1918-1926: The Never-Ending War

La Paix Impossible is the sixth instalment of the Apocalypse history documentary series on 20th-century military conflicts. Produced using nothing but restored color footage, the two 45-minute episodes depict the interwar period (1918-1926) and the rise of nationalism. A film by Isabelle Clarke and Daniel Costelle, narrated by Mathieu Kassovitz. Interview.

France-Amérique: Why have you called the 1918-1926 period “la paix impossible” (the “never-ending war”)?

Isabelle Clarke and Daniel Costelle: “The war had ended… But it hadn’t ended. We just didn’t know it.” This quote from Austrian writer Stefan Zweig is an accurate summary of this time. The end of World War I was no victory. The Armistice had barely been signed when the world’s leading empires collapsed, stoking the fires of independence and encouraging the rise of nationalism. Hitler, Franco, and Mussolini appeared. This period was one of convalescence, and another war was already brewing.

And yet you don’t paint such a bleak picture.

There is the history of treaties, and there are the stories of individuals. Destruction, and the carefree happiness of people emerging from four years of war. People who thought their children would be happy, and who just wanted to forget the war and dance with joy. After all, the decade that followed was the Roaring Twenties, with the Charleston and Josephine Baker.

Why did you decide to depict the interwar period in color?

Our first passion is cinema, even before history. There are no interviews, reconstructed scenes, or fictional images in our documentaries. We see them as feature films with a sense of theatricality and evolution. This instalment depicts a time of immense modernity, which is why we wanted to show it in color instead of black and white. We are not telling people’s stories in the past, but rather their present in the past. Colors help to unpick history. They enable us to rediscover details and give them meaning. They inform each shot. Whether on flags or the blue uniforms of French soldiers, they help us understand or offer a piece of historical truth.

How do you bring the footage back to life?

We collect silent, black-and-white film footage and restore it. Our team recreates the sounds that can be observed (crowds, cannon fire) and those that can be guessed (wind, distant fighting). If we see a car, we add the sound of the appropriate engine from the time. Just like color, sound is a part of history. We also work with museums and archives to ensure all shades, from the façades of buildings to official uniforms, are accurately restored.

This documentary mainly features images that have never been seen before. Where are they from?

We rely on around 50 sources for our footage, including from France, the United States, Canada, Serbia, Italy, and Spain. Some images are “official,” such as those recorded by the army services that filmed mine-clearing work in France. Others are from cinema newsreels, taken from official events recorded by Pathé camera crews. By systematically looking for original reels, we find unique scenes such as Marshal Foch dancing with Native American chiefs. And we want to share that with the public! Amateur material filmed by people with the very first video cameras also offers moving family footage.

Do you hope to pass on the memory of the war through your documentaries?

New wars are declared because we forget the old ones. If we want to fight against the romantic image of war, with soldiers charging forward, swords brandished, we have to bring people face to face with reality. And that means corpses, destruction, and blood. By using real images, we want to make it obvious how profoundly horrific these apocalypses are, and prove we can prevent them from happening again. Our duty is one of memory and transmission. With the previous instalments of Apocalypse we reached many young, curious viewers from all countries. People who may not usually watch television. If we tell people about their history, they can understand where they come from, understand the present, and look to the future.

=> This documentary will be broadcasted on TV5MONDE on Wednesday, November 14, at 8:30 pm EST and on Saturday, November 17, at 4 am EST.

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