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—is available for download 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.
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)