The first silent offerings at this year’s London Film Festival and a double bill juxtaposing a film imagining what a modern war could be like with one documenting the devastation after four years in which the mechanics of modern destruction had taken their horrific toll. One was a sad, technically-impressive drama and the other was reality almost beyond belief: the smashed ghost towns of northern France and a land pock-marked with craters and scarred by the still-open wounds of never ending trench-lines.
|Albert Hendrickx, Fernand Crommelynck, Suzanne Berni, Nadia D'Angely and Baert|
Released in May/June 1914, just a few short weeks before the real war began, Alfred Machin’s Damn the War! (Maudite soit la guerre) was a plea for peace as Europe began to look far too small to contain the ambition within. A Belgian film directed by a Frenchman, the ironies can hardly be stacked higher given the Schlieffen Plan.
Machin’s film involved a war between two fictitious countries and the impact it has on the Modzel family as their son’s best friend Adolphe Hardeff (Baert) fights on the opposing side to their son, Sigismond (Albert Hendrickx). To add further spice their daughter Liza (Suzanne Berni) is in love with Adolphe.
|Adolphe says farewell to Liza|
Adolphe comes to train with Sigismond’s air squadron returning the favour his country had extended to his new comrade. Sigismond takes Adolphe home to meet his parents, Mother (Nadia D'Angely), father (Fernand Crommelynck) as well as his swell sister. The training goes well and relations all round are good but, out of nowhere, war is declared and the two friends find themselves on opposing sides.
Adolphe doesn’t believe in the conflict and hands Liza his photograph with the words “damn the war!” written on it. But he’s a professional soldier and he will do his duty.
The film looks sumptuous and has been restored by the Belgium film institute not just the print quality but also the coloured sections produced using a painstaking approach involving the stencilling of colours onto every frame. Two stencilled prints were used and one black and white: the result is stunning – the Edwardian era in colour.
The colours work especially well in the battle sequences, highlighting the troop movements as hundreds of Belgian army extras move into mock charges. There’s also an explosive sequence as Adolphe leads an audacious attack on an airbase, destroying a range of balloons and turning the screen red.
Sigismond is sent up to intercept Adolphe’s plane and succeeds in knocking him out of the sky, the two friends move closer in their unknowing pursuit of each other as the forces gather around a cornered Adolphe… the heroic qualities of both men come to the fore and no one is getting out of this alive.
|Lieutenant Maxime romances Liza|
One of Sigismond’s squadron, Lieutenant Maxime (Henri Goidsen), delivers the news back to the family. He takes an instant shone to Liza and as time passes they grow close but there’s to be one final twist of the tale as the full human cost of the conflict is finally revealed…
Just off the plane from Pordenone, Stephen Horne illustrated the story with his trademark lyricism, with flute, piano and accordion used to good effect: intricately stencilled sounds to highlight this colourfully-sad vision of a war that might come…
|Jacques Trolley de Prévaux|
After the war that did happen, Airship Over the Battlefields (En Dirigeable sur les Champs de Bataille) was filmed in the summer of 1919 using a navy airship piloted by Jacques Trolley de Prévaux. The main cameraman was Lucien Lesaint although others were involved.
Introducing, the BFI’s Bryony Dixon, said this was part of a series of initiatives aimed at reminding people of the horrors of The War to End all Wars. The full film is 78 minutes long but we were shown about a third of that - enough to give full flavour of the scorched earth even nine months after the armistice.
Not even a spring and summer could return the leaves to so many of the trees, and the only real signs of renewal on this toxic ground were the new roads driven through flattened towns and blasted battlegrounds which even today still give up their annual harvest of unexploded ordinance.
Looking at the towns was like a flash forward to Dresden or Coventry, even Hiroshima, so expertly had the bombardments levelled almost every building. Town after town came into view and you kept one expecting to see something whole but there was nothing there but a few robust walls on roof-less buildings with empty windows all propped up by rubble.
The Great War is often characterised as a contest of military forces against each other – yet the huge “collateral” impact on non-combatants was there for all to see.
This was a difficult film to soundtrack and Stephen Horne used an electronic keyboard along with his piano to play moving accompaniment. His playing was sparse and restrained, subtly echoing the horrific implications of the destroyed landscapes on view and bringing out the humanity from the cathedral husks.
Both films will live long in the memory and for different reasons. Damn the War! may have been a fiction but if more people made films like Alfred Machin’s, perhaps we wouldn’t have to watch films recording the impact of conflict.
A version of Damn the War! is available on the European Film Gateway courtesy of the EYE Film Instituut Nederland. It's an unusual visual treat as the bonus screen shots below show...