European Film Gateway 1914 Paradoxes of an Era

“Wanda’s Trick” by Rosa Porten, Germany 1918, (filmstill)
“Wanda’s Trick” by Rosa Porten, Germany 1918, (filmstill) | © Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen

War, comedies, daily life: The “European Film Gateway 1914” Website presents films from the time of the First World War. Kerstin Herlt about an unusual project.

For 100 years, thousands of films dating back to the time of the First World War have been gathering dust in archives and collections. In the past, they were often invisible even to experts because they were not in sufficiently good condition to be screened. This makes it all the more surprising that many of these films have now become easily accessible thanks to the European Film Gateway 1914 (EFG1914) film digitization project. On behalf of the Association des Cinémathèques Européennes (ACE) and the Deutsches Filminstitut (DIF), Kerstin Herlt is head of public relations for the project.

Ms Herlt, what is so special about the “European Film Gateway 1914”?

EFG1914 is a genuinely European project involving 21 archives from different European countries. These include states which themselves took part in the First World War, such as France, Great Britain, Austria, Italy and Serbia, though archives from countries that were neutral at the time – such as Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Spain – have also collaborated on the project. Thanks to European Union funding, these archives have been able to tap into their holdings again and have digitized 2,500 films with a total length of 650 hours which have now been made publicly accessible on the website In Germany, the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Foundation, the Deutsche Kinemathek and the Federal Film Archive were involved alongside the Deutsches Filminstitut. It really is quite something when so many different partners pull together to work on a single project!

Signs of decay

What problems did you encounter?

When working with such old and sensitive films, one repeatedly comes across material that has already begun to chemically decompose, which is why some of the published films show signs of decay as well as scratches and cracks. Because these films constitute important historical sources, however, we did not wish to do without them and in some cases digitized mere fragments. One difficulty involves finding the best available material when a certain film has been preserved in different lengths and degrees of technical quality in several archives. This is all the more problematic given that the origin of the films is often unclear, titles are not always correct and, last but not least, the copyright owners also need to be tracked down.

What characterizes the films that have now been published?

Although only a fraction of the total number of films originally produced has survived, the first thing that strikes one is the huge diversity of the film material: we find newreels, military productions, cartoons advertising for war bonds, and feature films – among them crime thrillers, comedies and melodramas – which ignore the war almost entirely. That said, there are also several propaganda films which warn against enemy agents and agitators. We have also digitized amateur films that portray civilian life during the war years – extremely fascinating recordings that have a very authentic feel to them. We also felt it was important to present not only films from the wartime period itself, but also those from the pre- and post-war years. Thus EFG1914 gives an insight into the historical events leading up to and following the war from all kinds of different national perspectives.

Paradoxes of an era

Do these films portray historical reality?

That is a difficult question because films in general are structured by what they show and how they show it, and by what they leave out. One key aspect, for example, is the fact that cameras in those days were heavy and tended to be mounted on a tripod, with the result that there are virtually no sequences depicting an attack close-up. Nonetheless, the characters we see in the documentaries are real, genuine people, not actors: when for example the camera in a newsreel pans across a huge crowd of soldiers ready for deployment, what we see are also the life-weary faces of peasants and labourers who are anything but euphoric. And when the next sequence depicts a group of officers in smart uniforms, laughing into the camera and waving their caps, this tells us a great deal about the hierarchies of state and military, about the way people present themselves.

In this sense, such films can also offer a surprise or two. This is no less true of many feature films: while the war tears families apart and thousands are being killed everyday, delightful comedies with bright female stars are being produced in Germany. On the one hand they are intended to distract people’s attention from the war, and on the other to present a new female self-confidence – women who now earn their own money and no longer allow others to tell them what to do. One nice example of this is Wanda’s Trick (1918) – produced by Rosa Porten, one of the earliest female directors, and starring Wanda Treumann, a female lead who is as bold and brash as she is erotic. One of the paradoxes of that era is that the First World War inflicted such terrible misery on people while wonderful films were being made at the same time which are well worth watching even 100 years on.