NIEMANSDLAND (Viktor Trivas, 1931)

The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from Germany, Scandinavia, Finland & Austria list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis

Perhaps the most celebrated pacifist film of all time, Niemandsland doesn’t quite exist, Adolf Hitler having destroyed it. A DVD, though, has been made from an American print containing English-language voiceover. The film is very moving, very powerful.
     It is launched, though, by a bit of rhetoric: a title naming chauvinism as the cause of wars. A prologue introduces us to five men who will meet on a First World War battlefield; they are British, French, German, American and probably Russian. The last, from “somewhere in Europe,” is Jewish, and his lack of specific national identity reminds us of the rootlessness of a people caused by the bigotry that has historically targeted them. The American is also displaced, entertaining in a French cabaret. He is a black emigré from white American racial prejudice. War has been declared, and men are leaving home.
     Actually, the five meet underground, their hole providing a respite from the artillery fire, bombs and death unfolding above. They choose not to kill one another; instead, they reach across language and cultural barriers to help one another and to explore their commonality. They are triumphant in their growing humanity.
     But their haven is referred to as “Niemandsland.” War, alas, is the world of men, and the title gives a “What if . . .” quality to what we most want to be real: warriors setting down guns and relating peaceably with one another.
     There is almost no plot to the film, which is superbly written and directed by Viktor Trivas. (Leonhard Frank helped with the script.) Teasing the whatifness is the documentary realism Trivas applies to the film’s visual form, which he punctuates with haunting poetry derived from Soviet cinema: low, upwardly tilted shots showing vast sky—at once, humanity’s vast ache for peace and war’s eternal graveyard.

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