Fort Douaumont at Verdun

The two sequences devoted to these battles were originally part of Der Weltkrieg II and have also been preserved in the compilation film. The battle of Verdun takes up a sequence of approximately thirteen minutes in the film, with the emphasis on the fighting around fort Douaumont. The battle has been placed in a narrative framework, and it has been filmed from a German perspective. The sequence begins with the preparations for a shelling of enemy positions, then continues with the actual bombardment, advancing artillery and fierce man-to-man combat. It ends when the fort falls in German hands on 25 February through the 'Unerhörte Kühnheit kleiner Abteilungen unter Führung des Hauptmanns Haupt, Oberleutnant Von Brandis und Leutnant Radtke'.73 The victors are rewarded, and would almost have cleared the fort had the French not taken the initiative to recapture Douaumont. The film makes clear that general Joffre is prepared to do anything to achieve this objective. His order is: 'Jeder Führer der einen Rückzugsbefehl gibt, wird vor ein Kriegsgericht gestellt!'

In the Douaumont sequence, the technological war machine that Hüppauf wrote about is expressed mainly through a one-minute scene that follows the text: 'Am 21. Februar 1916,8.12 vorm. legten 1367 Geschütze zur Vorbereitung des Angriffs 9 Stunden lang ihr Feuer auf die feindlichen Stellungen.' Apart from the men who load the guns, there is no human life at all in the images. We only see firing guns and powerful explosions in various editing paces. Later, the soldiers themselves appear, especially in scenes that emphasise their relationship with machinery and technology, as, for example, in the scene that follows the text 'Nur wo Artillerie den Weg bahnt, geht es vorwärts.' Next, we see a series of fierce combat scenes edited at a high pace, with in between, in a split second, the image of a soldier mangled between the wheels of a gun carriage, his eyes filled with fear as he stares into the camera.74

While the First World War was characterised by its massive scale, both in terms of the number of soldiers and in terms of the number of dead and wounded, and while heroism had on the whole been stripped of its individuality, the capture of the fort is filmed from a traditional perspective, as if seizing Douaumont was the work of a small band of brave officers. This scene might very well have been a trailer for the feature-length documentary Douaumont by Heinz Paul. Although they are not credited anywhere as 'actors', it is very likely that in Der Weltkrieg, as was the case in Douaumont, the officers Haupt, Radtke and Von Brandis have again re-enacted their own historical roles. Radtke, for example, can be recognised by his round glasses. Besides that, every officer carries a walking stick with which to urge the men to go over the top. The scene of the capture ends the same as the one in

Douaumont: Hauptmann Haupt cordially but condescendingly offers a cigarette to one of the few French soldiers to be found and taken prisoner in the fort.

The film contains a number of unintentional intertextual references, as could be expected on the basis of the use of archival footage, part of which was constructed. In the combat scenes, for example, there are shots that derive from the German propaganda film Bei unseren Helden an der Somme (1917), which contains a constructed combat scene supposed to have taken place near the Saint-Pierre Vaast forest. Some shots from this scene reappeared in a sequence not about the battle at the Somme, but about the battle of Verdun!

Incidentally, the constructed scenes, in contrast to the archival footage in this film75, came in for a lot of criticism. While the right-wing press was usually very appreciative76, parts of the social-democrat and left-liberal press rejected these images for being too anecdotal, idyllic77, sentimental or uninteresting.78 In the eyes of the communists, the film, like practically all war films from that time, was nothing more than imperialist propaganda.79 Despite some interesting sequences, some critics found the Weltkrieg films hopelessly outdated. One reason they gave, was the fact that the intervening titles had been presented in gothic typeface. The critics said this produced a bombastic effect and looked remarkably like 'die Phraseologie des Schullesebuchs'.80 In the end, the film turned out to be far from consistent in its modes of expression. Simultaneously with the outdated way of addressing the viewer, the film used state-of-the-art cinematography, as for instance in the representation of the battle at the Somme.

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