So close, so everyday and so personal as in Peter Jackson's documentary They Shall Not Grow Old one has never seen war on the big screen. The First World War can be seen in cinemas for the first time in color. Our editor Markus was there.
The creative work of the New Zealand film director Peter Jackson is like a kaleidoscope. This toy, a kind of telescope, which directs your gaze to a wild compilation of colorful shapes, patterns and images. If you move this kaleidoscope or look at it from a different angle, the result is a completely new picture - and yet it always consists of the same colorful shapes, patterns and images.
Now let's imagine Peter Jackson's filmography as we can hardly see a genre these days that he hasn't processed. Sure, most of his fame contributed to the complete Lord of the Rings saga, which together with the films for "The Hobbit" contributed to his own worldwide fame, but also later helped the author JRR Tolkien to a Renassaince and also the last literature - and reminded movie lovers.
But also horror lasher like Braindead, black-humored grotesques ala Meet the Feebles, Hollywood action ala King Kong or the family-friendly film adaptation of Tintin contribute to Peter Jackson's legendary reputation. With They Shall Not Grow Old, his first documentary was released in German cinemas in June of this year. And again he sets standards - in his very own way he leaves me speechless by setting a very personal memorial to the numerous soldiers of the British and Commonwealth of Nations of the First World War.
When the last shots were fired on the fronts of the First World War on November 11, 1918, there was dead silence. For four years, a total of 40 nations fought a never-before-seen, worldwide conflict with one another. For four years a total of 70 million people were “under arms”. We know these scenes from the trenches, the bombed and furrowed areas nowadays in most cases from two completely different perspectives. We know the Hollywood-compatible prepared and acted scenes from films such as "The Generation of the Damned", the recently announced 1917 by Sam Mendes or video games such as Battlefield 1 on the one hand - or the strange and distant original black and white film recordings. Coarse-grained and colorless. Almost from a strange world. Definitely not real to us.
But what Peter Jackson brings to the screen in They Shall Not Grow Old breaks the previously set, known limits. He made a collage that is closer to the reality of the millions of soldiers than any previously published documentary. When the documentary celebrated its world premiere in October 2018 at the London Film Festival, the public first became aware of how much work the filmmaker put into the title. 100 hours of video material meet 600 hours of sound recordings and provide an impressive insight into another time. In painstaking technical work, Peter Jackson and his team adjusted the speed of the otherwise rather wooden-looking image sequences to a level that seems pleasant and "normal" to us as viewers and corresponds to our familiar viewing habits. For this purpose, the recordings were colorized picture by picture, digitally revised and smoothed in order to make them appear more authentic. Or, as Jackson describes it: "Once you get rid of that weird Charlie Chaplin black and white look, you see: the people are just like they are today."
In addition to image processing, he succeeded in another just as important trick: a team of lip readers viewed the soundless video material, worked out the contents of the conversations of the filmed soldiers and assigned them the appropriate sound recordings, sometimes even having them repeated. In doing so, they resorted to the voice recordings of hundreds of soldiers, combined all these results and created this impressive unique selling point: We suddenly feel with the young soldiers, hear their laughter and feel their fear.
The almost infinite selection of video material from the Imperial War Museum in London ensures that in the course of the film we do not focus on a single line of action or limit ourselves to one soldier. The abundance of material ensures that the action is limited to the western front for us from the observer's perspective, but we neither accompany a specific mission nor do we learn anything about the special order of a company. We observe the everyday life of all soldiers, and in an hour and a half we get an all-round view of the life of the entire British military body.
We accompany the soldiers, at the beginning still in black and white, in the course of the 99-minute film of their initial euphoria of the drafting period, the tough training units in preparation for the deployment - and ultimately we also see the transformation of motivated, well-trained young fighters into the emaciated faces. Suddenly the colorless images turn into something like closeness. With the arrival at the front and the first fighting, Jackson leaves the colorless images behind. The black and white documentary shots suddenly look like our parents' familiar vacation shots. Not as far as the vacation spots are concerned, but the images look like you're traveling in 1914 with today's camera. The pictures touch us personally.
With this trick Peter Jackson makes the everyday life of the 9.000.000 British soldiers a bit more tangible for us as viewers, protected by the cinema screen and a distance of over 100 years. The subsequent processing of all the film material makes it more approachable, for us a bit more realistic - it brings the everyday life of the soldiers closer to our everyday life.
In the one and a half hour film, we follow the soldiers over the four years of fighting. We see the injured. And we see the dead of war. People laugh and cry. Celebrated, mourned and waited. When the film gains color in its course and loses distance through the use of technology, we become partakers of the private thoughts of young soldiers. They Shall Not Grow Old is not a film that especially wants to shine through its action. Nobody who just wants to shock or just want to entertain. But he manages to deliver a little of everything. It is not a film that everyone wants to enjoy, and not one that everyone has to watch. The topic of war is not suitable for everyone as a topic in an entertainment medium. But it would be nice if he wanted to be seen by many.
Ultimately, with They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson creates a memorial for a generation of lost young men, gives the anonymous dead of the hitherto greatest conflict of all time a name and a face and stimulates reflection. About the senselessness of war, about false promises and the absurdity that awaited the soldiers there, often still young. But also the hopes, the friendships and the solidarity in dark times - when the kaleidoscope continues to rotate after an hour and a half and reveals a new, colorful work of art.
The film has already been shown on the BBC in the UK, has been shown free of charge at the Imperial War Museum and is available for teaching purposes in schools. In Germany, the film started on June 27, 2019 and has an FSK age rating of 16 years and over. In it is still running in many cinemas in Germany.