The Red and the Gray - Ernst Jünger in the Great War
By Elsa Minisini
In 1914, Ernst Jünger entered the war with weapons and notebooks. He came out of WWI alive with his seminal novel, one of the only to be written on the front lines, Storm of Steel. French director François Lagarde spent 20 years producing, The Red and the Gray, a documentary film combining Jünger’s important text and thousands of images captured by amateur German soldier-photographers on the front. For this post, Elsa Minisini, the co-producer of the film, discusses Lagarde’s journey, one she helped him finish when he passed away before the film was complete. Read about this incredible project and the powerful story behind it at WWrite this week!
"Photographic technique is a way of stabilizing an image so that it takes on the value of a document. The World War was the first major event to be recorded in this way, and, since, there has been no important event not grasped by the artificial eye."
--Ernst Jünger, “On Pain,” 1934
*Like cinema, psychoanalysis, X-rays, and the diesel engine, Ernst Jünger was born in 1895. On December 31, 1914, he entered the war with weapons, books and notebooks. In his early 20s, he already had decided to confront the war as a writer and a soldier. He was granted the incredible destiny of coming out alive from this turmoil and he did so with 15 notebooks that contained his important novel, Storm of Steel. Unlike many WWI novels written years after the conflict’s end, Jünger wrote on the front lines.
When he was 18, French film director François Lagarde, read Storm of Steel. Lagarde recalls that “the expression of details, which seemed free from all psychological charge, from all affect, fascinated him.” Jünger's writing was like photography. At that time, Lagarde was already a photographer, fulfilling a childhood dream, and this novel introduced him to literature. About half of this 480-page book, published in German in October 1920, provides the scenario of Lagarde’s film, The Red and the Gray, (Le rouge et le gris). However, the other half is composed of thousands of photos of mostly anonymous WWI soldiers. This project pays homage not only to Junger but to these thousand unknown eyes. For over 20 years Lagarde patiently collected these photographic documents, digitized, restored, enlarged, and edited them in high definition to bring out the human qualities.
Lagarde says that we know the image of the winners of WWI, but we have ignored the images of the vanquished. And yet they exist. This is why almost all of these photos have never been seen previously. Also, they all come from non-professional photographers. About one in five German soldiers had a camera during WWI. They were professionals in the army but enlightened amateurs when it came to taking pictures. Unlike the French, who were prohibited from taking unofficial photos on the front, the German soldiers, were allowed to document first-hand the experience and send it back to their families at home.
For Lagarde, Jünger, a soldier-writer, immediately grasped the importance and consequences of this artificial eye that aimed just like a rifle.
The Red and the Gray offers an innovative adaptation of Ernst Jünger's famous war story. Bringing together history, photography, writing, and voice. the film documents the passage of the ancient world from 1914-1915, the “Red “of the nineteenth century, to the “Gray” of the twentieth, where we all become “inhabitants” of “a new world.”
François Lagarde had been sick for several years, and before leaving this world, he asked us if we would accept, through our production company, the post-production of his film, as well as the production of the German version. He had dreamed, prepared, and directed this film during a 20-year-long solitary journey, producing everything himself. He put in so many years of work, which were full of both doubt and conviction. For Lagarde, it was necessary to continue at all costs, to revise, to find the right form.
He died on January 13, 2017.
He gave us his film from friendship and trust. We warmly accepted this wonderful gift because of our friendship, but also because we were convinced of its high quality. The Red and the Gray is an extraordinary film, not only due to its length of three and a half hours, but also because it is work that took up a lifetime, has incredible ambition with an amazing unedited documentary scope, is deeply beautiful, and is accurate to history. This film is a precious historical document, which summons real historical events with incredible power, which is rare in cinema.
Elisabeth Pawlowski, the co-founder of the production company Baldanders Films, and I knew Lagarde well. We held him in great esteem and had a particular affection for him because of his great gentleness, his intellectual companionship, and incredible work. In these fragile and uncertain moments of the post-production, we were present as friends at his side. He gave us to share with him the different stages of his editing, we could talk, advise him and help him to take a step back.
But when Lagarde was no longer there, we had to make decisions without him to finish his film. We had only gotten halfway when he died. We had an incredible task. The work was unusual and considerably dizzying because our responsibility was huge.
Fortunately, we were accompanied by Christine Baudillon, his ex-companion, also a film director with whom he had made several films. She continued editing the film in its French and German version. The Occitan region and the 14-18 Centennial Mission gave us a little financial support, and Christine did a great editing job. The first time we discovered the finished film, we felt a powerful cinematic and emotional shock. The film was released on October 24, 2018 and remained for three months in Paris at the Espace Saint Michel cinema. Screenings eventually took place everywhere in France and it received a nice welcome from the press. It has just been shown for the first time in Germany.
This question of the "tabooed" literary and artistic intellectual heritage of Germany after WWII is what led me to take an interest in Ernst Jünger's literature. Junger, a German WWI hero and author of the seminal book, Storm of Steel, refused to join the Nazi party but served in Hitler’s army during the Third Reich as a captain at the Paris headquarters. He was dismissed from the army in 1944 because he was friends with officers who had been involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
In graduate school, I wrote a research paper at EHESS on Hitler, a German film by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. This 7-hour film, made in 1977, is a titanic adventure exploring the reconsideration and reappropriation of the German cultural heritage pillaged by the Nazis. The film portrays the different Nazi iconic images in disordered fashion: the sunsets, the kitsch, the music of Wagner, the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich ... Syberberg’s film operates as if it were rereading and reordering this history to separate the cultural material from its Nazi association as if trying to save it from its contamination. Ernst Jünger, of course, was a part of this contaminated material.
Ten years after working on this subject at EHESS, it was exciting for me to be able to immerse myself again in the "censored" German cultural heritage to produce a new, modern film based on Jünger's writings. Through François' film, this reinterpretation of history, thanks to cinema, allows us finally “see” this text in an impressive way; we see Jünger, then a young German soldier, who is in the process of discovering his artistic technique, but without judgment, as if he were processing his feelings by taking photos. He states that "a harder world is being born," but his writing is not feverish. It is without pathos, objective.
We would like the film to continue to find a large audience in Germany, but Ernst Jünger remains, understandably, undesirable for many Germans and others.
We are also looking for distribution in the United States and elsewhere, but, for the moment the film has only a German and French version, which makes it inaccessible for English speaker audiences. We would like all the help we could get in making the English version as soon as possible!
If you or your organization is interested in screening the film or helping out with the English version, you may contact me at [email protected]
The Red and the Gray - trailer (in French)
Date: Sep 3, 2018
For more on Ernst Jünger’s influence on contemporary war writing, read National Book Award nominee Elliot Ackerman on Storm of Steel by clicking here.
*The beginning of this article was adapted and translated from the original French version of the Press Dossier
After obtaining a Master's Degree in Political Science, at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), where she completed a thesis on Hitler, a German film by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Elsa Minisini collaborated with the company KS Visions on a documentary series co-produced by Arte France on the political news of the Middle East during the 2000s. At the end of 2012, partnering with Elisabeth Pawlowski, she created the production company Baldanders Films in Marseille. Baldanders Films produces audiovisual and cinematographic projects that focus on the process of research and experimentation, with no limit of genre or format. Their films have been selected and given awards at several international festivals (Directors' Fortnight, FIDMarseille, Cinéma du Réel, International Short Film Festival of Clermont-Ferrand, Indielisboa, ...). In 2015, she founded the association "Short films of the Afternoon," which diffuses contemporary short films produced in Provence Alpes-Côte d'Azur region of France. The Red and the Gray was released in 2018 in Paris.