Histoire publique

War and the Beautiful : On the Aestheticizing of the First World War in Film Yesterday and Today

Our lecture explores the medial construction and aestheticising of the war, examining current TV documentaries on the First World War. Two time planes are here intertwined: on the first level we see how the film medium during World War One lends to the industrialised war events a new aesthetic dimension. In the second, contemporary level, this film material is reassembled and charged with additional significance.
Both temporal levels are inseparably intertwined with one another – both construct the modern mythos of the “clean” war. In contemporary TV documentaries the aesthetic of mechanised war is endowed with an additional function that transcends the former. It ties in with a widespread tendency in German mnemonic culture of perceiving the Germans primarily as victims.
World War One was not – as is so often asserted – the “first mediatised war“. Already in the American Civil War, as well as in subsequent wars, intensive photo coverage was developed, ever more frequently with the work of amateur photographers. Photographs of war action became ubiquitous. Nevertheless, a qualitative developmental leap did occur in film portrayal during the First World War. At that time, war reports resorted repeatedly to traditional iconographic stylistic devices and pictorial aesthetic conventions of war photography: the weapon still life, “general’s-eye-views“ of the battle field, heroic soldiers, war as “picnic”; especially the non-functional film reports, though, remained rigid, and with a multitude of artificial scenes, delivered a hardly realistic view of combat events. However, the fictional portrayal of war in movies supervened, and by writing over real war experiences with played out scenarios, gradually blurred the distinction between fiction and reality, transforming war into entertainment.
The TV documentaries we examined resort to wartime pictorial material, though in their recombination of the film sequences following our contemporary video-aesthetic, with a high pictorial content, quick cuts and dramatic production. This aesthetic is closely oriented towards our contemporary images of the modern, engineered war.
Our first part consists in a detailed film- and picture analysis of wartime film material. In our second part, we examine how TV authors work with this material. Our focus here will be on the aestheticising of technological artefacts in war events and the stylising of scientific war research as symbols of modern warfare.
These two inquiries constitute the basis of a conclusive synthesis, which examines continuities and breaks in the narration these pictures transport.
The lecture offers a contribution to the discussion on the treatment of pictures in the media and in historical science. Inherent in this research is also the principal question of whether the little picture- and film material we have determines our view of the First World War. Are not the images of World War One not rather reread and reassembled in the course of contemporary discourse?

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