Monday, January 30, 2017

Breaking the Blockade - "The Sea Raider Möwe" (Germany, 1917)

Playing havoc with British ships crossing the Atlantic, the SMS Möwe (Seagull) was the most succesful German sea raider in World War I. Disguised as a neutral cargo ship to enable it to get close to targets, the Möwe sunk 40 ships, thus showing that the British did not completely rule the waves and that the Germans were able to break the naval blockade by the Entente. Because of its publicity value the second voyage by the Möwe was filmed by members of the crew.

Advertisement for the Möwe film from Motion Picture News, 10 April 1920. The picture on the right shows Captain Count Dohna-Scholdien adressing his crew 

Original film Release

Originally released in four reels by the Bild- und Filmamt (BuFA) in May 1917 as Graf Dohna und seine Möwe, the movie became one of the most important propaganda films in the First World War. Long considered lost, parts of the Möwe film were found recently in the collection of the Dutch Film Museum EYE. A close examination of the footage shows a full match with the ship's log of December 1916 when the Möwe in quick succession sank nine ships about 700 miles off Newfoundland. So, the films were taken during the second voyage of the Möwe and therefore must have been from the original German movie produced by BuFA. Additional scenes, showing the safe return of the raider to Germany in March 1917 and Admiral Scheer congratulating Captain Count Dohna-Scholdien, have been located by the authors in historical stock footage of Periscope Films.

Scene from the "Möwe" film (1917)

During World War I the film mainly was a commercial success in German theatres. But this changed when three years later the movie was released in the United States. According to Terry Ramsaye in his classic book A Million and One Nights, the historical film was found in 1920 by newsreel cameraman Ariel Varges who sent it to America. "It was in the possession of a German secret agent. The agent had an immorata, fair but approachable. She had another gallant friend who was a chauffeur, and the chauffeur, naturally, had several friends, all fair. Captain Varges bought a lot of wine and displayed gold money."

The Cruise of the Moewe (USA, 1920)

Although it makes for a good story there is no evidence available to substantiate Ramsaye's account. Varges was in 1920 in Europe for the Hearst newsreels and trade press reports indicate he secured the film in Vienna. Introduced as The Cruise of the Moewe, "notorious scourge of the seas", the film was released in April 1920 in four weekly segments through Universal International News. After it had been edited for the newsreels, a two-reel compilation was sold by the Hearst organization in America on a state-rights basis. Parts of this American film version are at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Here is a video from our YouTube channel, showing all historical scenes that had been considered lost on the second voyage of the Möwe. The Dutch version has also been uploaded on the website of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA).


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