German Film and the First World War
“The mobilization of the image”

Westfront 1918 by G.W. Papst
Westfront 1918 by G.W. Papst | © Deutsches Filminstitut - DIF

The breakout of war in 1914 meant radical changes for German cinema and in the longer term also led to a period of growth for the film industry, not only in commercial terms. The public’s acceptance of the medium changed too.

The breakout of the First World War turned neighbouring countries and good trading partners in Europe into enemies overnight. The still young but expanding German film industry feared the worst. An article in Kinematograph, one of the industry’s major magazines, made the following prediction on 12 August 1914: “Without doubt the entire cinema industry will face a severe crisis as a result of the war that has broken out, and there will be countless corpses on the cinematographic battlefield.” Initially at least, this gloomy prognosis appeared accurate.

The film industry, which had previously been very much an international business but was now being used for nationalistic ends and wartime propaganda, was shaken to its core by the breakout of war. High entertainment taxes were imposed and import and export bans issued. Producers were unsettled by the arbitrary censorship of the military, which also made nationwide distribution more difficult. 

A time of growth

The situation stabilized more quickly than expected, however. Censorship, bans and military conscription caused the entire entertainment sector to shrink. Nonetheless, over the entire course of the war the German film and cinema industry actually profited from the greatly curtailed choice of entertainment on offer. In small and medium-sized towns in particular, former rivals such as theatres, music halls and fairgrounds, all of which required more staff than cinemas did, were weakened or shut down completely, prompting new audiences to turn to the cinema for their entertainment. What is more, the market changed fundamentally because it was largely shielded from outside competition, field cinemas were set up for military personnel, and there was considerable expansion into occupied territories. Previously, the German film industry had lagged noticeably behind its French neighbour, but now it grew rapidly.

War meant a period of growth for cinema not only in commercial terms, however. The public’s perception of cinema also changed. In the pre-war years, it had been mainly viewed as a cheap form of entertainment and had not enjoyed a good reputation in bourgeois circles. Soon after the war began, cinemas began to serve not only entertainment purposes, but were also used to provide information in the newsreels. Cinema was thus able to establish a connection and a proximity that previously had appeared  impossible: the images on screen in the newsreels helped give those at home at least a vague sense of where their relatives were. The ability of film to bridge time and space drew audiences into cinemas that had previously rejected the whole idea. In other words, war accelerated the process by which cinema-going became acceptable to the bourgeoisie.

“The mobilization of the image”

Westfront 1918 (G.W. Pabst)

Despite its growing social importance, the German military authorities long continued to harbour concerns about cinema. For fear of espionage and due to a lack of understanding about the needs of the civilian population, the General Staff prohibited cameramen from attempting to shoot film in direct proximity to the front line. The newsreel production companies Messter and Eiko were granted permission to film, and from 1914 supplied film material to cinemas in Germany and in neutral countries abroad, as well as to the field cinemas that were soon to be set up close to the front. However, the images in the wartime newsreels were censored by the military and quickly lost their news value. Audiences and cinema operators began to complain about the from their perspective unspectacular films.

It was only the success of propaganda films for example in France and Great Britain that led to the military leadership changing its attitude towards the cinema. On 30 January 1917, the generously-funded Bild- und Filmamt (i.e. Office of Photography and Film), known as Bufa for short, was founded. In future, Bufa was to coordinate “official military reporting” in Germany and abroad, the establishment of field cinemas, the deployment of camera crews, the allocation of film material and its censorship. The aim was to improve psychological warfare: for example, Bufa produced a propaganda film entitled Bei unseren Helden an der Somme 1916/17, Germany’s answer to the British war film The Battle of the Somme (1916), that had been seen by millions. On 28 April 1917, the Vossische Zeitung newspaper summed up this development in an article headed “The mobilization of the image”: “In Germany, it had long been thought possible to decide the outcome of this war by the strength of the sword and by the purity of the purpose alone. It only very gradually became clear that in this battle for life and death all weapons, even the intellectual and moral, need to be used, and it was only after two years of war that the first official attempts were begun to include the most important of these weapons, namely image and film, in the arsenal of warfare.”

Films to raise morale

A lot of money was then pumped into the German film industry. Several interest groups were established and the reputation of the industry with its many short-lived and speculative enterprises improved. The influx of capital also accelerated a trend that had already begun somewhat earlier: long feature films were starting to replace programmes that often comprised many short films put together. Productions became more lavish and increasingly relied on high-class equipment and stars such as Henny Porten, Hedda Vernon and Mia May. While thousands died every day on the front lines, people sought distraction from everyday life in overblown melodramas, crime thrillers and comedies – both in the field cinemas and in the cinemas at home. Films such as Die Gespensterstunde (1916), Der karierte Regenmantel (1917) and Die Liebe der Maria Bonde (1918) were hugely popular.

In contrast to such feature films, the mostly non-fiction war films made by Bufa were not popular. Because dissatisfaction with the military situation and the shortage of food was growing, both on the front and at home, the state and military decided to go one step furtherand on 18 December 1917 founded the Universum-Film AG (Ufa), whose military background was kept strictly under wraps. Unlike Bufa, this new, commercially-oriented company was to concentrate on producing feature films that,if at all, contained only concealed propaganda. With their help, wartime morale was to be stabilized and possibly even boosted. The films were supposed to feature innocuous, non-warlike and civilian material to contribute to victory by taking people’s minds off the war, a bit like a drug with a temporary effect. One irony of history is that Ufa thus paved the way for a post-war future of the German film industry: after 1918, it advanced to become the poster child for the cosmopolitan culture of the Weimar Republic, until the National Socialists terminated this golden age of German cinema.