World War I: On the Firing Line With the Germans (1915)

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On the Firing Line With the Germans advertisement, Moving Picture World, 26 February 1916

(The following post was written by Mike Mashon of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division and originally appeared on the Now See Hear! blog.)

During the centenary observance of World War I, we’ve been prioritizing the preservation of films in our collection pertaining to the conflict. Foremost among these is a film called “On the Firing Line With the Germans,” shot in 1915 by Wilbur H. Durborough and his cameraman Irving Ries. Library staff members George Willeman and Lynanne Schweighofer reviewed and selected the best surviving scenes from among 32 reels of nitrate film, nine reels of paper print fragments, and supplemental 35mm from the National Archives, then assembled the digital files created from them to present a complete version of the film as it premiered on 28 November 1915. This description hardly does justice to the hundreds of hours required to restore this film, a complex and exacting process we’ll describe more fully in a future post.

Our restoration could not have happened without the indefatigable research conducted by independent researchers James Castellan and Ron van Dopperen, plus former Library of Congress Moving Image Curator Cooper Graham. In 2014 the trio co-authored “American Cinematographers in the Great War,” which was published by John Libbey and sponsored by the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, where in October 2015 the film was publically shown for the first time since its last documented showing in March 1917. It will be screened again on November 16 here at the Packard Campus, with pianist Stephen Horne accompanying.

Ron was kind enough to synopsize the history of the film for Now See Hear!, but a fascinating and much more comprehensive report—which Castellan, van Dopperen, and Graham call “On the Firing Line With the Germans: A Film Annotation”—can be found here.

In April 1915, the persuasive and enterprising still photographer Wilbur Henry Durborough and cinematographer Irving Guy Ries crossed the border between Holland and Germany in a large, flamboyant Stutz Bearcat to photograph the Great War from the German side. They were to have a great and unique adventure.

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Durborough and his Stutz Bearcat, courtesy Prints & Photographs Division

 

Their task was to film Germany at war. The Germans knew they were losing the propaganda battle in the still-neutral United States, and were anxious to have American correspondents document and publicize their point of view. In addition, a group of businessmen in Chicago, a center of pro-German sentiment in the United States, saw an excellent business opportunity in making a war film for American theaters. While the Newspaper Enterprise Association financed Durborough’s wartime photographs, an ad hoc War Film Syndicate financed the duo’s motion pictures.

They filmed in wartime Berlin and East Prussia capturing some poignant footage of life in Berlin, including military hospitals, as well as the destruction in East Prussian cities. Durborough filmed Friedrich von Bernhardi, perhaps the most sword-rattling German militarist of them all, as well as extremely rare footage of the feminists Jane Addams, Alice Hamilton and Aletta Jacobs, who had come to Berlin for the opposite reason: peace.

Durborough and Ries were fortunate to be in Germany in the summer of 1915, during the great German drive across East Prussia and Poland which drove the Russians back to their own border. It was the high-water mark of German forces on the eastern front. For most of this time, Durborough and Ries were accompanying Hindenburg’s forces. They would be present at the fall of Novo Georgievsk, the major Russian fort in Poland, and at the Kaiser Review that followed, where Wilhelm reviewed and thanked his troops on their victory and Durborough caused a stir when he disobeyed orders and filmed Kaiser Wilhelm. He also photographed the fall of Warsaw to the Germans, and its Jewish quarter.

The film is unique in being the only American feature-length documentary made during World War I. It is doubly special because, unlike most other films of the period, it was not cut to pieces for stock shots. It also reflects indirectly the financial and ideological forces at work in the United States at the time. Although probably not the intent of the film makers, it shows horrors of war that were impacting not just the battlefields but also the German home front.

On the Firing Line With the Germans (Wilbur H. Durborough, 1915)

 

World War I Centennial, 2017-2018: With the most comprehensive collection of multi-format World War I holdings in the nation, the Library of Congress is a unique resource for primary source materials,education plans, public programs and on-site visitor experiences about The Great War including exhibits, symposia and book talks.

6 Comments

  1. Phil
    December 9, 2016 at 9:48 pm

    Thank you for this. It is the 1st time I’ve seen a movie like this. Even if it is close to propaganda, it was interesting to see just people as they were. When seeing films like this, it becomes easier to see that both sides think they are “right” in what is being accomplished.
    Again, thanks.

  2. Winnie Gillis
    December 10, 2016 at 10:12 pm

    A very disturbing film. Breathtaking for the work clearly put into the restoration and disturbing.

  3. Mark P
    February 8, 2017 at 10:46 am

    My grandfather was an Italian IMMIGRANT who came to Ametica in 1916 and earned his citizenship by joining the U.S. Army and serving in France during World War I. Thank you for this important work.

  4. Bob Wieking
    February 21, 2017 at 11:12 am

    My father’s uncle had been living in the USA, from Germany. He was drafted back to Germany by the US German Consulate! He went through training in Torn (West Prussia?).
    I have a large framed photo of all of his fellow recruits, postcard-size photos of same, his draft letter, and his hand-built walking cane composed of a German silver handle and its staff made from small circular snips of scrap postcard stock “skewered” onto the steel center rod of the cane. This “vertically -laminated” stack of card stock was then sanded round and nicely varnished. His particular group of recruits was named “The L├╝stige Stube” (“The Hearty Bunch”?)
    He survived and returned to the USA. BTW this uncle, whom I also knew, was always a quite shy, humble, and reserved human being!

  5. Frank Parente
    February 22, 2017 at 6:17 pm

    My uncle Rocco, who lived into the 1950s suffered from nerve damage, slurred speech and a halting way of walking due to chemical gas exposure overseas during World War I. He grew up in Chicago and spent his final years with his family in Cicero, Illinois. The film seems to glorify warfare, though at the end graphically shows the collateral damage and suffering among civilians.

  6. Amy Withington
    April 16, 2017 at 1:02 pm

    I’ve been watching the film on C-Span, and it is an amazing historical document. The commentators mentioned the German officer Baron Ernst von Wrangel, who fought in the Spanish-American War and the Boer war as well. I’ve been trying to find information about what became of him (e.g., was he killed in WWI?) on the internet, but without success. The von Wrangel name is found throughout military history, and his more famous ancestors and relatives seem to dominate the references. If anyone reading this can shed any light on his career after WWI, I’d be interested and grateful, thank you!

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