Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Lost and Found: The German Naval High Command (1916)

In an earlier weblog we mentioned our discovery of films shot by American cinematographer Nelson E. Edwards in June 1916, showing the German Naval High Command shortly after the Battle of Jutland. We recently came across similar footage taken by Edwards in the CBS Collection at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Edwards and German naval officer, June 1916. Courtesy Wiegman family

Edwards's film work in wartime Germany has been described in more detail in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War. He ranked among the first, pioneering newsreel cameramen in American film history. From 1914 Edwards filmed for Hearst International News Service and covered the Mexican Revolution. In 1916 he filmed the Turkish and the German side of the World War. He was also chief cameraman for Fox Newsreel during the year of its birth in 1919, and thereafter a longtime stringer for Paramount News.

In 2016, we found four scenes taken by Edwards, featuring Admiral von Hipper and his staff, as well as Admiral Scheer visiting his flag ship Friedrich der Grosse. The footage is on 35 mm and the original negatives are from the Grinberg Collection. As it turns out, CBS also used the Grinberg Collection while assembling film for their World War I TV series in 1964. After the series was edited CBS in a magnificent gesture turned its unused footage over to the National Archives - a real boon for researchers. And that's how Edwards' World War I films ended up in the National Archives.

Films Found at the National Archives

The scenes that we located at the National Archives are on a reel with stock newsreels excerpts (CBS-WW1-75) that were not used by CBS for the TV series. These show Admiral von Hipper and his staff, as well as a close up of Admiral Scheer. The intertitle mentions Hearst International News Pictorial, the film company Edwards worked for. Similar scenes shot by Edwards were used by CBS in the World War I TV series. Episode 7 on the Battle of Jutland in the CBS series has a scene showing Admiral Scheer boarding his flag ship, as well as a shot showing Scheer and his staff, posing for Edwards' movie camera.

We have uploaded the outtakes found at the National Archives, as well as the scenes from the CBS TV series that were used, on our YouTube channel.


Wednesday, May 9, 2018

America's First Official War Newsreel (1918)

On July 1, 1918 America's first official war newsreel was launched. Distributed in the United States by Pathé, the Official War Review contained scenes from wartime Europe, shot by military cameramen of the U.S. Signal Corps and other Allied countries.

Film poster Official War Review (USA, 1918)

The Official War Review was produced by the Committee on Public Information (CPI), America's propaganda agency. As described in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War, the newsreel had a difficult start. The CPI intended to offer the newsreel to all film companies on equal conditions and the same price. This hardly suited the competitive American film industry which wanted to show exclusive pictures. Pathé finally was contracted to distribute the best of what the CPI could offer to show a weekly official newsreel on the American soldiers fighting in France.

Copies from Pordenone Silent Film Festival

By modern standards America's first official war newsreel lacks the fast moving images we are used to watch today. The shots are mostly static and there is little real battlefront footage. But for the American audience back in 1918 this was their weekly update on what happened at the front in Europe. The Pordenone Silent Film Festival in 2015 showed six newsreels from this series, which are from the National Archives in Washington, D.C. These films were originally shown in the American theaters between September 1918 and January 1919. An interesting issue is Official War Review No. 9 which has a scene showing the enormous German long range guns that were put into action to shell Paris during the Spring Offensive of 1918. The intertitle asserts the American forces turned the tide of battle and saved Paris.

Apart from the American contribution to the Great War the newsreel offers views of other European armies, such as the Italian Alpine soldiers and the British Expeditionary Force in France. In addition the Official War Review shows some interesting scenes from Siberia where the Americans had joined an international expeditionary force to fight against Germany.

Original film from this World War I newsreel is hard to find, so we have uploaded all six issues to our YouTube channel to give you an idea how the Great War was screened in 1918-1919 in America.


Friday, May 4, 2018

Filming the German Attack on Novo Georgievsk (1915)

While preparing a TV presentation on Wilbur H. Durborough's World War I film On the Firing Line with the Germans for C-SPAN's "Reel America" we came across an interesting newspaper story by American war correspondent Walter Niebuhr. In this report Niebuhr described how he and Durborough witnessed the German attack on the Russian forts of Novo Georgievsk at the Eastern Front.

Walter Niebuhr (1890-1946). Copied from Motion Picture News, 16 August 1919

Producing America's First Propaganda Films

Walter Niebuhr featured before in a previous weblog. He started his career in journalism for the Illinois Courier Herald and in 1915 Niebuhr was invited by the Chicago Tribune and the Western Newspaper Union to cover the Great War from the German side. As described in more detail in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War, Niebuhr was of special assistance to Durborough and his camera operator Ries while they were shooting film with the German army. Niebuhr spoke German fluently and often accompanied them, translating conversations with the Germans and helping them find their way through the country. When America entered the First World War, Niebuhr became Associate Director of the C.P.I. Film Division. He was responsible for producing the first official American propaganda films, such as Pershing's Crusaders (1918).

In August 1915, Niebuhr, Durborough and Ries left Warsaw that had just been conquered by the Germans in order to cover the siege of the Russian forts around Novo Georgievsk. The German army led by General Hans von Beseler approached Novo Georgievsk with 80,000 men including part of the powerful siege train used to capture Antwerp in 1914. The forts were surrounded on August 10 and the bombardment began a few days later. After a heavy battering the Germans attacked three of the forts and captured two of them. The Russians were forced to the inner defenses north of the river Vistula. With no prospects of being relieved and with their inner defenses vulnerable to bombardment the Russians surrendered at the dawn of August 20, 1915.

Durborough (left) and Niebuhr (right) watching German soldiers storming the forts of Novo Georgievsk. Scene from On the Firing Line with the Germans (USA, 1915)

Turning Point in World War I History

The fall of Novo Georgievsk was a humiliating defeat for the Russian army that had to retreat east. Poland from then on would be under German rule. The capture of these Russian forts was an important turning point in World War I and the American correspondents were on the spot to film this historic event. Here are segments from Niebuhr's report that was published in the Fort Wayne Sentinel on September 30, 1915:

Movie Scene On the Firing Line with the Germans (USA, 1915)

On the Firing Line with the Germans has a scene showing both Durborough and Niebuhr watching a German infantry attack near Novo Georgievsk. Troops are charging across an open field while in the background shells are exploding. Niebuhr can be seen in this scene to the right of Durborough. We were able to recognize Walter Niebuhr because of the white cap on his head. Niebuhr appeared in several scenes of Durborough's war film, and most of the time he was wearing this peculiar cap. These shots close to the German firing line must have been taken by Durborough's camera operator Ries and have a full match with the newspaper report that was written by Niebuhr.

For more information here is a link to an updated article on Durborough and the making of his World War I feature film. 

Here is this scene showing the attack on the forts of Novo Georgievsk with comments by authors Cooper Graham and Jim Castellan.