Even if you have never heard of Verdun, visions d’histoire, chances are you have seen clips of it. The epic French retelling of the Battle of Verdun was so accurate and so dramatically filmed that footage has been used repeatedly in documentaries of the First World War– sometimes even being presented as actual war footage!
Available on DVD.
It’s not surprising, really. Verdun was designed to recreate history using the very latest motion picture technique and technology. Accuracy was paramount. Real locations were used. Real soldiers were used as extras. Military commanders reprised their roles of a decade before. Though militarily accurate, the film is not jingoistic. It has a pacifist message: the Germans were human too.
Like so many other silent films, only a truncated version survived. The recovery of the complete print of Verdun is fascinating tale in itself. The film had been seized by the Germans during the Second World War but was then captured by the Russians when they entered Berlin. It was taken back to Moscow where it waited in a vault before a copy was obtained by the modern French rights holder.
Restored in 2006, the film has finally been released on home media in time for the centennial year of the start of WWI.
(Please note that I am just reviewing the DVD release of the film, I will be reviewing the actual film in detail later.)
The disc includes the restored print of the 1928 film Verdun, visions d’histoire. In addition, there is a featurette on the restoration process, the film itself and a short film about Verdun edited from archive footage by the Film Department of the French Army.
Verdun is the main event, of course. The restoration looks great (though small flaws remain in the film, scratches and dust, etc.) and the picture is accompanied by a piano score by Hakim Bentchouala Golobitch.
The intertitles are in the original French with optional subtitles in English, German, Spanish and Japanese.
Restoring Verdun is a 14-minute short detailing the process of recovering and restoring the film. While not heavy on technical detail, it concisely shows the challenges of taking on a restoration project of this scale.
It is in French with optional subtitles in English only.
Visions of Verdun is another 14-minute short. It details how the film came to be and its modern appeal, as well as background on the director, Leon Poirier.
Again, the featurette is in French with optional English subtitles.
Finally, there is the little-known film The French take their revenge in Verdun. It provides a fascinating contrast between the real archive footage and the recreated battles in Verdun. Unfortunately, ECPAD, which holds the print, found it necessary to have their watermark in the upper left corner of the entire film. This is highly distracting.
The navigation page is simple and easy to get around. (Thank goodness crazy elaborate menu screens in general have gone the way of the dodo.)
Verdun is not for everyone. It is intense, heavy and deep. However, it is really essential viewing for students of war history and anyone interested in the evolution of war on film. A masterpiece that was well ahead of its time, we are fortunate to be able to enjoy it in the comfort of our own homes.
Verdun, Looking At History has been released on DVD by Carlotta Films in association with Kino Lorber.