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December 30, 2014

Verdun: Looking at History

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Verdun, visions d'histoire
Leon Poirier - 1928
Carlotta Films US All Region DVD

Even if there is no specific interest in World War I, or in this historic battle, as a work of cinema, Verdun should be of interest as a lot of what is commonplace in film and television has its roots here. What is significant is the combination of large scale historical recreation, a fictional story, and some incorporation of documentary footage. As is mentioned in one of the supplements discussing the restoration of this film, there is also the unmistakable influence of D. W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein.

Not exactly as "lost" film but one that was only available in shortened versions, the film we have is the complete two and a half hour version, restored from a print in the Moscow archives. Poirier's recreation of the battle scenes, done with World War I veterans, was so convincing that his footage has been misinterpreted as having been shot at the scene of actual fighting, and used in other documentaries on Verdun.

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But it addition to the convincing footage, are the other questions regarding making a film about a national even, especially one that is emotionally loaded. Just as, to give a recent example, how does a filmmaker responsibly recreate any part of the events related to September 11, 2001, so too was this a problem for Poirier. As reported in the discussions by those involved with the restoration, there was resentment in Poirier's choice not present the German soldiers as villains, but with the same dignity as the French troops. One also needs the perspective of history, with Marshal Petain, re-enacting a moment from 1916, still considered very much a popular hero at the time the film was made, a hero so beloved that it enabled his ascent to the leadership in France in 1940, and the personal and political disaster that followed.

An example of Poirier's cleverness is in using documentary footage from a parade of German soldiers. The solders go by an open barn or storage shed. We can see some soldiers peering out from the dark interior. Poirier cuts to a shot of his actors as the soldiers looking out from inside the building. It's the kind of moment that viewers are use to seeing now, taken to an extreme in something like Forrest Gump, but still a new technique at the time. On a more intimate level, Poirier frequently uses close-ups of hands - a woman giving a soldier a small crucifix before he goes off to battle, hands manipulating a compass. The mechanics of war are best illustrated with a shot of the soldiers manning a cannon, with each of the four soldiers having a distinct function in loading, shooting and unloading the cannon.

As the French soldier, who is followed into battle, Albert Prejean is best remembered for his association with Rene Clair's films The Italian Straw Hat and Under the Roofs of Paris. As Prejean's younger brother, Antonin Artaud appears briefly in the scenes at home, occasionally reading a book, and generally looking pained.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 30, 2014 07:30 AM