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Categories: Movie Reviews

Thomas Humphrey reviews Fredrik de Beul’s World War I short “Août 1914”, which was included in Cannes 2015’s short film lineup and signals that short film might be “a highly suitable medium for historically-­minded filmmakers to pay their respects” to a war whose recent depiction on film has been “somewhat dire”.

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It has to be said that the film industry’s efforts to mark World War One’s centenary have been somewhat dire. Considering it is probably one of human history’s landmark events, the response from filmmakers and studios alike suggests “we have already forgotten” more than it suggests “we will remember them.” After all, the last major attempt to look back at the Great War was probably Stephen Spielberg’s War Horse in 2011. And this in turn has continued at a festival level, with little effort having been made there to commemorate this epoch’s importance, either.

Interestingly, the torch of remembrance has therefore often fallen to television, and a particularly notable example of this has been the BBC. Already, since 2014, the BBC has produced frontline epic The Passing Bells (above), Great War political “prequel” 37 Days, a sensational account of the British Expeditionary Force titled Our World War and the recent medical drama The Crimson Field, which starred Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter Oona Chaplin.

Though sadly, almost like a rather disheartening continuation of the film industry’s indifference, this unfinished latter series, despite its many merits, has now been axed. So are things faring better elsewhere? Well, the francophone Belgian television company RTBF recently co­-produced Fredrik de Beul’s film Août 1914 (2014), a short which cleverly casts light on an important period of Belgian history and it held one of the more deserved spots in Cannes’ 2015 Short Film Catalogue.

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Opening with the sharp sound of a gunshot, this beautiful but lugubrious look at rural occupied Belgium starts as it means to go on. The bullet we hear comes not from the rank and file of any army, but from a small village that is slowly and anxiously tearing itself apart. Repeatedly we witness in-­fighting as the civilians prepare for the arrival of the German army, and we see a wide array of very human responses as a result as well. The overall impact of these conflicts is naturally tragic, but they’re eye-­opening too, as they cast a fresh understanding of the War upon the viewer.

The short makes you see better the civilian casualties of war, as every man, woman and child in the film seems desperately wrapped up in trying to assure their wellbeing in the face of unstoppable forces. Particularly representative seems to be Maizières, a limping peasant and father who frustratedly strives to do the right thing and follow the German’s orders by executing his dog. Though his young son prevents and defies him, meaning that no matter what Maizières does he seems helplessly bound to making things much worse.

Beautifully shot, but always sombre and dark, this tale of masculine crisis pays great attention to period details throughout and clearly has high production values. The film’s slow, sad music equally gives you a wonderful sense of the inevitable and terrible path it seems destined to tread. And this doesn’t feel predictable, either: Août 1914’s clever editing between parallel scenes creates a haunting sense of crescendo instead, with each foreboding cut coming to feel like a step closer towards pandemonium. All in all, then, this short is a powerful example of how film can move you closer to vicariously appreciating a period of history.

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But given its temporal constraints and limited pastoral perspective, can a short film like this really do the sheer horror and endless maelstrom of World War One justice all by itself? At seventeen minutes and seventeen seconds long, Août 1914 suggests that it can certainly make a very good start, and set an important example which perhaps more should follow. Shorts can convey the Great War, they must just necessarily do so obliquely, as Beul has done by looking at the atrocities which occurred amidst villages and families, rather than those on the battlefields.

And the reason for this may seem obvious. Despite the support and investment Beul did receive, he undoubtedly did not have the budget required to achieve the global sense warfare which a Spielberg epic might be able to afford. This kind of financial restriction was visible in The Crimson Fields too, as the drama was permanently driven off the costly battlefield set and into a secondary casualty clearing station instead.

However, this decision to move away from the trenches is may also be more a question of reinvigorating history. Perhaps Août 1914’s tale of one boy’s struggle to keep his dog alive in a nameless, occupied Belgian village is simply more refreshing than seeing the Hollywood machine yet again single-handedly win a World War (and for a recent example of that, one need think no further than David Ayer’s terrible Fury). Though this has also become an issue of which perspectives we now want to correctively commemorate.

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Do we make films from the perspectives of the (almost entirely male) soldiers? Or do we shift the focus onto The Crimson Field’s frontline (female) nurses, or Août 1914’s innocent civilians? And Beul’s film definitely bares the weight of trying to act as a kind of corrective to history, as it sets itself the target of showing what happened to Belgians once the false rumor that “all Belgians are snipers” began to circulate through the German army.

Although, perhaps what really determines the perspectives directors choose to commemorate (as part of film’s overall woefully underwhelming commemoration) really depends more simply on what kind of history is it possible for us to now conceive. Perhaps the real and hideous face of the Great War is just something permanently beyond the grasp of fictional film, something too great for any denotational medium to truly convey. So Beul’s tale of one boy’s efforts to stop his father killing his dog, against the backdrop of one tiny village trying to avoid the ire of the German army, could actually be the best way of making an audience relate to what happened one hundred years ago.

Short films might therefore be a highly suitable medium for historically-­minded filmmakers to pay their respects. The only important thing would seem to be to create a script that can effectively communicate World War One’s atmosphere of futility, horror and despair. And Août 1914 makes a very compelling case for why film should do that, because film, perhaps more so than any other medium, has the power to make us appreciate, and learn from, the suffering of others that existed in history. So let us hope this film might be extended into a feature, to extend the historical awareness it promotes.

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Posted on Jul 6, 2015

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