And We Were Young: Animated WWI Doc Illuminates Soul, Spirit of Conflict

06/01/2015 12:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016
Andy Smetanka

As commemorations mark the final year of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, attention will soon turn to remembering the centennial of America's involvement in World War I. Dwarfed by World War II's cinematic muscle and self-aggrandizing monikers such as "The Greatest Generation," and outmuscled by the loitering immediacy of Vietnam, not as many folks know without Googling it the years World War I lasted. (Hint: 1914 to 1918.)

Most of the details we perfunctorily learned by rote in schoolbooks: Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated by a Serbian national, which led to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia. Loyalties and treaties bound countries. Sides needed choosing. The U.S. held neutral until German submarine warfare threatened American commercial shipping. Such renderings are informal and tidy.

Lord Acton once said, "History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul."

And We Were Young, the animated documentary of Montana artist and filmmaker Andy Smetanka, illuminates the experiences of American doughboys in WWI. His film - itself a piece of art made on paper, derived from archival journals and letters - gives voice to the voiceless, a concern, a nucleus, a throat, and a resonance to the long lost sacrifices and adventures from the past.

The power of history - and documentary - is that it includes everyone. Smetanka's script may have been derived from the artifacts of life, but it had also undergone the alchemy of creation, and the final product steers facts through invention until they emerge as something other, real, and true.

"There are no more living links to World War I left," said Smetanka. "The Greatest Generation's adoration of World War II veterans coincided when many of them were still alive. I believe my film is a living bridge and provides a better understanding of what they did. Funny, but even Steven Spielberg couldn't make a blockbuster out of World War I (War Horse). There is no beautiful, sleek, no-messing-around narrative like with World War II. To many of us, World War I is something that exists from a long time ago, in black and white footage. We joined late. It was on a completely different continent. It didn't have the high-concept of a Pearl Harbor. World War I had lots of centenary events and the world got caught up in it."

The Central Powers of that world consisted of Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany, and Ottoman Empire (modern Turkey). The Allied Powers sucked up Belgium, France, Great Britain, Greece, Italy, Montenegro, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia and the United States. There were 8,528,831 total military deaths for all countries involved.

Nearly four million, seven-hundred and thirty-thousand U.S. troops served in World War I. More than 116,000 of which were killed in battle (53,402) and non-battle (63,114). Approximately 204,000 U.S. soldiers were wounded.

History, despite its tugging anguish, cannot be unlived, but if faced with honesty, need not be tainted or diminished. World War I was no Walt Whitman poem, marking the first use of poison gas by Germany. The Battle of Verdun, the war's longest battle (February 21-July 1916), witnessed almost a million casualties.

"September and October of 1918, you have the single bloodiest battle in history," said Smetanka. "In six weeks, there are 24 or 25,000 Americans killed in this region of France. Mothers got telegrams informing them of the deaths. Think of all the mothers and all the widows of the men killed and how distressingly large that is. It is really hard to believe what the effect was then, and would be today, when you hear numbers like that."

World War I continues to influence contemporary social and political climates.

"World War I really set the stage for everything that happened for the rest of the century," said Lora Vogt, Curator of Education at the National World War I Museum and Memorial. "We share (Andy's) sentiment and support people who choose to tell the story of World War I, because it's very important."

Smetanka told that story using silhouette paper cutouts, animated by hand in stop motion with a Super 8 camera, cleverly absorbing a modern audience with long forgotten techniques.

"I believe the images are more impressive when you understand the material culture of World War I," said Vogt. "It is easy for us at the museum to recognize, say, a German soldier or a Belgium soldier, and it's clear that the filmmaker did a great deal of research and has astute attention to detail. From an educator's perspective, the animated film seems like a new way to engage oral history and to let the individuals speak for themselves."

Vogt pointed out that not a single soldier referenced the sinking of the Lusitania in the film. She said the causes of America's entry into World War One are sometimes misconceived. That involvement was brought about partially by open submarine attacks by German U-boats on passenger and merchant ships as war raged in Europe, which resulted in the loss of several American lives. Also contributing to American entry was a German attempt to tempt Mexico into a fight with the United States that was uncovered before it could gain footing.

"There was a lot of propaganda that Germans were bayoneting babies," said Vogt. "There is not a lot of historical evidence to support that. We heard of German atrocities that have little support as true events, and the film looks beyond the propaganda. When you examine the Lusitania, most Americans have the widely held belief that the sinking of the Lusitania caused the war, but you contrast that with the words of someone in the film, who does not even know about it when they joined the war."

"There were no high-minded political ideas behind the men's entry," said Smetanka. "There was no lofty high-minded talk about why they were going. The men of that time were plain-spoken, not given to keeping or sharing diaries. There is a lot of florid after the fact writing. It was interesting to reconstruct a rationale for their sacrifice. And many times, the men didn't have any good reason beside adventure or to chase Germans across the field and cut notches in their rifles. That's all why I think it's a great educational tool to those who think the war is old news or boring."

Jonathan Casey, museum archivist at the National World War I Museum and Memorial, said he was impressed by the depth of reality Smetanka transferred into the project.

"One is watching silhouettes," said Casey, "but the look of the people and environments are represented accurately, meaning uniforms, equipment, weapons, trenches--the overall look of things--and the drama of the action, whether a battle scene or a heated discussion, or a male and female relationship, comes through in a realistic way."

"As far as authenticity, you can never make everybody happy, but I sure tried," said Smetanka, who funded the project through Kickstarter and gathered facts and data from replica uniform manufacturers, museum curators, and historians.

People are ensnared in history and history is ensnared in them. Manifestations of that trap are predictable material and standard depictions, explanations that don't seem very interested in the world beyond commercial or convenient appeal.

"So many World War I documentaries begin and end the same way. As far as WWI movies, there aren't that many good ones or great ones. A lot of the dramatic recreations use every cliché you know. Follow these clichés: American detachment consisting of a farm boy and a guy with a Bronx accent."

Smetanka doesn't like categories, he doesn't like boxes. Not surprisingly, it's a bit difficult to think of anything to compare the film to, because of the singular relationship of its subject matter and his implementation.

"There are no talking heads," said Smetanka. "There is no typical documentary narration of dates and places. No stock footage. I wanted to replace the very typical war documentary."

Photo by Kurt Wilson. Missoula filmmaker Andy Smetanka's silhouette stop-motion animated documentary recounts the experiences of American doughboys in World War I.

Smetanka had three years to dwell on and carry out his project. Three years of cutting silhouettes from 30 pounds of paper. Six months into shooting, he felt he had finally captured something meaningful, arriving at a moment when his intellect and artistry matched his motivations.

"I felt like I had the general World War I sort of mood," said Smetanka. "I felt like I had good things bad things, beauty, drunkenness, whatever there is to the human experience. I wanted the mood to be equally unpunishing, brutal, with an unflinching intensity, all made on paper. I didn't want it to be half of an experience for anybody. I still don't."

Patchiness and indifference are the excuses good art - and good artists - never accept.

"I take all of the credit and all of the blame," said Smetanka. "I did my best. I have no regrets just kind of dropping out of life for three years to do it. It was a wonderful freedom."