Monday, July 4, 2016

The Enemy Within - German Sabotage in the U.S.A.

On February 2, 1915, German officer Werner Horn bombed the international railroad bridge in Vancesboro, Maine, in an attempt to sabotage transport of war supplies to Canada. Masterminded by spymaster Franz von Papen, the bombing was the first public act of sabotage by German agents in America during World War I. Arriving on the scene shortly after the explosion, Louis de Rochemont filmed the aftermath of the stirring attack.

Werner Horn and Sheriff Ross (1915). Press photograph copied from the files at the National Archives 

Breaking News

The sabotage of the Vanceboro Bridge was breaking news in the United States. A number of film crews arrived in town looking for newsreel footage but left with nothing truly usable. However, Louis de Rochemont, a 16 year old freelance cameraman from Massachusetts, was able to capture the story. He reportedly convinced Deputy Sheriff Ross into a reenactment of Horn's arrest and combined it with footage of the damaged bridge into a newsreel that he sold to Hearst-Selig News Pictorial. A 16 mm. print of the historical footage that was shown at the local Vanceboro theater has survived and was made available to the Northeast Historic Film Archives in Bucksport, Maine. Because of its historical value the film was restored by UCLA Film and Television Archive.

Deputy Sheriff Ross and Werner Horn pose for de Rochemont's camera.

Although the surviving print doesn't have a reenactment of Horn's arrest the film does include a close-up of the German secret agent and Deputy Sheriff Ross. Both are shown posing in front of de Rochemont's movie camera. Here is a full review of the contemporary newsreel:

HEARST-SELIG PICTORIAL NO. 12  (Feb.11) [1915] — Testing new fire escape. Man slides down rope from top of Munsey Building, Washington, to street, eleven stories below. Mid-winter Carnival at Saranac Lake, N. Y. Picturesque parade. Twenty children are injured in Orphanage wrecked by wind in New Orleans, La. Grace Darling visits bide-a-wee, home for abandoned animals, in New York City, and has interesting experience.   First pictures of Italian earthquake. Avezzano, [shot by Ariel Varges] where 10,000 persons perished, a levelled waste. Maimed and destitute survivors are cared for by militia and volunteer aid corps. Searching for victims. Houses demolished at Yarmouth, England, in daring aerial invasion by Zeppelins. Mounted infantry and motor guards patrol English coast. International bridge across St. Croix River at Vanceboro, Maine, is damaged in dynamite blast.

The scoop by de Rochemont is mentioned in Raymond Fielding's classic film history book The American Newsreel. One of the earliest references we could find was in a newspaper story by the [Kansas] Emporia Gazette on October 23, 1937: "De Rochemont persuaded the marshal who had Horn in custody to reenact the arrest. The newsreel company to whom de Rochemont sold the film at first refused to accept it on the ground that it was faked, but the budding cameraman persuaded them that it had been re-enacted just as it had taken place, and they used it."

Nicknamed "the father of the docu-drama", de Rochemont in the 1930s created the groundbreaking newsreel series March of Time. His early documentary productions won two Academy Awards. Louis de Rochemont died in Newington, New Hampshire, on December 23, 1978.

A reconstruction of the making of de Rochemont's World War I film has been uploaded on our YouTube channel.


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