Cinemas and Soldiers, 1914-1918: Reflections upon my doctoral research during the final year of centenary commemorations for the First World War

Chris Grosvenor, University of Exeter

29 July 2018


As I write this blog post, I am in the final stages of bringing together my doctoral thesis –‘Cinema on the Front Line: A History of Military Cinema Exhibition and Soldier Spectatorship during the First World War’. I began my PhD in September 2015, although I had actually started researching the topic of my thesis for my MA dissertation the year before, so in a sense, my research has from its inception been undertaken against the background of centenary commemorations for the First World War. It has been a long, challenging, but incredibly rewarding process, combining my interests in film history, military history and war studies to produce some 100,000 words on a subject which, from my perspective, has until this point lacked a comprehensive history and analysis within the discipline of Film Studies [1].

The fact that I have undertaken this research during the centenary period has proved to be hugely significant. More than the ample amount of First World War-related academic conferences, research networks and publications prompted by the beginning of the centenary in 2014, the history of the conflict – its significance, impact and legacy – will perhaps never again be as prevalent as it has been within our contemporary political and cultural environment, certainly not within my lifetime. It is my hope, therefore, that by accident rather than design, my research can contribute something hitherto missing from, not only our own academic field and discipline, but an internationally shared cultural history and ‘memory’ of the ‘Great War’, particularly as we leave this monumental milestone of the centenary of the conflict behind us in 2018. Indeed, even a century after the close of the conflict, I hope that research such as my own showcases the wealth of stories and histories that are still waiting to be discovered in the archives of the First World War.

Image 1: Two British soldiers standing beside a projector (most likely a Pathé 1913 model) c.1916. Courtesy of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, University of Exeter. EXE BD 84481

So – what have you discovered then? – you’re probably asking. Fundamentally, my research outlines how cinema exhibition during the First World War did not begin and end with theatrical exhibition on the home front, but encapsulated a whole, largely forgotten, demographic of wartime spectators: British soldiers. From the domestic commercial venues where potential soldiers were targeted with cinematic recruitment propaganda in the hope that they would enlist, to the make-shift venues constructed for exhibition on the front line itself, and the appropriation of the medium within the context of soldier rehabilitation and recovery in military hospitals and convalescent camps, the cinema intersected with the average British soldier at practically every point of their military career. Painstaking research undertaken using official military documentation held by the National Archives has revealed the previously unacknowledged scope of cinemas established by different formations of the British Expeditionary Force – Armies, Corps, Divisions, Brigades – on the Western front between 1914 and 1918. Moreover, detailed information about front line exhibition practices, from film programmes to venues, equipment, finances and musical accompaniment shed further light on this unique instance of historical exhibition. Furthermore, careful examination of soldier diaries, letters and ‘trench publications’ held by institutions such as the Imperial War Museum, the Liddle Collection at the University of Leeds, and the BFI, has placed front and centre a fundamentally singular body of wartime spectatorship. Whilst cherishing the psychologically restorative powers of escapist comedies and dramas within the immediate environment of the front line – where ‘the grim realities of warfare are temporarily forgotten during the performance’ – I argue that soldiers also evolved to become intellectually discerning spectators in their own right, equipped to interpret, negotiate and ultimately deconstruct the artifice and manipulation of wartime propaganda and fictional films depicting the conflict, including major topical releases such as The Battle of the Somme (1916). [2] More generally, the diverse range of exhibition practices utilised for the entertainment of British soldiers either on the front line or at home – from films projected onto hospital war ceilings for the bed-bound wounded to shell-damaged barns or huts within close proximity to the dangers of the front line trenches – evidences the fact that cinema exhibition for soldier spectators during the conflict was rife with variety, experimentation and unprecedented spectatorial encounters with the medium at this early juncture within the 20th century.

Image 2: Postcard of Larkhill Camp, Salisbury. The top of the ‘Military Cinema’ can just be seen on the right-hand side (white building). Author’s Collection.

At its core, however, it is the soldiers themselves who have come to reside as my primary focus of research. Indeed, despite the distance in time and supposed objectivity required of the historian, it is the stories of a generation of young men fighting and even dying for their country which have had the most impact upon me during these last four years. Whilst I sit in the Imperial War Museum’s research room holding a mud-stained and partly faded diary, it is impossible not to think of the man who held it one-hundred years ago. Turning the page, I may find some comment about how the antics of Charlie Chaplin or the familiar romance of a drama momentarily removed the soldier from his immediate war-torn and psychologically oppressive surroundings for the duration of the programme. He didn’t care that the ‘cinema’ he sat in was nothing more than a barn stocked with ‘empty petrol boxes’ or ‘old pieces of wood, all sizes and thicknesses, to take the place of tip-up seats’. [3] In these instances, the power of the medium as a morale-boosting, engaging and fundamentally escapist form of entertainment highlights the influence and impact of the medium during this unprecedented and horrendous conflict. It is no wonder then, that soldiers took the medium of the cinema with them from the civilian lives to the front line; for some, it was an absolute necessity for survival.

Image 3: Postcard depicting a column of British soldiers marching past a cinema, c.1916. Author’s Collection.

Whilst the specific objects of fandom or the popularity of certain genres may have changed, the fact that soldiers paid what little money they earned to visit a military-run cinema behind the lines, even in the most extraordinary of circumstances, underlines the same fundamental attraction of the medium that continues to engage audiences today in the 21st century. This, more than anything, has been one of the most important conclusions I have personally drawn during my research over the last four years – that the cinema’s social and cultural function can, in a certain sense, serve to bridge the gap in time between audiences of yesterday and today – a poignant, albeit simple reminder that these men were real people, with real lives and families, hopes and dreams, sacrificing all for their country and their fellow men in the trenches, who found in the medium of cinema a momentary respite from their anxieties and fears. More than ever, this notion should be maintained and safeguarded as we draw to the close of the centenary in 2018, with the war having now resolutely slipped from living memory to the memory of the historical archive.


[1] For some introductory material on the subject, as well as writing on the YMCAs provision of cinematic entertainment for soldiers during the First World War, see: Kevin Brownlow, The War, the West, and the Wilderness, (London: Secker and Warburg, 1979), pp. 44-47; J. G. Fuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies, 1914-1918 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), pp. 110-113; Emma Hanna, ‘Putting the Moral into Morale: YMCA Cinemas on the Western Front, 1914-1918’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 35, No. 4 (2015), pp. 615-630; Amanda Laugesen, ‘Forgetting their Troubles for a While: Australian Soldiers’ Experiences of Cinema during the First World War’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 35, No. 4 (2015), pp. 596-614. Of course, it is my hope that my research will offer the most comprehensive and detailed account of this historical practice.

[2] ‘Weekly Notes’, The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 20 September 1917, p. 75.

[3] C. G. Lilley, ‘Back of the Front! A Description of Tommy’s Cinema Shows’, The Bioscope, 7 September 1916, p. xv.


Chris Grosvenor is a final-year PhD student at the University of Exeter, UK. His thesis – ‘Cinema on the Front Line’ – examines the role of the cinema as it intersected with the lives of those who served for Britain during the First World War, shining a light on a largely unacknowledged history within the discipline of Film Studies. More broadly, his research interests include silent cinema, British film history, exhibition studies and the work of silent comedian Charlie Chaplin.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

 

‘A Day at the Archives…’: Life Writing in the Swedish Film Institute Archive

Emil Stjernholm, Lund University, Sweden

12 June 2018


For the past four and a half years, I have been doing a PhD in film studies, spending most of my time tracing the biography of the enigmatic Swedish cinephile, filmmaker and historian Gösta Werner (1908-2009). During this period, I have visited a range of archives––from the makeshift archive of the Lund Film Society which is stored in boxes in the cellar of the arthouse cinema Kino a stones throw from my office at Lund University to the all but complete company archive of Universum Film AG (Ufa) at Bundesarchiv in Berlin. In this piece, however, I would like to focus on my experiences working with Gösta Werner’s large personal archive, which is deposited at the Swedish Film Institute (SFI) in Stockholm.

Gösta Werner was an omnipresent figure in Swedish film history––as a theorist, filmmaker, and scholar. In the postwar period, he gained recognition as a director of sponsored films and next to the well-known documentarian Arne Sucksdorff he was probably Sweden’s best-known short film director during this period. In Werner’s own narrative about his career, the war years are glossed over. Instead, the canonized experimental short film The Sacrifice (Midvinterblot, 1945) has habitually (and wrongly) been labeled as the director’s debut film. However, long before the release of this film, Werner began to pursue filmmaking under the auspices of the Nazi controlled German company Ufa and he participated in the shooting and editing of the German Swedish-language newsreel Ufa-journalen that was distributed in Sweden between 1941-1945. Accordingly, one of the main aims of my dissertation is to investigate what Werner’s role was in the production of German propaganda and how these transnational film practices affected the authorial discourse surrounding him during and after the war. After his filmmaking career, Werner became a scholar and prominent film historian. In fact, he became the first to earn a PhD in the newly instated subject filmvetenskap (film studies) in 1971. In this sense, I argue, his life and work shines light on the formation of Swedish film culture.

The archive and its origins

Gösta Werner’s personal archive is deposited at the Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm so let me first say a few words about the place where it is being held. The film archive at the SFI is one of the oldest in the world and the foundation also holds a number of special collections. The special collections range from a number of major company archives, like the silent film company Svenska Biografteatern’s archive, parts of the major film company Europafilm’s archive and Svenska Biografägarförbundet’s (Swedish Association of Cinema Proprietors) archive, to the personal collections of filmmakers like Victor Sjöström, Arne Mattsson and Sven Nykvist. A big part of both the film archive and the special collections comes from an organization called Svenska Filmsamfundet (“The Swedish Film Society”) which was founded in October 1933 with the ambition to preserve the legacy of Swedish silent film, an era oftentimes referred to as the Swedish golden age of cinema. Like many other European countries, Sweden had a large film society movement in the 1920s and 30s, and a number of leading critics, filmmakers and cinephiles active in Stockholm film society aimed to promote the standing of film, release publications and create a forum for public debate and to establish an award for outstanding work within the film industry. From a scholarly point-of-view, however, one of their most important initiatives was the creation of an archive where they collected manuscripts, press clippings, photos and other types of film paraphernalia. In 1940, the archive became a more independent entity and it was given the name Filmhistoriska samlingarna (The Film Historic Collections), and the collections were transferred to Tekniska museet (The National Museum of Science and Technology). In 1964, the collections were taken over by the then newly established Swedish Film Institute (founded in 1963).

The Swedish Film Institute is located in the Film House on the borough Östermalm in Stockholm. From T-Centralen, which forms the heart of the Stockholm metro system, it is just a five-minute train ride followed by a ten-minute walk from the metro station Karlaplan. The archive is located in a large Brutalist building which was designed by the architect Peter Celsing. During one of the early meetings planning the house, the founder Harry Schein allegedly said that he did not want “no ordinary bloody building”, and the Film House indeed catches the eye of the passers-by. Besides the SFI, the Film House caters to a number of film production companies and also has two major cinemas where Cinemateket screens films daily.

The Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm, author’s own photo.

The personal archive and beyond

The material that my dissertation builds on chiefly consists of two components: the personal archive that which the filmmaker deposited at the SFI in 1993 (and later complemented with additional material in 2005) and Gösta Werner’s films. The well-organized archive – approximately 20 running meters of documentation from his career – was structured by the filmmaker himself and deposited at the age of 85.  It encompasses a great range of materials –manuscripts, drafts, contracts, drawings, photographs, correspondences and financial records – of which a majority is annotated. These materials range from notes from his earliest assignments as an assistant director on the drama film Skepparkärlek (Ivar Johansson, 1931) to his research on the work of Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller in the late 1980s and 90s. One particularly interesting feature is the carbon copies of letters, which documents the director’s relationship to producers, critics and other filmmakers. Regarding Werner’s films, one must note that a number of them, more specifically 6 out of 45, are considered lost films, while the rest are held in the Swedish Film Institute’s film archive and have been made available to me digitally with the help of the National Library of Sweden’s Division for Audiovisual Media.

When I began this project I was not fully aware of the controversies that surrounded Gösta Werner’s persona. Even though rumors about his past political sympathies have been persistent throughout his career, Werner’s connections to Nazi Germany have never been explored in-depth. Here, one should note that the personal archive contains relatively few traces of his activities during World War II. Instead, the starting point for my investigation into this topic was a five-page dossier on Gösta Werner assembled by the Swedish intelligence agency (Allmänna säkerhetstjänsten). The fact that I discovered this file, more than two years into my research education, led me to explore other sources of archival material and research literature. This has been challenging because there is no comprehensive archival collection from Ufa’s Stockholm branch, neither in Germany nor in Sweden. Moreover, there is little information overall concerning Ufa’s operations abroad because the so-called ”UFA-Zentrale“ located at Dönhoffplatz in Berlin, was badly damaged by Allied bombs in February 1945, whereupon a large part of the archive material was destroyed in a fire. Given this, it is impossible to fully reconstruct to what extent the German company controlled the Swedish branch, and also to know exactly what Werner’s duties were at Ufa.

Given that he became a scholar himself and published biographies on several Swedish authors and filmmakers––such as the author Stig Dagerman, playwright Hjalmar Bergman and director Mauritz Stiller––I would argue that Werner could be seen as a particularly self-assured agent when it comes to the organization of the personal archive. Therefore, the personal archive that I am working with is in itself not a neutral place but actively constructed. Art historian Joan M. Schwartz and Archive scholar Terry Cook has argued that: ”Whether over ideas or feelings, actions or transactions, the choice of what to record and the decision over what to preserve, and thereby privilege, occur within socially constructed, but now naturalized frameworks that determine the significance of what becomes archives.” The gaps and absences concerning the most controversial and vexing period in his life – the war years – raises questions about what is included and what is excluded in the archive. While research in the Military Archives in Stockholm, the Swedish secret service archive (Allmänna säkerhetstjänstens arkiv) at The Swedish National Archives and at the Bundesarchiv in Berlin have helped me piece some parts of the puzzle together, many questions remain unanswered.

Even though Werner and his contemporary Ingmar Bergman are on opposite spectrums of the Swedish film canon, one being an appreciated legend and the other being marginalized, stigmatized and forgotten, their archives bear a striking resemblance in terms of the collector’s meticulousness and eagerness to save for posterity. Today, Bergman’s massive personal archive, also located at the Swedish Film Institute, attracts scholars, journalists and filmmakers from all over the world whereas Werner’s archive is full of unopened folders and envelopes. In other words, Werner took his artistic process seriously and considered himself a figure worthy of serious academic study, even though his filmmaking career never lived up to his own expectations.

Gösta Werner’s archive, The Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm, author’s own photo.

The Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm, author’s own photo.


Emil Stjernholm is a PhD Student in Film Studies at the Centre for Languages and Literature, Lund University, Sweden. His areas of research include documentary film, propaganda studies and media history. His doctoral dissertation focuses on the Swedish film pioneer Gösta Werner (forthcoming in the book series Mediehistoriskt arkiv (Media History Archives), http://mediehistorisktarkiv.se, in 2018). He has published articles in journals like Journal of Media, Cognition and Communication, Studies in European Cinema and BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.


 

A day at the archives… The Stanley Kubrick Archives, University of Arts London (UAL)

James Fenwick, De Montfort University

5 December 2017


Tucked deep in the bowels of the London College of Communication is a discreet room behind frosted glass. Stepping into this room, first time visitors can be forgiven for thinking they are stepping onto the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). A sterile white environment with bold red furniture, this is the home of UAL’s University Archives and Special Collections Centre and the resting place of the Stanley Kubrick Archive. I have spent many hours at the Kubrick Archive over the past seven years, first visiting it as part of research for my Master’s degree and, more recently, for my PhD research into Kubrick’s role as a producer. But all these years later I still feel a shiver of excitement as I step into the Archive and find myself immediately confronted with the weight of cinematic history that it holds. Small glass cabinets are positioned around the central reading room and contain props and other ephemera from the Kubrick Archive: face masks worn during the orgy sequence of Eyes Wide Shut (1999); a 1964 letter from Kubrick to Arthur C. Clarke proposing a collaboration on a science fiction project; or Kubrick’s personal working copy of the A Clockwork Orange (1971) screenplay, replete with his handwritten notes on inserted music sheets for ‘Singin’ in the Rain’.

 

Figure 1: © Luke Potter, 2007, courtesy of the Stanley Kubrick Archive/Figure 2: © Paul Heys, 2012, courtesy of the Stanley Kubrick Archive

Kubrick retained the majority of his business papers, correspondence, and production documents from the 1960s onwards (the Archive does house material from the 1940s and 1950s, but the documentation for the likes of Fear and Desire (1953) through to The Killing (1956) are more sparse compared to Kubrick’s later films), all filed into a system at his home at Childwick Bury Manor. Upon his death it became apparent that this material was of such cultural historic importance that it needed archiving with a scholarly institution. And it is to the great fortune of the academic community that the Kubrick family allowed the Archive to be opened to the public in 2007.

The popularity of the Archive combined with the small space of the reading room means that anyone wanting to visit is advised to contact the archival team several weeks in advance to secure an appointment (archive-enquiries@arts.ac.uk). Reading times are between 1pm and 5pm Monday to Friday, with boxes being retrieved until 4pm. There are locker spaces for any personal items and I’ve even been allowed to store my suitcase at times. The Archive does have a strict copyright policy and I strongly suggest any researcher wanting to visit read it in advance (here). Photography is not permitted of any items that are part of the Kubrick Archive due to an agreement with the donors. Therefore, a laptop is highly recommended to take as many notes as possible.

I would also strongly advocate planning your trip using the online catalogue (here). The sheer size of the Archive is overwhelming (over 800 linear metres of shelving) and I have witnessed many rookies to the Archive over the years expect to find the Holy Grail to Kubrick’s genius. That is until they realise just how much Kubrick hoarded and how much of it is seemingly trivial in nature (financial receipts, commercial catalogues, dispatch notes, order forms etc). The online catalogue is easy to navigate and is broken down into nineteen separate categories, thirteen of which relate to Kubrick’s feature films, while the remaining six categories include entries such as ‘Unfinished Projects’ (contains material on projects such as Aryan Papers and A.I.), and ‘Documentaries’ (this contains material on the two projects Vivian Kubrick directed: Making the Shining (1980) and the unreleased Making of Full Metal Jacket). I usually make meticulous notes of the boxes that I want to look at in order to form the basis of a particular case study, but it does pay to sometimes select random boxes and to peruse their contents. I’ve often come across surprising revelations this way, such as a letter from Peter Schnitzler, the grandson of Arthur, written to Kubrick in 1959. Peter had visited Kubrick on the set of Spartacus (1960) and the two had clearly talked about the prospect of developing one of Schnitzler’s novels into a film (something not realised until Eyes Wide Shut (1999)). As such, Peter offered his grandfather’s notebooks to Kubrick for further research (SK/9/4/1).

Figure 3: © Paul Heys, 2012, courtesy of the Stanley Kubrick Archive

As a confessed Kubrick obsessive, I take absolute pleasure in coming across handwritten letters from the likes of Sir Laurence Olivier (turning down the role of Humbert Humbert in Lolita (1962)), or Vladimir Nabokov (insisting he must be present at the casting of the title role of Lolita). But that is not to suggest the Kubrick Archive is a depository of materials that will easily illuminate the processes of a Kubrick production. Firstly, and perhaps most frustratingly, is the illegible scrawl of Kubrick’s handwriting, which can be found on many items in the Archive, right down to some innocuous requisition form. Senior Archivist Richard Daniels may be at hand to attempt to decipher Kubrick’s writing, though more often than not I have abandoned such hope in ever understanding what on earth he was writing. Similarly, catalogue entries may build up your hopes of coming across an item that will utterly revise the scholarly approach to Kubrick, only to find that the item is in fact just a dog-eared old note filled with doodles and other musings rather than any kind of Rosebud. I found myself so duped at the beginning of my PhD when I came across a catalogue entry that read ‘Kubrick job list’, with a description that suggested Kubrick had outlined by hand a ‘Kubrick company chart’ (SK/16/2/15). I went into a nervous sweat feeling that this could be it; this could be the key to unlocking my PhD research in revealing Kubrick the producer. I made an advance order of the box and arrived prompt at 1pm. I watched one of the staff wheel out the box on a metal trolley ready for its dissection by me. I opened it up and rummaged through the files until I came to it, ‘Kubrick’s job list’, a slice of yellowing, crumpled A4 paper filled with more of Kubrick’s spidery handwriting. Four company names were listed next to a wonky table that had two black dots placed inside of it. Only two companies were decipherable, Peregrine and Polaris. The file told me nothing. My heart sank and, after several more hours in the Archive, I consoled myself in a nearby Elephant & Castle pub with a tepid beer.

This has pretty much been the pattern of my time spent researching at the Archive. I wade through boxes of dusty, dog-eared business papers while a group of students grin as they open a box that contains a jumper worn by Danny Torrance in The Shining (1980). I have to give myself a moment for pause as I gleefully join the students to gaze upon this battered, forty-year old piece of clothing, momentarily dropping my researcher façade and becoming just a fan. And this exemplifies the two halves of the Archive: one is the exciting journey of new ways to engage with Kubrick’s life and work, to touch the objects and clothes that animated his films, and to experience a tangible connection to the man himself. The other is boxes and boxes of paper that document the laborious process of actually making the films we now enjoy. My thesis has drawn heavily on the financial papers, business and production correspondence, distribution reports and other such material to piece together the managerial and administrative structures and functions of a Stanley Kubrick production. And it has revealed just how difficult and exasperating a process this could be for both Kubrick and for those who worked with him.

The hours I have spent researching have been alleviated by the surroundings of the Archive itself, where at any one time there is a hive of activity. If you like a quiet, peaceful research environment, then the Archive may prove quite distracting. I personally thrive off of the activity and at seeing the various researchers, journalists, and students respond to the items they find. Occasionally, Jan Harlan (Kubrick’s brother-in-law and long time executive producer) may stroll in, or you may encounter a volunteer with an amazing story to tell (Joy Cuff volunteers at the Archive and worked as a model maker on 2001: A Space Odyssey). And there is a team of helpful and insightful archival staff on hand to guide rookies around the catalogue and to lend an insight into the Kubrick mind.

I’d like to end by just pointing out a few helpful travel tips. The Archive is conveniently located next to the Elephant & Castle tube station, served by the Bakerloo and Northern Line. First time visitors may get confused at the tangle of subway tunnels at Elephant & Castle. The easiest thing to do is follow signs for the London College of Communication / the Imperial War Museum. The entrance to the University is set back a little from the roundabout, as if you were to continue onto St. George’s Road. During term time it is impossible to miss – just look for the gaggle of staff and students outside smoking. The University does have café facilities but I prefer to maximise my time in the Archive and leave refreshments until the end of the day. After all, the BFI Southbank is but a ten-to-fifteen minute walk away. What better way to end a day trawling through the Stanley Kubrick Archive than catching a 70mm screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey and finally realising just how much paper went into the making of it.


James Fenwick has been researching Stanley Kubrick’s role as a producer and of those producers Kubrick worked with. He has published several articles on Kubrick, including ‘Curating Kubrick: Constructing ‘New Perspective’ Narratives in Stanley Kubrick Exhibitions’ for Screening the Past. He has recently undertaken a research trip to the Kirk Douglas Papers in Madison, Wisconsin, funded by the EAAS.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

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