On the eve of the First World War, the new medium of film, which premiered in 1896, was mostly perceived as fairground entertainment. Although scenes from the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), and the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) appeared on cinema screens, they were mostly reenacted in film studios. However, the outbreak of the First World War brought the emerging film business to the edge of collapse by mobilising both film-makers and their audiences, and requisitioning nitrate. Yet at the same time, the potential of film to move audiences emotionally, influence their perception of events, and mobilise them to take action was discovered by propaganda makers on both sides of the conflict.

The war, in all its technical novelty, proved a difficult subject. Heavy and quite primitive film equipment provided very unsatisfactory results: the pictures were not sharp enough; and there was no possibility of filming at night or to record a distant battlefield. Another problem was the reluctance of the authorities to allow operators to film the combat, training, or the war industry. The authorities feared that films would disclose military secrets to spies. They were also convinced that the war should be presented as an heroic, adventurous event, not as a daily struggle against mud, diarrhoea, and poisonous gases. Despite this, newsreels did present some aspects of war - on the whole marching troops, battlegrounds, and politicians. These were produced by the Germans from the very beginning of the war and were soon followed by Austrian, French, British, and Italian films, screened weekly in the cinemas of both belligerent and neutral countries. The newsreels provided some insight into the progress of war and stirred up feelings of patriotism, as well as hatred and outrage towards the enemy.

Propaganda makers soon overcame the aversion towards using film and started making feature-length documentaries, that aimed at showing maximum authenticity of the war. The British documentary, The Battle of the Somme (1916), was a ground-breaking account of the harsh realities of war. It was soon followed by British, French, and German documentaries, each using similar realistic techniques but trying more overtly to win over the public for their cause. In neutral countries, such as the Netherlands, the screening of propaganda films became highly problematic, as local authorities were extremely sensitive towards any form of questioning reality. The screening of an overtly propagandist film was perceived as endangering neutrality and supporting one side of the conflict. This was one of the reasons for which most of the belligerent countries turned to indirect, secondary propaganda, as it was referred to in secret German reports.

Secondary propaganda spread nationalist messages under the cover of melodramas, comedies, historical films, cartoons, travelogues, or so-called industrial films. This approach proved much more successful; it could easily bypass restrictive censorship and appealed more readily to the sentiments of audiences, who were more ready to identify themselves with romantic heroes and their hardships, to laugh at the misfortunes of comic heroes (Le champagne de Rigadin), and admire the beauty of their country's natural and cultural heritage, and its economic and technical developments (in the form of travelogues). Some of the films explored areas of mythology, Christian martyr legends, and science fiction.

For many, the cinema was their main source of solace and also information. The films brought to them vital information about the progress of war. The audience was not always aware to what extent the war shown on cinema screens had been elaborated to provoke certain sentiments, to modify social attitudes, and to drive audiences towards an desired reaction or activity. It is widely believed that despite losing the war, Germany won it on cinema screens. Secondary propaganda, sponsored and controlled by the German government, but produced and distributed through private companies, developed strongly in the final years of war, after the establishment of the Bufa (Bild- und Filmamt, Photo and Film Office). Through apparently neutral partners, Bufa took control of several film companies, cinemas, distribution companies, and film magazines in neutral countries.

Belligerent film propaganda also inspired neutral countries to propagate the idea of staying out of the war but always ready to defend their neutrality, as in the case of the Netherlands. War-time Dutch documentaries spread a message of military and economic readiness to defend their beautiful and unique country, while comedies and melodramas ridiculed or questioned the very idea of war. Propaganda films were also screened in Dutch colonies, where the reactions sometimes differed strongly from these expressed in the Dutch press. Some propaganda films featured people from the colonies, as in the infamous documentary about Indian and Muslim POWs at Wünsdorf, which was also screened in the Netherlands. Today, many of the war newsreels bear testimony to the multicultural diversity of fighting troops.

Natalia Stachura