment of the post war minds, on the post war view of the war than an attempt to reconstruct the reality of the trench experience'.59 I assume Eksteins meant this comment to refer also to the film version of the novel. He goes on to say that this was also true for the reviews, which reflected the postwar 'emotional and political investments'.60 Although Eksteins makes some interesting observations here, it should be said that they refer especially to anti-war novels and films, which he apparently also considers to be modernist.

However, they only made out a very small percentage of the total production in this field. If Eksteins, on the basis of one anti-war novel, explains the upsurge in literature and films about the war with reference to dissatisfaction with the post-war period, how then can the majority of 'ordinary' war films and novels be explained?61 Also with reference to discontent with contemporary society or to a desire for the restoration of pre-war civil society? Perhaps. It is more likely, however, that things are more complicated than that, as the present study aims to show. Considering the Weimar period mainly from a modernist perspective leads to one-sided conclusions. In addition, Weimar Germany was troubled by deep divisions, and the 'modern' and the traditional co-existed in a precarious balance.62

Jay Winter tries to restore that balance in his book Sites of memory, sites of mourning (1995). He dismisses the kind of approach represented by Eksteins. While in Eksteins' view, the First World War is a fraction that paved the way for a new era characterised by a modernist language of forms, 'Traditional modes of expression - words, pictures, even music - were inadequate in this situation'63, Winter defends the idea that the war did not constitute a completely new departure. 'The overlap of languages and approaches between the old and the new, the "traditional" and the "modern", the conservative and the iconoclast, was apparent both during and after the war.'64 As a result of his study of ways of mourning for war victims during the interbellum, Winter arrives at the conclusion that precisely the traditional, religious and romantic language of forms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were used in the mourning process.65 This is not only true for prose, poetry and various social practices, but also for visual expressions such as painting, posters and films. War films practised historical mystification by means of a 'sanitisation of the worst features of the war and its presentation as a mythical or romantic adventure.'66 Some films tried to show the opposite, such as All quiet on the Western Front, Westfront 1918 and Verdun, Vision d'histoire, but Winter rightly states that these films belonged to a very small minority.67 In his analysis of several (non-German) war films, Winter confines himself to the theme of the 'symbolic' return of the dead, a theme which runs like a thread through his entire study.68 Winter's approach offers a correction to the dominant modernist perspective. The meaning of his approach for the present study lies in the question to what extent the war films use traditional symbols and images, and to what extent they can be seen as modernist representations. In addition, I do not exclusively associate modernism with anti-war films, as Eksteins and Winter do in an implicit way.

George Mosse, in his book Fallen Soldiers (1990) also confirms that there was mystification and mythologising. According to Mosse, the confrontation with the mass slaughter of the First World War, especially on the western front, has been the most important and drastic experience. Combined with modern weapons technology and new means of communication, this brought a whole new dimension to the practice of warfare. According to Mosse, people not only revisited the horror in trying to come to terms with this experience, but feelings of patriotism and glory sometimes played an even bigger part.69

For some people, it was an absolute necessity to invest the war with some positive meaning and purpose. The idea that all the suffering had been for nothing was simply unbearable. The horrible reality of the war was therefore 'transformed into what one might call the Myth of the War Experience, which looked back upon the war as a meaningful and even sacred event'.70 This myth, which according to Mosse had been created by young war volunteers, fell on fertile ground in defeated Germany, and played an important role in post-war politics.71 The war experience was mythologised into an idealised and religious experience, complete with its own 'acts of worship' in the form of memorial services and images of martyrdom, heroism and comradeship.72 Symbols taken from Christianity and nature (mountains, forests, the arch of heaven) were dominant references in the representation of this myth.73 Mosse not only focuses on cultural practices such as the monument-building and tourist excursions to places at the former front and war cemeteries, but also on seemingly trivial things like picture postcards, kitsch and children's toys.74 With his views on the construction of this myth, Mosse emphasises a sense of unity which authors like Weldon Whalen, Eksteins, Hynes and Winter have tried to nuance.

Mosse discusses the post war film in only a few paragraphs, concentrating mainly on Germany. He only indirectly mentions the fact that relatively many war films were produced in the second half of the Weimar period. This is hardly surprising, because Mosse's account is based on literature from 1927 (Hans Buchner, Im Banner des Films).75 From this source also derives Mosse's statement that 'German war films at the end of the 1920's have been called singularly realistic', after which he goes on to quote Buchner: 'Soldiers fall before our eyes and writhe in the agony of death, the faces of deadly wounded young men show their pain.' Buchner must have referred to the Austrian war film Namenlose Helden or the first part of Der Weltkrieg, for other German war films that showed such images were hardly made before 1929. Mosse does, however, consider the genre of the so-called mountain films as surrogate war films because they 'glorified the national image of combative manliness'.76 This new masculinity plays a central role in Mosse's 'Myth of the War Experience'. Needless to say that images of the new and youthful male hero and warrior, so attractive to the right, continued to fulfil their function under the Nazi regime.77 Though the similarities between Mosse and Winter are obvious, their interest in religious symbols for example, Mosse considers the myth mainly in the context of right-wing nationalism, while Winter gives more attention to the everyday practice and the more artistic expressions of mourning. Mosse emphasizes the heroism, while Winter stresses the suffering that has been caused. Both are far removed from Eksteins' notion that traditional language and imagery are inadequate means for conveying and coming to terms with the experience of modern warfare.

Despite the many differences in approach that are apparent in the literature discussed here, the three authors agree on the central notion that representations of the war were not only problematic, but seemed almost impossible in essence. It is true that traditional symbols, myths and fictions fulfilled their functions, but they also stood in contrast to the modern experience of warfare, which was dominated by disorientation, fragmentation, deafening noise and chaos. These 'features' are generally associated with modernist art and literature. The question whether, and if so, how, both traditional and avant-garde aspects functioned in the post-war German war films is not answered by these authors, and the examples of the films they mention can certainly not be called representative.

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