Director Clemens De Landtsheer. Met Onze Jongens Aan Den IJzer. Also known as Avec nos gars à l'Yser [With Our Troops on the Yser]. Brussels: Canvas, 2008 [1926, 1933]. Remastered DVD (PAL). Not rated. Runtime: 83 minutes. Audio commentary, supplemental material.
Reviewed by Jesse Kauffman (Stanford University)
Published on H-German (January, 2010)
Commissioned by Benita Blessing
Film, Nationalism, and World War I
At the outbreak of the First World War, Flemish-speaking Belgians gallantly heeded their king's call to arms. Over the next four years, however, these brave, hardy soldiers were ill treated by callous and condescending Walloon officers. Still, the Flemings fulfilled their duty to their nation, suffering and dying for it for four long years. It was ultimately all for naught. At war's end, the state for which they had fought betrayed them, and they remained second-class citizens in a country where they formed the majority. Such, at least, was the story of the Great War as told in Flanders after its end. It is this interpretation of the war that Clemens de Landtsheer so vividly conveyed in his strange, bitter propaganda film, Met Onze Jongens Aan Den IJzer.
Landtsheer's movie, originally released in 1926 but reissued on DVD in the 1933 version, begins with what is supposedly a shot of a Flemish soldier preparing to leave home upon his mobilization. What follows is a stream of images, a mixture of film footage and some still photos, purporting to show Flemish soldiers at war--donning gas masks, crawling from trenches, standing guard, even flying airplanes. The images have no discernible narrative arc. The film's opening mobilization scene is complemented by scenes of graveyards and a grief-stricken woman and child at the end, which lend the film the barest minimum of a coherent structure. Music accompanies the footage (based on a set of records meant to be played along with the film) as well as frames of text, most of it fairly purple ("rifles cracked and bullets screamed their death song"), but occasionally moving or clever ("trench poetry," explains one intertitle of a scene of bodies in a trench). This narrative conveyed the Flemish nationalist interpretation of the Great War in order to generate popular support (including funding) for annual Flemish commemorations of the war, known as "Yser Pilgrimages," and the construction of a specifically Flemish war monument, the "Yser Tower."
The film audaciously claims at the outset that all of its images are completely authentic. The excellent and indispensable audio commentary, however, informs us that this a blatant lie. The film is actually a combination of genuine footage and staged events. To the extent possible, the commentary identifies which scenes are real and which are faked. The Flemish soldier being mobilized, for example, is actually an image from a postwar Belgian army film, which would not have been obvious to most viewers of the film, then or now. Yet the narration is at times absent, so that the viewer is left to wonder, particularly at some of the film's more striking images, about their provenance. The shots of a flaming observation balloon plummeting to the ground as its pilot parachutes to safety leave the audience breathless, but it is not clear whether this man is a hero, or if this incident even belonged to wartime footage. At other times, no commentary on the authenticity is necessary, as in the scenes of a German machine gun position firing on a Flemish patrol.
Some of the film's most haunting images, however, appear to be genuine--especially the stunningly honest shots of the dead and wounded. There are numerous scenes of corpses lying on the battlefield, some of the bodies in advanced states of decomposition. Many of the scenes of the wounded, too, are not for the faint of heart, including the several shots of extremely severe facial wounds. One in particular, a side-shot of a man with nothing but empty space between his eyes and his chin, will probably stay with many viewers long after the film has ended (doubtless Landtsheer's intention.) When it is not gruesome, much of the footage of the wounded is simply heartbreaking. One of the film's most powerful shots, for instance, is a scene of men with prosthetic legs learning to walk in some sort of group therapy; equally tear-jerking is the footage of a man without hands, eating a meal with the aid of his prostheses. Met Onze Jongens Aan Den IJzer is much more unambiguously antiwar than even All Quiet on the Western Front (dir. Lewis Milestone, 1930). There is no brotherhood of the trenches in Landtheer's story, and no front-line honesty that contrasts with civilian foolishness and dissembling. There is only mud, tedium, and rotting corpses crawling with flies. Lest the viewer be uncertain about the point of these scenes, the film's images of the dead and wounded are accompanied by strongly antiwar text: "Did you raise your sons for this?" asks the film, rhetorically, as the horrifying images parade by.
The combination of historical evidence and Flemish nationalism makes this a highly useful film for undergraduate courses on the cultural history of World War I. The rich supply of poetry and prose generated by the war's horrors has long been the staple of such classes, but good films have been in short supply. Met Onze Jongens fills this gap perfectly, and will fit well on syllabuses alongside more familiar, printed works. One question that students in such a course could consider is what kind of film Landtsheer would have made if the service of the Flemish troops had been rewarded by cultural autonomy. Indeed, one exercise would be for students to suggest how even minor editing changes and different texts could have turned Met Onze Jongens Aan Den IJzer into a celebration of how "our boys" suffered and died for "our freedom," rather than a condemnation of their senseless slaughter. This level of meta-analysis could then lead to broader thematic discussions of how the war's outcome was so crucial to the meaning with which it was later imbued by different national groups.
This reissue of Met Onze Jongens is extremely well produced. The film itself was expertly restored by the Royal Belgian Film Archive, and includes numerous extras, such as a biography of Landtsheer and a beautiful--and improbably absorbing--short film by him of people skating and cavorting in a snowy winter landscape. It will certainly be of interest to anyone studying media and the use of propaganda during and after the Great War. Met Onze Jongens is sometimes clumsy and lacks the polish of the films of the next decade, but one can see glimpses of cinema's future. Some of the film's best footage, of airplanes soaring above the clouds, anticipates that most infamous of Nazi propaganda films, Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, dir. Leni Riefenstahl, 1935). German historians, however, have another reason to watch this film; namely, because of what is missing. The Germans make infrequent appearances, and are referred to only a handful of times as "the enemy." More striking still, the German occupation of Belgium goes all but unmentioned. That Landtsheer did not address Germany's role in World War I is probably due to the uncomfortable history of those Flemish nationalists who cooperated with the occupiers. The Germans, after all, offered Flemings the cultural privileges they had sought in vain from the Walloons. The film is thus all the more significant for historians as the German occupation of Belgium becomes an object of increasing scholarly attention. Although undoubtedly a difficult and gruesome film for any audience, Met Onze Jongen's silences and omissions mark it as a key historical document of the First World War and its ambiguous cultural and political legacy for Belgium.
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Jesse Kauffman. Review of Clemens De Landtsheer, Director, Met Onze Jongens Aan Den IJzer. Also known as Avec nos gars à l'Yser [With Our Troops on the Yser]..
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