This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand, writer, composer, silent film accompanist and TV and radio presenter.
Deep beneath the mountains of the Trentino range of Italy and Austria’s Dolomites lies one of the most extraordinary exhibits, in one of the most extraordinary galleries, in the world. One walks into a gigantic road tunnel, through a curtain and into one of the most potent and gripping representations of WWI cinema anywhere on the planet. From the very first image (from the Imperial War Museum) as a real shell strikes a galloping troop of British field artillery, leaving dead horses and soldiers on the field as the smoke clears, we are in the binary world of WWI “reality” as seen by the cameras of the time and the imaginations of those who came after.
That this exhibition, by the Trentino History Museum, should be a chilling reminder of the inhumanity of Italy’s White War on the Austrian border is no surprise – what is utterly unexpected is that it should also be a clear meditation on the very notion of cinema as “point of view”, with our attention continually drawn to the voyeurs and showmen, the “victors” and “victims”, the selective nature of documentary and the over-exaggeration of the “real”.
The exhibition’s existence is the result of a fruitful collaboration between Fondazione Museo Storico del Trentino and Cineteca del Friuli (with the assistance of archives around the world) in which the Museum, which owns and programmes the tunnels, has turned to experts at the Cineteca (particularly Pordenone mentor Luca Giuliani), to trace the history of WWI on film all the way from the outbreak in 1915 to the most recent films on the subject.
All the classics are contextualised on the way: J’Accuse, All Quiet on the Western Front, La Grande Illusion, Paths of Glory. The result is 46 full-size academy screens, through which we walk, looking to left and right, for half-a-mile, taking in a century of imagery and cinematic treasures beautifully configured into intriguing sub-genres; wounds, adventure, heroism (Italian strong-man star Maciste fighting the Austrians), fiction, imperialism, and more. Three-quarters of the way up the tunnel we emerge into sound, via a soundproof screen and the “Control Room” which is almost the most fascinating part of the exhibition. There we are introduced to the magic behind the screens: the film-makers, their equipment, and ourselves as their intended audience.
The cleverest insight is also the simplest – the hand-over-hand “finger framing” that gives us our POV is actually only showing part of a bigger moving image – we move the “finger frame” and suddenly the film is saying something different, because of that change of focus. Before, we may have seen marching men; after the move we are looking at the same sequence but now our attention is on the men bivouacked beside the road, their marching comrades now expunged from the picture, and the story. I have never seen a clearer demonstration of the selectivity within documentary “realism” in my life.
Finally we emerge on to a film set and now we are the actors being hectored by the director, the war now a show, a framing device for an attitude or a philosophy. When we emerge into the sunlight at the far end, blinking and emotionally drained, we are suddenly and forcefully reminded we are in 2015, standing in a disused road tunnel.
Listen to an excerpt from Neil Brand’s music for the Trento Tunnel exhibition
(If the music player doesn’t work on the page, click here)
I have had the privilege of scoring the music to accompany the pre-sound section of this exhibition – I have tried my hardest to come to grips with this epic, ghastly subject through this transformative exhibition and via the particular challenges of tunnel acoustics – it has been a joy and a highly emotional process. I can only urge you, if you are heading anywhere near Verona, northern Italy or Southern Austria this year, make that journey to Trento and see the first world war as the camera saw it for the past 100 years. You won’t regret it. Or forget it.
By Neil Brand