World War I Centennial: Camerimage, Torun to Bydgoszcz

On Nov. 11, a Sunday morning, Carol and I were walking along the embankment of the River Brda in Bydgoszcz, Poland.  Ahead of us was the rounded labyrinth of the Opera Nova building, where the 26th Camerimage International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography had opened the night before. At precisely 11 a.m., nearby church bells rang out not only as a call to mass, but also to honor the moment when, 100 years earlier, the Great War of 1914-1918 came to its bloody end. Even more significantly for the local citizens, this date also held promise, later that day, of a celebration of the Polish centennial of independence from the Germans and the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Camerimage began in 1993 in the nearby medieval town of Torun, then moved for a few years to Lódz, location of the National Film School. It has been held in Bydgoszcz since 2010. At the invitation of festival director Marek Zydowicz, I had given opening remarks the evening before. I was also there to present several programs with Carol on behalf of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. 

 

John Bailey and Carol Littleton at this year's Camerimage International Festival. (Photo: Anna Rusilko)
John Bailey and Carol Littleton at this year's Camerimage International Festival. (Photo: Anna Rusilko)

The evening before, in the opera house, I had recalled my own history with the festival: 

Carol and I first came to the Camerimage Festival in Torun in 1994, only a few years after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Torun back then, despite its cultural and scientific importance, was a very gray and drab city choking on coal smoke. I remember walking the barely illuminated city streets at night, seeing very little commercial advertising or neon lighting. There were no McDonald’s. Three years later, Torun was chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
That year was a notable one celebrating Polish cinematography. The Golden Frog was shared by Tibor Mathe for 'Woyzeck' and Arthur Reinhart for 'Wrony' (Crows). Vittorio Storaro and Witold Sobocinski were given Lifetime Achievement Awards. Last night, Carol and I were at a table in the Holiday Inn when several young filmmakers eagerly greeted a man at an adjacent table whose back was to us. Once I heard his name, I knew I had to speak to him. Witold Sobocinski, a living legend of Polish cinema, continued to teach at the National Film School in Lódz at the age of 89. And at this year’s festival, he is again recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award.


Witold Sobocinski
Witold Sobocinski

Several days after returning to Los Angeles, I received news that Mr. Sobicinski had died peacefully in his sleep on Nov. 19. The Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to him by director Roman Polanski, making a surprise appearance on the opera house stage; Sobocinski had photographed several feature films for him, and they had been fellow film students in Lódz. 

As I continued my opening comments at the festival, I spoke of the World War I centennial the following morning: 

Tomorrow morning, Nov. 11, at 11 a.m., the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, exactly 100 years ago, the end of World War I was declared. Once absurdly called ‘The Great War,’ this horrendous internecine conflict set the stage for the 20th century’s global war horrors. More than nine million men were killed in combat, another 21 million wounded. These grim figures became the locus of political and cultural upheaval in all the arts during the next decades, ushering in a brilliant age of cinema in Europe and the United States — the first golden age of cinema, until it temporarily pulled up short with the advent of sound.

Poland was ground zero for much of that century’s most brutal conflicts. But despite these travails, Polish arts, and especially Polish cinema, has continued to set inspiring standards for the rest of the world. It is this history and tradition that we also honor in this extraordinary festival. 

So, it is fitting that tomorrow we also honor another landmark in Polish history. On the same day as the World War I Armistice centennial, we will be celebrating as well the centennial of Polish independence. It was on Nov. 10, 1918, that Poland’s future head of state, Jozef Pilsudski, returned from incarceration by the Germans, formed a new centralized government and called parliamentary elections. In the following decades, Poland endured and survived first the Nazi occupation, and then Soviet Communism, emerging in 1989 once again to its rightful place in history as an independent nation.

Happy Centennial Independence Day, Poland. The rest of the world salutes you, and this coming week, we all salute and celebrate the greatest art form of the 20th and 21st centuries: motion pictures.

Polish Supreme Command, 1918
Polish Supreme Command, 1918

Back in Los Angeles, I ruminated on the events of that centennial day and how little note seemed to have been taken of it in the United States. Our sitting president, who was in France at the time, even avoided going to the Aisne-Marne memorial cemetery in Belleau because of rain, though White House Chief of Staff John Kelly did attend.

I have been thinking about the horrors of that war, the first war that began with 19th century cavalry and horse-drawn cannon carts rushing into classic 19th century battle maneuvers and ended with the mechanized horrors of aerial bombing, tank attacks and poison gas. I began a search for documentary footage I could easily access. Although Ken Burns has made brilliant documentaries about the American Civil War and World War II, I quickly discovered that he has not made a film on World War I.

Why not? Is it because this global disaster had indirectly affected the United States? We declared war on Germany only in April 1917, and our troops took the field in France in large numbers only at the beginning of 1918.

In fact, I found several documentaries that had been made decades earlier, one of them The Great War, a 26-part BBC series that mined many international film archives. For comprehensive details of the war, it still sets the standard.  But there is another film that can be seen in a single sitting; it is based on the narrative structure of the conflict as outlined in Barbara Tuchman’s magisterial history The Guns of August.

The documentary is especially rich in explaining the prelude to conflict, from the 1910 death of the English monarch Edward VII and the earliest weeks of lightning attacks in Belgium by the Germans, to the years-long stalemate on the Western front, to the war’s dénouement. This global holocaust began, in fact, as an internecine conflict. 

Though it was produced in 1964, well before all the magical tools of digital restoration, the source material’s quality is quite compelling even at YouTube resolution. There is a DVD available in Region 2 format.

Director Peter Jackson has embraced all the current digital tools, including delicate colorization and 3-D, to create a feature-length film about World War I titled They Shall Not Grow Old. He has also employed speed corrections of men and arms as well as CGI for more believable movement. This stunningly realistic revamping of historical news footage will be shown in a theatrical release starting Dec. 17.

Here is the trailer:

Another element in Jackson’s use of archival footage from the Imperial War Museum is a rich sound-effects field, as well as his uncanny decision to engage lip readers to read the soldiers’ speech, then employ actors to bring the words to life.

In the following clip, Jackson explains the process. In the opening minute, we see soldiers in playful interludes between battles: 

It makes us realize just how young these men were, and that makes this film easily accessible to today’s younger viewers. For older filmmakers like me, perhaps the age factor, the simple living of life, helps dissolve the veil of time and ground us in our own small part in the pageant of history.

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