Powerful images, powerful sound and a historical background brimming with violence: “1917” is a powerful war film. Director Sam Mendes tells the story of two friends in the First World War who have to cross the lines of the Western Front as messengers .
»1917« by Sam Mendes | Film Review
Director Sam Mendes is the man who has already written film history several times with “American Beauty”, “Jarhead – Welcome to the Dirt” and “Skyfall”.
The former director of a renowned theatre in London, where he also directed himself, was brought into the film business by another film icon. Steven Spielberg brought Mendes to Hollywood in the 1990s, where Sam Mendes met actress Kate Winslet in 2003, his future ex-wife.
“1917” is probably the most personal film the director has ever made. And at the same time probably the boldest feature film of his career so far. The goal was nothing less than to take the viewer by the hand in such a way that there is no escape from the plot.
Mendes himself speaks in interviews of the effect of immersion that he wanted to achieve with this film. This means that the viewer in the cinema is not only immersed in the action, but forgets that he is a spectator. This is why Mendes, together with his cameraman Roger Deakins, decided to shoot “1917” as if the entire two hours of the film were a single camera shot.
The result: already the first five minutes of the film are enough to make you kneel down. My God, you’d think. How brilliant is that! This promise, this much is revealed here, is kept by the film until the very end.
Virtuoso camera by cinematographer Roger Deakins
One is amazed at the pull and virtuosity of the camera movements. In fact, there has never been anything like it before. Unimaginable! It is as if the camera were standing next to the main characters or hovering over them like an invisible angel. All this until a first fade. This takes place after 40 minutes of film without interruption and without a single visible cut.
Even the most experienced film professionals wonder how such a thing is possible. The answer: software, or to put it more profanely, the computer makes it possible.
From the very beginning, I felt this movie should be told in real time.
Individual scenes of up to 6 minutes in length were actually shot in one piece. The length of the shots defined the location in combination with the camera movement. If the room for manoeuvre was exhausted, the shot was interrupted. To ensure continuity, the actors were positioned at the same location in the subsequent shots. Where wipings were not possible (camera movements past fences, boards, etc.), computer programs then ensure seemingly seamless transitions.
If one realizes that the camera as well as the actors are constantly in motion, one can only marvel at the perfection of these transitions, which are not recognizable as such even by a trained eye.
No less astonishing are the lighting design and the film sets. Holy shit! This is the sum total of all the experience cameraman Roger Deakins has gathered in his long career. His agile camera turns the trenches of the First World War as well as ruins of houses into a painting. Sometimes frightening, sometimes tenderly poetic. After “1917”, no one wonders anymore if a cinematographer can be an artist, and at the same time a painter.
Anything but an Oscar would have been strange for this skilful picture magic. The Academy felt the same way. This year in Hollywood, Deakins deserved to take home a golden boy for his work on “1917”.
»1917«: The Big Picture
With such impeccable image power one almost doesn’t dare to put the camera craft into a larger context. Nevertheless, one has to do it with this topic. Because as grandiose as “1917” was filmed, the digital shots collide to a certain extent with their content intention. Although they bring us closer to the unimaginable situation in the trench warfare on the Western front, they also create an irritating aesthetic distance through artistic exaggeration.
Mendes’ godfather Steven Spielberg, who also created a war drama about this period with “War Horse” (2011, German title: Gefährten), was involved in the production of “1917” with his company Dreamworks as producer. It may be that he – just like the studios involved – was even happy that the pictures softened the true horror of that time to a certain extent and thus made the subject matter accessible to a larger audience. The well over 100 million that the film has earned in a short time proves him right.
In its emotional intensity the film therefore doesn’t come close to Peter Jackson’s documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, which also deals with the Western Front in World War I. Even though both directors unmistakably emphasize that their own grandfathers were at the front at that time.
The fact that in the end “1917” makes you feel like you are in the cinema despite all the noble intentions, instead of fighting for survival with the actors in knee-deep mud, also the choice of the leading actors contributes to this.
Nina Gold was partly responsible for this. Gold has become a seal of approval for the perfect casting of roles in recent years. She is usually a guarantee for casting for feature films and high-quality series that you don’t have to ask yourself such questions.
Indiana Jones and Tintin send their regards
Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, the two protagonists of “1917”, were made up by the make-up artists in a warlike manner. Nevertheless, one can’t quite avoid the impression that the two actors, despite their perfect historical uniforms, have landed on the film set directly from a Burger King, where, accompanied by the soundtrack by Thomas Newman, they try to stumble into the stomach and hearts of the audience as a kind of soldierly Tintin (by the way, also filmed by over-talented Spielberg in 2011). The two can’t quite decide whether they play a role in this movie or not. Did they feel during the shooting that the camera would be the real star?
Only the music fights against the visual dominance of the camera. It drives the actors forward with its hard electro beats. But only to later emotionally capture these moments with pompous orchestral frosting in the grandiose scenery.
It is a real luxury to make a film on this scale.
In the end, this film production masterpiece fluctuates a little bit too much between Indiana Jones, chewing gum, sadness and war drama. And yet, “1917” is a movie, an ambivalent masterpiece, that not only filmmakers have to see!
Perhaps one can even be glad that only the images, but not the suffering of the war veterans, are irrevocably etched into one’s memory when visiting the cinema.
Lost between heaven and earth
“1917” floats as a film between heaven and earth. Feet tramp through the mud in which rats gnaw at horse carcasses, but leave no footprints. Conversely, the sky is not there. Or else it stretches across the ghostly scenery like a colourful circus tent. In this he resembles the spiritual horizon of the story, which unfortunately belongs more to the simpler category of war stories, clichés included. “1917” is very easy to understand, nice to look at and doesn’t cause any mental digestion problems. Unlike reality.
Only four years before the plot of “1917”, the soldiers in the film were already teenagers at the time, David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University, for example, publicly declared: “The war in Europe, which threatens forever, will never come. The bankers will not raise the money for such a war, the industry will not keep it going, the statesmen cannot. There will not be a great war!” In doing so, he followed, as almost all leading thinkers of the Western world did at the time, the much-cited logic of the British Norman Angell, who in a world bestseller and “Open Letter to the German Student Body” proved the impossibility of an armed conflict with the following argument: “Even if the German military perhaps wanted to measure itself against England, there is no significant institution in Germany which would not suffer serious damage in this case”.
Erich Maria Remarque survived the First World War as a soldier on the Western Front. After the war he stated: “Horror only kills when you think about it”. That’s why you shouldn’t think too much about this movie. Being amazed by the pictures and the incredibly skilful entertainment and enjoying the brilliant cinematic work of Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins, as if “1917” was a fine glass of red wine, makes you happier.