Bertha Von Suttner and Lay Down Your Arms
I first came across the film Lay Down Your Arms in Kevin Brownlow’s great history of early cinema: The War, the West and the Wilderness. It was in his list of films that were lost – as so many films from that period have been. I’d already heard of Bertha von Suttner, the writer and advocate for peace, when I worked in the School of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford and was writing a book on the anti-war cinema of the First World War (the research on Lay Down Your Arms became the first chapter).
In those days there was no email or internet. Research was conducted by post. I got in touch with the Danish Film Museum which had a remarkable archive. I remember still the package that arrived with a letter in English and copies of brochure materials, publicity and most of all the news that a print of the film existed. Further research in film archives around the world led to a fuller story – especially of the reception of the film in the US where, as we shall see, it had considerable impact.
Bertha von Suttner was an incredible woman. She is generally forgotten today, though the Bertha von Suttner project and various small initiatives in the Germany, Holland and Austria are attempting to bring her story back to life. Suttner was secretary to Alfred Nobel, a novelist, peace activist who in 1889 published her best selling anti-war novel, Lay Down Your Arms (Die Waffen Nieder). She was the only woman to attend the opening of the 1899 Hague Peace Conference, and won the Nobel Peace prize in 1905. She died six weeks prior to the start of the First World War.
The film of Lay Down Your Arms was meant to have had its premiere on the 3rd night of the XX1 International Peace Congress taking place 15-19 September 1914 in Vienna. The start of the war meant the congress was cancelled. It was made by Nordisk Films, then at its height. At this time Danish cinema, along with other European cinema, led the world. The war changed this, helping to create Hollywood’s dominance which continues to this day.
Nordisk Films bought together leading directors, writers, actors. There were three key people in the production:
Ole Olsen – head of Nordisk, a pioneer of Danish cinema who wanted to make big films with pacifist themes.
Holger Madsen – probably a pacifist; said to hold high ideals. Made two further pacifist films during the war: Peace on Earth (1916) in which a nurse charms a king into making peace eternal on earth; A Trip to Mars (1917) in which Avanti Planetareous – I kid you not – travels to Mars where he meets a vegetarian peace-loving civilisation, falls in love and returns to earth where they and their pacifist message are greeted with great enthusiasm so peace conquers all.
Carl Dreyer – screenwriter and later director of The Passion of Joan of Arc and Days of Wrath. Hired by Nordisk as a screenwriter in 1913, he wanted to see films made from great novels.
The film covers only part of the book. Suttner herself was keen on the film but feared censorship. ‘Whatever stimulates peace is regarded as national treason’, she said. The film features footage of her at the start.
At least 61 prints were exported in 1914 – to Germany, North America, Brazil, Philippines. The war meant there were no European screenings for some months, however. In April 1915 a censored version was shown in Sweden; more than a year later it was shown in Copenhagen. Beyond these two showings, there is no further information on how it was received in Europe.
Where it was shown and where it had a major impact was in the US. Released in September 1914, the film was used by both the distribution company – the Great Northern Film Company – and the media to argue against war. The marketing material linked what the film showed to the conflict in Europe:
[the film] presents the most powerful plea for peace ever offered. Those who witness its exhibition and see the terrible carnage on the battlefields and the miseries that war brings into the homes of combatants are sure to become bitter censors of war and enthusiastic advocates of peace…[It is] destined to accomplish much toward advancing the cause of universal peace throughout the world.
The media coverage also made this connection. Variety called for the cutting of some of the battle scenes – calling them gruesome – but praised the film highly:
In a neutral country just now the film is particularly timely, and it wouldn’t do any harm to rapidly spread this picture over the US. Lay Down Your Arms would help to increase the respect this country now has for strict neutrality. It is the first war picture soundly based…It is an educator and a forcible reminder to a country not involved and which doesn’t want to be.
It is not a great film – not even good in terms of acting. There are some interesting technical points in the film, but its greatest significance lies in its anti-war stance. This theme was rare in European cinema before the First World War. It showed the full horrors of modern warfare, at least so far as they were known at the time; it could not predict the total carnage but parts of the film were prescient.
The outbreak of war destroyed any possible influence Lay Down Your Arms could have had. The book was read widely in influential circles, and the film was used in the US to promote isolationism. However, the rapid collapse of the peace movements on the eve of war meant that any possible influence there might have been from a European release of the film would have been destroyed in the rush to take up arms. Nevertheless, it remains an unjustly forgotten film which pays tribute to its makers and to Bertha von Suttner for their attempts to create a world where war played no part.