Friday, May 26, 2017

Reconstructing Hindenburg's Victory at Tannenberg (1914)

Although numerous contemporary World War I films have been lost a lot of footage has also been preserved because it was recycled into TV documentaries. During our latest research for our book American Cinematographers in the Great War we came across some striking examples showing how historical film scenes could be retrieved and identified this way. This recycling process took place as early as during World War I.

German infantry charge, photographed by Durborough. This picture was staged at a training ground. Copied from the New York Times July 4, 1915

On the Firing Line with the Germans (USA, 1915)

Wilbur H. Durborough's film On the Firing Line with the Germanswhich was restored by the Library of Congress in 2015, offers an interesting example. Because of the restoration we were able to reconstruct the original edit from 1915. Scenes from Durborough's feature documentary film turned up in U.S. Signal Corps footage, as well as TV documentaries on the Great War by the BBC, CBS and the recent Armageddon series on World War I. We were surprised to find out that as early as during the Great War the Germans used scenes from Durborough's movie, showing the attack by the German army into Russian Poland, which he accompanied on the Eastern Front.

The same scene, as edited for a contemporary German war film

In a contemporary German World War I film, produced between 1916 and 1918, we found scenes that were supposed to show Field Marshal von Hindenburg's victorious campaign at Tannenberg in August 1914, which rescued East Prussia from the invading Russian army. Part of the footage however, especially the scenes showing German infantry jumping across ditches, was culled from reels 7 and 8 of Durborough's film which wasn't taken until a year after Von Hindenburg had directed his famous battle. The Germans apparently were so pleased with Durborough's film that they used it anyway for their own purposes. Ironically, the infantry charge scenes shot by Durborough and his camera operator Ries were probably staged at a training ground near Berlin or Hannover.

Click here for a new and extended article on Durborough's photographic work during World War I and the making of his film On the Firing Line with the Germans (1915). 

The original film can be viewed on the German Film Portal and comes from the collection of the German Film Institute. Here are scenes from this film which we posted on our YouTube channel.



  1. Very informative article which is about the sadness and reality of war and i must bookmark it, keep posting interesting articles.

    sadness and reality of war