There was a lot going on in German Cinema in the post Great War years. Directors, actors and assorted film personnel from around Europe dusted themselves down and made their way to various German studios to chase their dreams. The Expressionists arrived first in the early 20’s, Robert Wiene’s ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ was an early gem. Others followed like Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’ and, a little later, Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’. Ernst Lubitsch was knocking out period dramas of renown and from a Great War perspective G W Pabst and his New Objectivity friends were turning a zeitgeisty mirror on the people, culture and issues of the day. It was bohemian, inclusive and up for anything.
And then, as the economy failed, the Nazis turned up and said auf wiedersehen to Weimar Germany and guten tag to anti-semitism, totalitarian rule and propaganda films. My film today was made in the first formative year of the Nazi regime. A time of flux when the best and brightest the industry had to offer were hightailing it to the States where offers of work from the up and coming Hollywood studios were too good an opportunity to miss. What does this mean for ‘Shock Troop 1917’? Was it a propaganda film akin to the works of leni Riefenstahl? No, not really. It’s just a bit rubbish.
‘Shock Troop 1917’, of ‘Stosstrupp’ in the mother tongue is the story of one of a legion of storm trooper teams in the latter half of the Great War. We get to see their devil may care raids into enemy trenches, their relationships and their fighting spirit and never retreat, backs to the wall attitude. My big problem though is that we see all these things but there isn’t a cohesive story that threads them all together. We just get to see the attacking tactics of the unit, running through no mans’ land, regrouping in shellholes or behind things and then chucking grenades all over the shop. We see grief when a comrade is killed, we see and hear mind numbing, continuous shellfire. But there’s no story.
For many years the film was considered lost and the version I found and downloaded from the internet archive is pulled together from a few different sources of varying quality from private and public archives. The quality is good enough, I suppose. The sound is very much like the Milestone version of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (1930) in that it’s loud, annoyingly screechy and probably exactly what it was like to be there in the thick of it.
The lack of a storyline though makes this film just a series of short and for the most part not very interesting glimpses of life at the front. There are themes within these short vignettes which maybe give a good insight into what the fighting was really like. There aren’t really any orderly or well-maintained trenches in the film. The Shock Troops hunker down in bombed out basements or shellholes or knee deep in piss in a ruined bunker. There are hints of Pabstian New Objectivity in as much as the director hasn’t shied away from showing suffering. The difference though is that while G W Pabst showed the reality for its honest, brutal self the struggling here seems to be portraying the hard as nails German fighting machine as duty bound sons of the Fatherland, super human and with Right on their side. It’s subtle propaganda, but it’s there. And then one of them says to a friend ‘There is something in us that makes them hate us’.
The film opens by telling us it portrays ‘The thoughts and feelings of a society which embarked on the path of the Nazi dictatorship which led to World War Two’. The problem with this though is that there’s not really enough dialogue to make this true. I have no idea what these folks felt about anything because the vast majority of the sparse dialogue is perfunctory and procedural. If it was expositional that would’ve been great, but sadly no. No story to expose.
Even though I’m giving this film a bit of a shoeing there were a few good bits. The editing was sharp, quick and jarring. The flashes and bangs from shells made me feel like I was there, it felt ‘real’. The deaths weren’t airbrushed and while not gory by any means the director was comfortable showing suffering on both sides. And there’s an attack by some Scots in full kilted regalia. At one point a Scot gets shot and falls face first, legs up away from the camera. I can confirm that he wasn’t a real Scot though…He had shorts on under his kilt. Also the explosives were mostly big and bangy. I winced, as I tend to do in these early films, as I watched one stuntman after another having his eardrums perforated and retinas detached by dangerously large and uncomfortably close explosions.
And then it all ends with a heart rending kicker at Christmas time that just about hit the spot. A British attacker is found in the German wire and pulled into a bunker. The Germans watch him slowly expire as they sing ‘Silent Night’. They can’t save him, so they sing him to death. I think I felt something go twing just a little bit in my heart, but it might’ve been my tachycardia. It’s too little, too late though from a film that does nothing else ‘filmy’ for its entire length. It’s a good document of what life at the front may have been like but it’s also got whiffs of propaganda about it and that’s something I can’t abide. It’s out there in the public domain if you fancy giving it a crack, I wouldn’t waste your time though.