I recently visited the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, a Smithsonian-quality collection of war memorabilia from what used to be called “The Great War.”
For the last half century the Great War has been seen as only the prequel to WWII. That attitude was apparent as I was looking at a huge display of infantry rifles. A woman standing nearby remarked to her friend that “... there’s nothing here about World War Two!” This was said with some exasperation and as if she’d pulled aside the curtain on the fraud of the National World War I Museum.
World War I just doesn’t get any respect these days.
My own interest in WWI started around the time of its 50th anniversary and the publication of Barbra Tuchman’s The Guns Of August. The title refers to August 1914 when the war began, and the book covers those first 4 weeks when Europe tipped over into an abyss from which they have not yet fully escaped.
Perhaps with a better historical perspective — it’s now been 100 years since WW1 and 75 years since WW2 — the two World Wars may be seen as one major 20th Century European Civil War and the significance of 1914–1918 will be better appreciated.
I’m not a total fan-boy of WWI, but thanks to Tuchman and others I do have a general idea of its timeline and importance. So I came to Bill Morrison’s Beyond Zero 1914–1918 with high hopes. Morrison did a stand-up job of interpreting the great Mississippi and Ohio flood of 1927 in his 2012 film The Great Flood and he demonstrated a wonderful poetic sense for history and people in his The Miner’s Hymns (2010). Both films show his distinct style with old and damaged film, as does Beyond Zero, but for me Beyond Zero is a bit of a disappointment because I’m not sure what Morrison is trying to say.
Morrison seems to have been captivated by the images themselves and apparently wants those images to be enough to carry the film. And given most people’s robust ignorance of history, an image-jumble might suffice. What I’d prefer to see is some sort of work that passes on the idea of Europe being turned on its head. WWI is the kind of disaster that takes millennia to repair, but I’m not seeing that here.
Clearly Beyond Zero is not a narrative of the war. Indeed why try to make anything as insane as WWI comprehensible? I think the problem is that Morrison has not done much to make his film expressionist or surreal apart from his signature “damaged film” look. Sure, there is the opening footage of ghostly antique British tanks lumbering along in the smoke. But if he was playing the surreal card, the point would have been better made if the images were run upside down as Grigory Chukhrai did in his Ballad of a Soldier. Simply showing the tank footage without artistic effort turns Beyond Zero into a trivial documentary like some war-fetish program from the History Channel (but without narration). And even then the tanks would be out of historical order.
Real students of WWI will be intrigued to see footage in Beyond Zero that has heretofore not been seen as it was “too damaged” for regular consumption but of course is ideal for Morrison’s method. Did Morrrison limit himself to only never-before-seen footage? Is that why there is no apparent narrative? Separately, the scenes are to me poignant, fascinating and sad, but in sum don’t add up to much.
The thing that redeems Beyond Zero is its soundtrack by composer Aleksandra Verbalov which was written for and performed by Kronos Quartet. You can count on Morrison films to have the best music accompaniment. The music is melancholic and disturbing... as it should be. But what it has to do with the images seen at the moment is not clear to me.
I’m sorry to be disappointed by Beyond Zero 1914–1918but heartened to see that at least somebody today is trying to recognize The Great War.
The disc includes a live music performance by Kronos Quartet. At least it’s more of the best part of the DVD.