Myths

The question whether the war films offered a reliable perspective on the war was not the central issue in this study, but it has been discussed implicitly. For example, the themes of the films were placed in their historical or historiographical contexts. The aspect of historical reliablity was mostly discussed by allowing the contemporary critics to speak for themselves.

Among the film narratives about the war, there were those in which the war was mythologised. In historical myths, controversial issues are ironed out, painful paradoxes are resolved, and the lines between fact and fiction are blurred. Historical myths make certain historical events more palatable, more coherent or more exciting. The actions carried out by certain persons and the significance of certain historical events are blown up, or played down and even denied.

In the German films of the Weimar period discussed here, at least three contentions are made, explicitly or implicitly, that may be considered characteristic for contemporary German modes of interpreting the First World War: Germany is not responsible for the outbreak of the war; Germany has not fought against a recognisable national enemy (after all, there was no clear representation of any one enemy); the German army has, as a matter of fact, not suffered any defeat. In the main, these were myths in which Germany's role in the war was distorted or, with respect to some issues, denied. It goes without saying that these contentions were meant to serve political purposes.

On the basis of the above, we can say that, as far as the causes of the war and the treatment of the enemy were concerned, there was, in a sense, a 'master narrative'. By 'letting critics speak for themselves', it has been possible to show that this dominant (film) perspective on the war did not immediately find general acceptance. Some film critics adopted a position as criticasters of the dominant discourse. It is not surprising that these were mostly the reviewers of the communist, social democratic and left-liberal daily newspapers. They made distinctions, and they exposed the representation of history directed by the government and by (self-)censorship. Thanks to a free and varied press, there was an opportunity to discuss matters that were not discussed in the political arena. These reviews indirectly, and often unintentionally, contributed to an increase in the attention that was paid to the less heroic aspects of the war past. This study has confirmed the contention that a number of critics not only commented on films but also offered an account of the social contexts. Critics who propagated myths were mostly working for the conservative press, especially the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, the mouthpiece for the Foreign Ministry.

Although the films dealt with many aspects of the war, they did not give a complete picture of the war. Matters that were neglected often concerned the less spectacular aspects of trench warfare: boredom, drills, rebelling against representatives of the senior ranks, and sexuality (with the exception of Die andere Seite). Showing military weaknesses was as yet also a taboo. The films tell us almost nothing about insubordination, desertion, violation of international military coventions by the German army, the occupation of Belgium, ill-treatment of the civilian population in enemy territory, wrong strategic decisions or disastrously wrong assessments by army command. Nor did the economic activities carried out by women receive much attention. Only films that emphatically opposed the war, such as Niemandsland and Westfront 1918, indirectly paid some attention to these matters. Another taboo was the filmic representation, be it by an actor or by means of archival footage, of Germany's former kaiser Wilhelm II, who had fled to Holland even before the armistice was signed. Not only was he associated with a humiliating defeat - he had fled his own country - but his prestige had also been eclipsed by that of the military heroes Von Hindenburg and Ludendorff. The ban on portrayal by an actor also extended to Von Hindenburg. Whenever he can be seen in a film, it is the general/statesman himself, not some actor. This contributed significantly to his legendary status of war hero.

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