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.


  1. Thanks for sharing Filzinger's life memories. I was amazed that how difficult to hold and capture the moments in First World War. But he did a great job man. thumbs up!

  2. Thank you! Filzinger sure deserves to be in the World War I Film Hall of Fame!

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