Jewish Art & Culture: Film & Photography

Short actuality films developed from 1890 into longer complex films popular with the working classes. The audience believed what was on the screen was real. Therefore, films were a source of information and a vital factor in shaping the world view. 

At beginning of the First World War, the British Government did not consider using film makers in the war effort. The military and political elite did not use film as a weapon for mass persuasion. However, in September 1914, Kine Weekly, said that cinema had potential to arouse patriotism. Another journal, Bioscope, said citizens had a right to be informed. 

Cameramen travelled to France with the British Expeditionary Force, recording eager volunteers joining the armed forces for news reels. However, as soon as the army retreated from Mons, the cameras were sent home to avoid showing the negative effects of war. 

Hepworth Studios film, Unfit or The Strength of the Weak (1914), was created in a studio in Surrey.  Recreating the Western Front with elderly actors gave the wrong impression of what it was like in France. As the war needed more and more men, films became the best way to spread the message to mobilise and help with the propaganda effort. A film called Britain Prepared (1915) showed training of Kitchener’s new armies and life aboard the Queen Elizabeth Navy Battleship. 

In mid-1915, photographers were allowed to go to the Front. They included Geoffrey Malins (from Hastings) and John McDowell (who was linked with pioneering filmmakers in Hove). Their footage showed the reality of the war in France. However, the heavy unsophisticated cameras were unable to record the details of war and disappointed the public used to more graphic images in illustrations and painting. 

There are some outstanding images on the We Were There Too website to explore galleries of photos of and by Jewish people during the First World War.

August 1916 saw the release of the War Office film The Battle of the Somme which was an account of the first phase of the Somme offensive. This was one of the bloodiest battles and the film had a tremendous effect on the public.

A 21-second sequence showing troops moving over the top and taking casualties but still advancing gave the first impression of real war. Although many scenes were faked and filmed in Britain, some of the shots were taken from the action and showed trauma on the faces of the troops as well as images of the dead and the mass burial of enemy dead in a bomb crater.

David Lloyd George wrote a dedication to be read aloud in cinemas showing the film. The audience became aware that modern industrialised warfare destroyed men and the environment. This was a theme that was developed by many war artists, such as Paul Nash (1889-1946) in a painting entitled “We are Making a New World”.

From 1916, cinema was used for film propaganda. A Day in the Life of a Munition Worker, 1917 showed the contribution of women working at Woolwich Arsenal. The King Visits his Armies (1916), The Battle of Ancre (1917), had a depressing effect on audiences. 

In 1917, Beaverbrook initiated a film to raise the morale of a depressed public. Inviting American film maker D L W Griffith who made the film Hearts of the World (1918) – the story of a French village. It was anti-German in sentiment and aimed to act as an incentive to carry on to victory. 

In April 1918, the Cinema Arcadia in Brighton, showed two films, Rainbow Princess and The Girl from Frisco, that demonstrated the desire for escapism in American films featuring light entertainment and relaxation. 

Sussex also had a home-grown film industry.  In the early twentieth century, there was a flourishing film business in Brighton and Hove which moved westwards to Shoreham-by-Sea, in West Sussex, but whose output did not survive the first few months of the war. 

Francis Lyndhurst, the grandfather of the actor Nicholas Lyndhurst, “founded the Sunny South Film Company, which made its first commercial movie on Shoreham Beach in 1912 [or 1914] and built a film studio there.” The studio changed hands several times and made films over the period from 1914 to 1922, although no films were made during 1915-1918, probably due to wartime conditions.

After the armistice, fewer films were made but the impact of the war was reflected in all the arts.  Between the two world wars, thirty British films were made about World War One, including stories about war widows and veterans. Literature produced works by disillusioned survivors who felt betrayed that the promise of a Brave New World didn’t happen.

In contrast, films showed heroic interpretations of the war where the British Empire had been victorious, Prussian militarism had been defeated, and the freedom of Europe secured. Examples include: Battle of Jutland (1921), Armageddon (1923) and Mons (1926). Producer, Harry Bruce Woolfe (1888-1965) acknowledged the military units that took part in action, his main concern was to show the war as another heroic episode in the history of Britain. 

Much later, a new kind of Jewish film emerged, separately in both the UK and in the USA. As outlined by the British Film Institute:

We do know that Jewish characters have been present since the earliest days of British cinema, often presented in classic antisemitic ways. The Robber and the Jew (1908) and A Bad Day for Levinsky (1909) show Jews as greedy and cunning outsiders. David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948) – a film made only three years after the Holocaust – had Alec Guinness portraying Fagin as a grotesque stereotype with a prosthetic hooked nose.

It took a long time for cultural attitudes to change. The Oscar-winning The Bespoke Overcoat (1955) and The Barber of Stamford Hill (1962) offered more complex representations of Jewish men, the Petticoat Lane-set A Kid for Two Farthings (1954) became a family favourite, and Jack Rosenthal’s TV plays The Evacuees (1975) and Bar Mitzvah Boy (1976) are now regarded as classics.

Sources used include: , Gateways to The First World War & the Sussex Archaeological Society Conference, 2014

Read more at: Michael Paris, ‘Film/Cinema (Great Britain)’, International Encyclopaedia of The First World War, 2014,

Roger Smither, ‘Film/Cinema’, International Encyclopaedia of The First World War, 2015,