Projects

Silent witnesses of a world war

Alexander “Sascha” Kolowrat-Krakowsky, founder of the Sascha-Filmfabrik, behind the camera in the field. Quelle: Filmarchiv Austria

While the term “fake” is given especially wide currency these days, the concept of faking has a long history. In this context, the postulation that faking – or re-enacting – scenes in films was born during the First World War, has been disclaimed as “a myth” by the historian and author Hannes Leidinger. According to Leidinger, scenes of war had been re-enacted earlier than that, for instance in films about the Boxer Uprising in China. The historian and his three-strong research team are now in a position to provide the first empirical evidence of the degree to which this is also true of the First World War.

What is genuine?

“A large proportion of the image material about WWI fighting was re-enacted”, Leidinger claims in his conversation with scilog. He was in charge of the research project Moving Images of Habsburg’s Final War (2013-2018), which was funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF. By analysing the images, the researchers were able to distinguish re-enacted footage from real-life footage. Investigating the position of the film camera was particularly revealing. A good example of this is when the camera shows Austrian soldiers storming forward from the front and then cuts to Italian troops, filming them from behind as they throw hand grenades towards the Austrians: this is obviously a re-enacted scene. The historian recognises genuine war scenes by the fact that the images are unspectacular. If the scene looks calm and static, the action was real. The film producers – both private and military alike – were very creative in portraying war. They used soldiers to re-enact war scenes or included archived material, such as footage showing military equipment or troop exercises. It was also common practice to retouch image material of the enemy.

Exploring all the angles of Austro-Hungarian history

The distinction between fiction and reality became blurred. The filmography of Austro-Hungarian film production between 1914 and 1918 established by Leidinger’s team now provides a clearer picture of the situation throughout the monarchy. This was achieved through close cooperation with the Austrian Film Archive, the Magyar Nemzeti Filmarchívum in Budapest, as well as film archives and experts in all successor states and the former neighbouring countries of the Habsburg Monarchy. Together with the University of New Orleans, they also produced an anthology, due to be published in spring, devoted to international films about the First World War and the Habsburg Monarchy produced between 1918 and 2014.

Discovering rare gems

Just how closely fiction and reality became intertwined is illustrated by the Hungarian feature film A föld rabjai (Engl. Prisoners of the Land) released in 1917: according to Leidinger, war scenes from that film can also be seen in documentaries about the conquest of Bucovina. Finds like this are gems of film history. The researchers were surprised about the great number and high quality of footage stored in archives. “We started out with the assumption that about 200 films relating to the war were produced between 1914 and 1918. Our filmography now contains a far greater number of films”, notes the expert, “and we now know a good deal more about fictional and non-fictional film production in the former crown lands”. There are unbelievably rich treasures to be found, particularly when it comes to Hungarian films.

A strong film industry in Hungary

In the Hungarian part of the empire, the production of feature and entertainment films was immense. In addition to Budapest, something resembling a Hungarian Hollywood developed in Kolozsvár (Klausenburg) from 1917 onwards. The researchers discovered intriguing details: the Hungarians were reticent when it came to producing war propaganda, and they did not have their own weekly newsreel until Mihály Károlyi proclaimed the Republic of Hungary in November 1918. The research team painstakingly reconstructed what the newsreels actually contained, since previously the only thing known about many of them was the title. The scholars achieved unprecedented levels of quantity and quality, leading Leidinger to the conclusion that “the First World War did not create the genre of weekly newsreels. It was more of a learning opportunity. Entertainment films began to rise to prominence between 1916 and 1918, while fewer films were being made about the war”.

Propaganda – fighting a losing battle

The audience’s interest in watching the war on a movie screen declined significantly from 1916 onward, a trend that started just as the army was beginning to crank up film production. The K.u.k Kriegspressequartier (KPQ, War Press Office) had only been founded in 1914. Film propaganda had first been overseen by the War Archives, while the KPQ only added a film unit in 1917. Alexander “Sascha” Kolowrat-Krakowsky, founder of the Sascha-Filmfabrik and “technical director” at the War Archives as of 1915, played a central role in film propaganda. Production conditions were characterised not only by his twin function as a private film producer and member of the army administration, but also by controversies between the War Archives and the KPQ. It was not until the mid-war years and the death of Emperor Francis Joseph that film propaganda was given a greater role. This can be explained by the fact that the old and sickly monarch, portrayed in enemy propaganda as the personification of his empire’s frailty, declined to be filmed.

Changing memories

Was the aspect of a collapsing empire an issue in productions by the successor states after 1918? “Yes, definitely. A mental and cinematic dismemberment of the monarchy took place. The Slovenes only remembered the Isonzo Front, the Romanians Transylvania, and the Czechs and Poles reported solely on their own Legions. The twin monarchy had already disappeared as an overarching entity”, says Leidinger. The cinematic culture of remembrance differs from country to country and has changed internationally over time. Both aspects are dealt with in an anthology produced in collaboration with the University of New Orleans. One of its findings is particularly remarkable: until the 1970s, the Western Front had defined the style of films, to the detriment of the war fronts that were important to the Habsburgs. “The loss of these fronts led to a loss of remembrance of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. By then, Austria only featured in scenes of alpine fighting and in movies such as Berge in Flammen (Mountains on Fire; 1931)”, the historian concludes. In the centenary year 2014, it became more important to better understand the context as a whole. The filmography will provide an empirical basis in this respect. In the future, existing facts will be easier to verify with scientific exactitude, and new findings will be easier to put into context, with the cards stacked heavily against the fakes.


Personal details

Hannes Leidinger is a historian who teaches at various national and international universities. He acquired his habilitation on the subject “Austrian History” with a focus on the 19th and 20th centuries at the University of Vienna. In 2013, his book Oberst Redl was awarded the distinction “Scientific Book of the Year”. His most recent publication is Der Untergang der Habsburgermonarchie.


Publications (in German)

Hannes Leidinger: Der Untergang der Habsburgermonarchie, Haymon Verlag 2017
Hannes Leidinger. Der Erste Weltkrieg. Österreichische Medien und Medienpolitik 1914-1918. Ein internationaler Vergleich unter besonderer Berücksichtigung visueller Kommunikationsformen. In: Karmasin, Matthias/Oggolder, Christian (Hg.): Österreichische Mediengeschichte. Bd. 1. Wiesbaden 2016
Hannes Leidinger: Habsburgs schmutziger Krieg. Ermittlungen zur österreichisch-ungarischen Kriegsführung 1914-1918. St. Pölten/Salzburg/Wien 2014 (gemeinsam mit Verena Moritz, Karin Moser und Wolfram Dornik)

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