On 21 December Klaas de Zwaan (Media and Performance) will defend his PhD thesis Projections of Armageddon. The Reception of the First World War in Dutch Cinemas (1914-1918). Although the First World War is said to be the first media war of the twentieth century, little is known about the way film functioned as a news medium or propaganda tool in neutral states. Which titles were shown in the Netherlands and how did Dutch audiences respond to them?
PhD thesis defence Klaas de Zwaan on the reception of the first world war in Dutch cinemas
The first newsreels of the war appeared in Dutch cinemas shortly after the beginning of the Great War. They were quickly followed by lengthier (mostly British, French and German) propaganda films. Film propagandists used different techniques to mould public opinion in the Netherlands: they spread fake news, distributed spectacular feature films or organized exclusive screening for highly placed military and government officials.
war films: a new cinema phenomenon
The arrival of these ‘war films’ did not go unnoticed. The Dutch press reported extensively about this new cinema phenomenon, despite the fact they usually did not pay much attention to film as a form of public entertainment. Some propaganda films were literally front page news. The notorious British documentary The Battle of the Somme (1916) for example, or the pitch-black (and anti-German) disaster movie The Battle Cry of Peace (1915). These and other titles drew large audiences in the Netherlands. Their success, however, was far from self-evident. Numerous press articles show that propaganda films were often interpreted ‘against the grain’: their truth value was questioned or simply denied. By consequence, the press played a pivotal role in shaping ideas on film as a representation of realism.
Propaganda films elicited versatile responses in cinemas as well, despite the efforts of local authorities to censor films that could undermine neutrality. As a result, it became nearly impossible to show films that rhetorically attacked the enemy. However, this did not mean that Dutch cinema culture was strictly neutral. Cinemas often functioned as a sphere in public life where partisan sentiments circulated and nationalistic feelings were cherished. Both the Dutch and, in particular, Belgian refugees used the cinema space to express their solidarity with one of the warring parties.
projections of armageddon
Projections of Armageddon highlights the role of films in the Dutch involvement of the First World War and their ability to stimulate ideas about the dangers and possibilities of the medium itself. This PhD thesis makes an important contribution to the study of the war experience in the neutral Netherlands and the Dutch cinema culture of the teens.