When two Prussian soldiers fall in love with the same woman, one of them stoops to malicious deception in order to eliminate his rival. A throbbing melodrama from Edison.
Home Media Availability: Stream courtesy of EYE.
It’s the old classic: Boys meet Girl, Girl chooses, Loser Boy claims Winner Boy was killed in battle, what could go wrong? As the fortieth anniversary of the Franco-Prussian War neared, the now-established film industry saw it as an ideal setting for all kinds of stories, including this tale of jealousy and petty vindictiveness from the Edison company.
(The available print is a foreign release version with its title cards translated into German. I will be using the names provided by the translated title cards but I am not certain that they are identical to the original English names.)
Gretchen is young lady with two Prussian officer suitors. She makes up her mind and chooses Waldo, much to the anger of his rival (whom I shall call “Mustache”). The men leave for the front but Waldo is captured by the French during a courier run and is shot during his daring escape. On his sickbed, he dictates a letter to Gretchen asking for her hand once he recovers. Mustache is charged with delivering the letter but changes his mind and tears it up outside Gretchen’s house.
Gretchen goes mad with grief and wanders the countryside, haunted by Waldo’s specter. Meanwhile, her brother saw everything, recovers the letter, reads it and goes to find his sister. He catches up with her just as she throws herself off a cliff and into a lake. The brother dives in after her, saves her and Waldo returns home in time to expose the deception of Mustache.
A very simple story, as you can see, and replete with all the melodrama and poor peripheral vision that we associate with stories of this era. In The Hessian Renegades, released the same year, a character has a full-blown cursing fit three feet to the left of the villains and they never notice. The Lie isn’t quite so blatant but Mustache certainly carries on when he catches Gretchen and Waldo together.
However, The Lie has two things going for it: stunts and exterior photography. The exterior locations were chosen well (New York and New Jersey were crammed with castles that were often used as film sets) and there are some nice edited closeups and pans to keep things interesting. The double dive into the water is really something spectacular with both leaps caught in a single, unedited shot and real stunt performers clearly being used. No cutting away from the actors and tossing a dummy over a cliff here! Honestly, I almost wish they had used dummies because life, limb and necks were clearly at risk.
In fact, the cliff leap was so spectacular that a man working in Edison’s film distribution arm felt compelled to write to the main office to praise the scene in particular for its excitement and realism. “The most sensational and daring ever seen” may seem like a bit of corporate brown-nosing on the surface but I think the scene does deserve its laurels.
Now the interior shots… not so much. The sets were realistic (obviously painted 2D backgrounds were still cropping up in 1909) but the blocking is dull, uninteresting and the kind of “show the entire room, rafters to floorboards” thing that we more often associate with early 1900s cinema.
But since we have brought up the topic of dates… there was a bit of a mystery associated with The Lie that had to be resolved before I could review it.
When I saw The Lie, it was labeled as A Soldier’s Duty from 1912. I did notice that the title didn’t really match the action but these films were being churned out at breakneck speed and the perfect title wasn’t always in the cards. I really began to suspect something was up when I went to look at contemporary reviews of the film.
I always like to see what critics of the day had to say about the motion picture and how it was marketed, or if it was marketed at all. Well, A Soldier’s Duty was described as a romance of the American Civil War. In those Prussian helmets? No, this couldn’t be right. The movie was clearly mislabeled.
This rare film was made available thanks to the EYE Film Institute of the Netherlands. I truly appreciate their ongoing efforts to digitize their extensive collection and make it available to the public. With such a massive undertaking, identification errors are inevitable and this is by no means an attack on their fine work. In fact, figuring out just which film is which is a monumental task and archives worldwide continue to evaluate and correct the labeling of their collections.
(As always, I highly recommend the academic anthology Provenance and Early Cinema, which deeply explores the unique problems of correctly identifying the oldest motion pictures.)
So, while I absolutely understand how this mistake could have happened, I was left with the question of the picture’s true identity. Obviously, I did track it down but I think discussing the process will be interesting because it demonstrates how rapidly the American film industry was changing in those key years between about 1907 and 1913.
You see, as I watched the film, I couldn’t help but think that it looked a bit rudimentary for 1912. In that year, editing as we know it was becoming the standard, edited closeups— a thing since at least 1900 — were being used more consistently during key scenes, feature films were beginning to be released by American studios and the shiny new star system was already an unstoppable force.
The movie I was seeing didn’t really reflect any of that. It looked older, at least a few years older. My initial guess was a release date between 1908 and 1910. After my first searches revealed nothing, I focused entirely on earlier dates using keywords from the plot (like “Franco-Prussian War”) and lo and behold! A 1909 film called The Lie fit the bill.
I had mused that the film might have been European due to the heroic Prussian hero (USA productions loved their Prussian villains even before WWI, other studio Franco-Prussian War films were decidedly Franco) but The Lie was, in fact, an American Edison release. So, not 100% accurate on my guess but not bad. (I didn’t notice the little Edison logo by the fireplace during my first watch!)
The most obvious indicator of an earlier film was the “we paid for whole actors, show their feet!” cinematography in the interior scenes. As for the rest… a lot of it comes down to flavor and instinct. It was nothing I could put my finger on, it just felt like an earlier picture. Maybe the editing was a bit rougher, maybe the acting was a bit emphatic, but it all added up to a correct guess.
In fact, The Lie was not seen as particularly sophisticated in 1909. While the leap off the cliff and into the water was universally praised, as were most of the exterior shots, The Moving Picture World stated that the interiors were under-exposed, under-developed and indistinct. Given the dramatic change in quality between the interiors and exteriors, not just in lighting but in the use of edits, pans, medium shots and closeups vs “show their feet, no cuts,” I wonder if different directors handled these two portions of the film.
It’s also possible that whoever directed the picture was experimenting with electrically lighting the interiors to reflect the mood (cozy firelight during the early romance scenes, harsher daylight when the heroine is lied to, dimmer evening light to convey the passage of time as her family awaits her return) and the trial just didn’t pan out. It would certainly explain the harshness that annoyed the critic.
The Edison company was shooting indoors with artificial light at the time. In a 1908 letter discussing photographing an exhibition in Alaska, a manager of the company’s film unit stated that since the event was held indoors, artificial lights were necessary. The sets of The Lie do not seem to have been outdoors—the wind does not rustle the tablecloth, for a start! Finally, when Edison experimented with sound in the early 1910s, the company threw all cinematic style to the winds and just had the cast stand stiffly under a microphone for a one-take picture, so circumstantial facts do support this theory.
Certainly, The Lie did have some experimental characteristics. It was an early release with Edison’s waterproofing technology, which allowed prints to be cleaned and dust to be removed before it could damage the film. One theater in New Orleans wrote to praise the new type of film used for The Lie, stating that they had been screening the picture for two months and it still looked like new.
So, with all of this information under our belts… how does The Lie measure up? Well, I have to concur with the Moving Picture World review of 1909: there are some impressive scenes but overall, this is not the greatest picture Edison produced. That being said, the overblown acting and stiff interiors are more understandable in a film of 1909.
Yes, there’s the kind of flailing that uncharitable people associate with all silent films but overall, this is a decent little melodrama for the period. Not groundbreaking but the stunt work makes up for some of its deficiencies. And we’ve solved an eleven-decade mystery, so that’s always fun!
Where can I see it?
Stream online courtesy of EYE. (And do browse the rest of their channel for other free rarities, they’re doing wonderful work.)
Like what you’re reading? Please consider sponsoring me on Patreon. All patrons will get early previews of upcoming features, exclusive polls and other goodies.
Disclosure: Some links included in this post may be affiliate links to products sold by Amazon and as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.