Monday, October 24, 2016

Wolfgang Filzinger - War Front Cameraman, 1914-1918

As a result of the centennial of the First World War, European archives have digitized over 3.000 contemporary films on the Great War on the European Film Gateway. The webportal is a true bonanza for film history fans all over the world. As part of this project, the German Film Institute uploaded a remarkable collection on war front cameraman Wolfgang Filzinger.

Filzinger and his Ernemann- A movie camera, March 1915. Note the short tripod

Born in Dresden in 1889, Filzinger became involved in building the first Pathé movie theatre in Paris in 1911. When war broke out in 1914 he was assigned as a cinematographer for one of the private film companies, presumably Messter, to report on the war. Filzinger left three photo albums that show him and his film team at the western front. He also reported on his film work in the German trade papers. The collection is of great importance to World War I film history.

Cloaking Device

Throughout the war Filzinger cranked an Ernemann-A camera which was built in Dresden. In his photo album there is a picture showing him at the Pontfaverger airfield, France, in March 1915, using a short tripod. This handy tripod came into use a lot, as it allowed filming in recumbent positions which reduced the danger of Filzinger becoming a target. In his articles Filzinger also reported on cloaking devices he invented and employed to shelter himself from both German soldiers staring curiously into the camera, thus destroying the aura of authenticity, as well as enemies spotting him. Other safety measures he employed included a system of mirrors he installed in dug-outs so he could film without risk.

Filzinger in the trenches at the western front

There is a sketch by Filzinger showing this cloaking device in his article for Lichtbild-Bühne. "In order to shoot in a trench", he reported, "you have to be familiar with the conditions. It is not easy to find a suitable spot in a trench. It is best to film through an embrasure or from an observation stand. The cranking of the camera is a dangerous business, as it can easily happen that one is hit by shrapnel when shells detonate nearby."

Filzinger's images show how the size and weight of the camera and tripods restricted the work of the operator, which is why action often had to be captured from a fixed viewpoint in the distance using a wide angle. This wide angle would also allow operators to capture spectacular events or detonations, as one was always unsure where exactly they would occur. As a consequence the aesthetic quality of such images in terms of composition or depth of field was often mediocre. It is known from his reports that Filzinger tried to improve the visual quality of his footage by working on the diaphragm control of his object lens.

After the war Filzinger continued his work in the film sector and is known mostly for conducting early sound film experiments with the Swedish film pioneer Sven Berglund. He died in 1951.

Filzinger's original manuscript in German on his experiences filming the Great War can be downloaded and read here.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Lost & Found: The German Navy Filmed by Nelson E. Edwards (1916)

While doing research at the Military Archives in Freiburg, Germany, authors Cooper C. Graham and Ron van Dopperen in February 2016 found a complete list of movie scenes shot by American cinematographer Nelson E. Edwards, showing the German Navy and close ups of Admiral Scheer and von Hipper. The historical footage was taken in June 1916, shortly after the battle of Jutland. A month before our research trip to Freiburg we also identified some of these scenes online.

Nelson Edwards, filming Admiral von Hipper, June 1916. From American Cinematographers in the Great  War (2014). Courtesy Wiegman family 

This discovery makes it possible for the first time to reconstruct how Edwards filmed the aftermath of the largest naval battle in World War I and how these scenes were shown in the American and German movie theaters in the summer of 1916.

Edwards's film work in wartime Germany has been described in more detail in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War. He ranked among the first, pioneering newsreel cameramen in American film history. From 1914 Edwards filmed for Hearst International News Service and covered the Mexican Revolution. In 1916 he filmed the Turkish and the German side of the World War. He was also chief cameraman for Fox Newsreel during the year of its birth, and thereafter a longtime stringer for Paramount News.

Clippings from Edwards' personal collection on his film work with the German Navy. Courtesy Wiegman family

The Battle of Jutland

When Edwards shot these naval scenes the Germans were in a celebratory mood. They had just fought the battle of Jutland against the British Navy, and although the outcome was indecisive the Germans claimed victory because they had destroyed more enemy ships. To celebrate the event Edwards was invited by the German naval publicity bureau to visit the fleet. The list that we found was cleared on June 29, 1916, by Captain Hans Wittman, a naval publicity officer. Wittman must have been impressed by Edwards' film work because earlier in 1916 he had struck a deal with the German foreign propaganda agency - the Zentralstelle für Auslandsdienst - to use films shot by Edwards of the Turkish army.

The list that was cleared by Wittman has a total of 35 movie scenes all showing the German Navy. The footage by Edwards has a length of 1400 feet. Edwards filmed Admiral Scheer's flagship, as well as the officers of the German Naval High Command, who were proudly posing before his movie camera. In one of the scenes can be seen a young officer, Erich Raeder. He served as Admiral von Hipper's chief of staff in 1916, and during the first part of the Second World War was Hitler's top naval commander.

Scene from one of Edwards' films: Admiral von Hipper adressing his men

Edwards also filmed numerous battle ships on the high sea. Those listed by name are the battleships Westfalen that destroyed six British torpedo boats, as well as the Kaiser Wilhelm II. He also filmed German torpedo boat destroyers in action, sailors signalling to other ships, excercises on board the German fleet and the daily life of the German sailors. In America Edwards' newsreel films were released in the movie theaters in August 1916.

Scenes Found by the Authors

The scenes that we could identify on the list and that were retrieved online are numbers 13, 14, 17 and 18. These show Admiral von Hipper and his staff, as well as Admiral Scheer visiting his flag ship Friedrich der Grosse. The intertitle introducing the scene showing Scheer boarding the ship - a very short flash on film - has a reference to the Hearst International News Pictorial, the company Edwards worked for and further evidence that he shot these scenes. The footage is on 35 mm and the original negatives are from the Grinberg Collection. A print positive was bought for stock purposes by Getty Images. The original footage from Grinberg was also used by the BBC in episode 14 of the Great War series (1964).

We have uploaded a research copy of the film clip on our YouTube channel, including the film scenes shot by Edwards that were used by the BBC in the 1960s.

The list from the Military Archives in Freiburg, describing the naval scenes taken by Edwards, can be read and downloaded here.