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The Influence of World War I and World War II on the Development of Documentary Filmmaking

When cinema first appeared in 1895, people immediately realized the medium’s capability for persuasion. World War I indicated the first worldwide use of films in several spheres, including recording actual fighting, helping train soldiers, informing civilians at home of the need for sacrifice and patriotic responsibility, and, ultimately, shifting neutral opinions into required direction. As a matter of fact, the very idea of propaganda, involving visual propaganda, as an element of state policy became one of the important factors of the Great War and played an important role in the Second World War. Documentary films created in this period have greatly influenced the further development of this genre.

After the outbreak of the World War II it seemed reasonable for all fighting parties to use film and its ability for manipulation as one of the methods to convince the population of the wickedness of the enemy. The effect of documentary films turned out to be very suitable to mobilize or stimulate the flames of anti-German/French/British/American feelings in order to summon the militaristic spirit and readiness to sacrifice lives of soldiers and civilians (Kester 37). For example, in April of 1917 the United States administration, through the Committee on Public Information, became directly engaged in producing, showing, and supervising propaganda films (Wood & Culbert ). Thus, propaganda was intentionally aimed not only at displaying America’s military might to the world, but also her industrial potential and social structure. Though the genre of anti-German hate film lost its significance with the signing of the Armistice in November of 1918, it had left a major legacy—the opportunity of using film to produce effects favorable to predetermined purposes.

Due to the fact that World War I was the first war showed extensively in films, the realism of war changed for many people. Films, including documentary ones, became a product of not only government bodies, but also of the entertainment industry. War scenes in the newsreels could be enjoyed in the comfort and safety of the movie theatres. The actual dangers of the frontline, even while showed in documentary films, were turned into some abstract threats. The warfare could even be turned on and off (Jahn 168).

The period between two World Wars was also interesting in terms of propaganda. In all major countries the propaganda role of the film was given a special attention. Goebbels, for example, called on to create a German version of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). This period is famous for Leni Riefenstahl’s masterpiece Triumph of the Will (1935), a film report of the Congress of German National Socialist Party in Nuremberg, a hymn to the glory of Hitler, Nazism, and the unity of the nation around a charismatic leader. It was a unique experience in the history of documentary filmmaking. To create this film Riefenstahl was provided by unlimited opportunities: she had 36 operators in her disposal, not counting the support staff; she was able to use the newest equipment and techniques, panoramas from roller skates, moving trucks on the rails, specially constructed lifts, etc. It took six months to edit her footage, and she was spending up to 18 hours without leaving the editing room. Thus, the odious film was born: on the one hand, it was marked by an absolute talent; on the other it had served the black forces precisely because of this talent. Another, even more ambitious, technically and artistically accomplished work of this director was the film created together with Walter Ruttmann – Olympia, the poem in film about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which celebrates the beauty of the human body, the will to win and the spirit of athletes. In 1940 Ruttman created German Tanks, the film which glorified Nazi tanks advance on Paris.

Other countries also took part in the development of documentaries. One of the main events for filmmakers of those years was the struggle against fascism. For example, the civil war in Spain became a rich theme for Joris Ivens, who created The Spanish Earth (1937), a propaganda film in support of the Republicans. The text to this film was written by Ernest Hemingway.

The Second World War appeared to be very fruitful for the documentary genre. This conflict can be called “a cinematic war”. From the very beginning, governments and national motion-picture industries were creating lots of moving images, including newsreels and documentaries to help mobilize the people for war. The armed forces of all major nations engaged military photographers who used compact 16-mm cameras to shoot many aspects of the warfare (or even stage and reenact some others) to present practical images for military and civilian goals (Chambers & Culbert ). The leaders of the major countries were all film fans: Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler used the services of personal projectionists and special screening rooms for viewing of documentary films.

In Germany documentary films became a real weapon. For example, the Nazis were shooting films in several ghettos and concentration camps. According to the requirements of national socialist realism, all facts there were represented as a blessing to peoples. These films were to inspire the viewers to develop the positive image of the German concentration camps and the Nazis as benefactors of the Jews. Moreover, these films were intended to be presented in the Reich and neutral countries, but especially in the occupied eastern states – Poland, the Czech Republic and the Protectorate of Bohemia and in the USSR. Many methods of these films were later used by communist regime.

A considerable contribution to the development of documentary filmmaking was made in England by Humphrey Jennings, the creator of London Can Take It! (1940), Words for Battle (1941), Listen to Britain (1942), etc. He showed the life of the country leading a terrible war, an everyday heroism of people – firefighters, musicians, radio announcers, public servants, housewives, educators, kindergarten nurses. In his films everyone is in his place, doing his duty, regardless of the enemy air raids and bombs falling from the sky. These films lifted the spirit of the nation, gently but confidently inspiring the viewers: united we stand and we will win. It became a standard of encouraging films.

So throughout the war, documentaries were successful as never before. One of the most remarkable outcomes of this success was the synthesis of documentary realism and feature film entertainment. Very often feature films were clearly motivated by and based on existing documentary films. For example, Carol Reed’s The Way Ahead (1944) was an extended new version of the military instructional film The New Lot (Aldgate & Richards 222). During the Second World War America’s documentary films were enriched by one of the greatest masters of feature films – Frank Capra, famous for his social comedies. The aim was to create a series of propaganda films commissioned by the Pentagon. He was invited to this work shortly after Pearl Harbor by General George Marshall. Marshall appointed Capra to be the leader of the group (it included such famous movie makers as John Huston, John Ford, Luis Milestone, and Greg Tolland). The goal was achieved, and under Capra’s leadership a number of films was created, which explained the purposes and tasks of the struggle against Nazism under the title Why We Fight. To master this new role Capra learned from Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Soviet newsreels.

Considering the above stated facts, both World Wars and the interwar period gave a remarkable push to documentary filmmaking. This genre became a powerful instrument of controlling the masses of people. The experience gained during these wars was later widely used by film directors and journalists. Documentaries became so important, that they could start and stop wars, the best example of which became the war in Vietnam, lost by the superpower due to the influence of newsreels.