As one of the worst and bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century, World War I, left behind millions of dead, injured, and a huge scale of destruction. The war was followed by a great disillusion, which influenced all societies touched by the war. Beside disillusion, death and despair, World War I left a variety films. Film is not only important as a historical document, or a piece of art, but also as a reflection of the national positions, nations’ value systems and the self-positioning in global processes. Looking upon cinematography in South-East Europe, one can perceive the different myths the war experience created, the different political positions of Serbia/Yugoslavia, Romania, Greece, Bulgaria, and Albania in the war, and also the impact the war had on these societies.

Filming the Great War started in tandem with the outbreak of the fighting. While newsreels and documentaries made during the war, and shortly after aimed at mobilizing the people and awakening and strengthening their patriotism, a new phase in remembering and screening the war came in the second half of the 20th century. Strong patriotic feelings were not so much on the agenda, but this time a strong anti-war sentiment emphasized the sufferings of the ordinary people. A great number of films that dealt with World War I contained a strong anti-war message, highlighting the brutality and senselessness of the violence. The films dealt with the horrors of the frontlines, the miseries the war brought into the homes of ordinary people and the post-war position of veterans as forgotten men.

However, a few cinematographies, Serbian/Yugoslav and Greek for example, continued to foster a strong national and patriotic agenda, which, in a way, helped different myths and constructions of national memories to prevail; for example, the “hero myth” in the case of Gavrilo Princip (1894-1918) in Serbia, or an extremely negative image of the enemy, as in portrayals of the Turks in Greek cinematography.

Films produced in Serbia/Yugoslavia

At the beginning of the war in Serbia (1914) a number of foreign newsreels covered the Serbian battlefield.[1] Thanks to them, some footage of the defense of Belgrade in 1914 was preserved in Pathé Journal and Les Annales de la Guerre. At the same time, a number of Serbian film pioneers, among them Đoka Bogdanović (1860-1915), together with Samson Chernov (1887-1929) started recording war events, but sadly all that footage perished during 1915.[2] By 1918, there were around a hundred newsreels on Serbia (Serbia Army’s battles, the Salonika front, retreat through Albania, and the liberation of Belgrade), mostly made by French cameramen.[3] The most important event in Serbian film history of that time was the founding of the Military Film Section (Filmska sekcija pri Vrhovnoj komandi) of the Serbian Army in 1916, with the aim of screening films about the Salonika Front.[4] Using this material, a few edited documentaries were made after the war (The Salonika Front Breakthrough / Proboj Solunskog fronta and The Liberation of Belgrade / Oslobođenje Beograda.[5]

The new phase of World War I film started in the interwar period, with three silent feature films: Through the Storm and Fire (1930), For the Honor of the Fatherland (1930), and In God We Trust (1932). In all these films the emphasis was on the images of the suffering, agony and heroism of the Serbian people. Through the Storm and Fire follows the destiny of a Serbian volunteer, who was wounded during battle in 1915. After recovering, he tries to organize the resistance, but is caught by the Austrians. His sister rescues him, and the film finishes with a happy-ending. This film is filled with national pathos and played on nostalgic emotions.[6] In the same year, another film about Serbia’s sufferings in World War I was made. In 1930 it was shown with the title For the Honor of the Fatherland and in 1940 the film was re-edited as Serbia’s Golgotha: Fire in the Balkans. Typically for World War I feature films all over Europe, a number of documentaries from the war were used, but since there were not enough of them, the director had to make reconstructions of the significant events.

In God We Trust is considered the most important Yugoslav feature film from the interwar period.[7] This film, directed by the Serbian film pioneer Mihailo Al. Popović (1908- ?), is important for the unique approach it took to the war in comparison to the majority of Serbian World War I films. The film begins in an idyllic village, which is abruptly disrupted by the outbreak of World War I. From that point on, two parallel stories develop: one follows a young soldier and his war destiny, while the other deals with the life of the ordinary people under occupation, focusing on the miseries that the war brought. The closing scene set in a cemetery full of crosses, where the soldier explains to his son, “when you grow up, you will understand,” expresses the sense of tragedy and the nonsense of war.[8]

In socialist Yugoslavia, World War I was considered a sensitive issue, because of the different sides that the Yugoslav peoples took during the war. The first film on World War I in this period was a war spectacle The March To Drina (1964). This film is about the Battle of Cer (August 1914) and underlines the heroic struggle of the small Serbian Army fighting and beating its stronger Austro-Hungarian enemy. This historical reconstruction had impressive battle and mass-scenes. Although the film did not receive good reviews, the audience loved it, because of the patriotic war story and spectacular scenes set in full color.[9]

In less than a decade of one another, two films on the assassination in Sarajevo were made: Sarajevo Assassination (1968) and The Day That Shook the World (1975), with completely different standpoints. The first one is about the individual drama in which one young man questions whether assassination was the most effective way of struggling against the enemy. On the other hand, The Day That Shook the World by the block-buster director Veljko Bulajić (famous for his partisan movies) through its attempt to justify the assassination, portrays a completely different picture of this event. The accent in the film is on the assassin Gavrilo Princip and his compatriots from the “Young Bosnia” movement, who were “not depicted as conspirators, but poets, revolutionaries, and patriots.”[10] As the director explained, these young men were shooting more with their hearts, then with revolvers.[11] The importance of this film is that it raised the question of whether the assassination was justified on moral grounds, which was disputed in the movie reviews.[12] Debates on the justification of the assassination in Sarajevo remain dominant in modern Serbian public discourse.

In the recent period three more films were made on World War I – two with the war in the background of their stories (Solemn Promise and Tears for Sale) and the third depicting the war as a spectacle (St. George Slays the Dragon 2009), with a budget estimated around €5 million, making it one of the most expensive Serbian movie productions to date.[13]St. George Slays the Dragon covers the period from the First Balkan War (1912) until the Battle of Cer (1914), and is set in a small village, where there is animosity between the potential soldiers and the disabled veterans from the Balkan wars. When men go the battle, rumors start circulating that the invalids are trying to seduce their wives. In order to prevent an outrage in the army, the High Command decides to recruit the invalids and send them to the frontline.

Although the central theme in the movie is a love story (the love triangle among a soldier, his wife and a disabled veteran), it is a war spectacular full of patriotic sentiment. On the one side, the film was a Serbian Oscar nominee, but on the other, it provoked certain controversies, among which the strongest was shooting scenes in Omarska, where there was a Serbian internment camp for Bosniaks and Croats.[14]

Generally, with the exception of In God We Trust, World War I films in Serbia/Yugoslavia were mostly war spectacles, focusing on patriotism and heroic struggle, with strong national pathos, while intimate personal stories remained in the background.

Films produced in Romania

Among all the South East European cinematographies, the Romanian seems to be the richest in terms of World War I feature films, in not only the variety of themes but also the topics they covered. Romania entered the war in late August 1916, and very soon after, film activities started. On 15 November 1916, the Photographic and Cinematographic Service of the Romanian Army was founded. In May and July 1917 two parts of the documentary The Romanian Front (Frontul roman) were released and a few months later one more documentary About the Latest Battles on the Romanian Front (In jurul ultimelor bătălii de pe frontul roman) was released.[15]

Between 1916 and 1919, Romanian army cinematographers filmed images (totaling a footage of more than 20,000 meters) released as newsreels and documentaries during the war and afterwards as montage full-length features.[16]Our War was a newsreel montage, a “reconstructed documentary”, devoted to Ecaterina Teodoroiu (1894-1917), a Romanian heroine.[17] In this film, the battle scenes appeared so genuine, that one decade later they were incorporated as “newsreels” into the feature film Ecaterina Teodoroiu (1930). This film was the most popular World War I film in interwar Romania, especially because it was the first “sung and spoken Romanian war film”.[18] This version of Ecatarina Teodoroiu’s biography was a romanticized one, based on a story on Ecaterina and her brother Niculaie (when she finds out that Niculaie died on the front, she decides to fight in his place and is killed by an enemy bullet). The film was shot in Ecaterina’s native village with her real mother acting her own part, giving the whole film a realistic documentary style.[19]

Besides the films on Ecatarina Teodoroiu, the 1920s saw a few more short films, mostly a combination of newsreels and fiction. In 1921 there was one more “reconstructed documentary” Heroic Evocations. In 1925 Duty and Sacrifice was made for “military and the patriotic education of youth, and, in particular, of Romanian soldiers, through the evocation of the heroic episodes and the self-sacrificing spirit for the homeland, during the war for the unification of the nation”.[20] Similarly to Duty and Sacrifice, The Nation Heroes (1926) was another “reconstructed documentary”, devoted to the Tenth Anniversary of Romania’s entering the war.[21]

After Ecaterina Teodoroiu from 1930, there was no other World War I movie in the interwar period until the communist era, mainly due to the expansion of fascism and Romania’s closer connections to Nazi Germany.

In the communist period in Romania, World War I films became more anti-war, than patriotic, emphasizing the absurdity of war. The Romanian cinema of that time, in general, avoided spectacular and grandiose reconstructions of battles, with big deployments of troops, and put emphasis on individual sacrifice, on the dramas of those who bore the brunt of battles on their shoulders.

The first Romanian films in which the absurdity of war was openly exposed were When the Mist is Lifting (1957) and The Forest of the Hanged (1964). According to the movie critics, the most representative Romanian World War I film is The Forest of the Hanged, which won the Best Director Prize for Liviu Ciulei (1923-2011) at Cannes in 1965.[22] This film strongly attacks the institution of arms, war and bloodshed that reflect mostly on the lives of individuals. It is set in Transylvania, where during the war there was a mixed population with Romanians as the majority, although still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When the independent state of Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary in 1916, it brought Transylvania into the confrontation that ended with its takeover by Romania in 1918. The Forest of the Hanged is the story of an ethnic Romanian drafted in the Austro-Hungarian army who refuses to fight against his kinsmen and as result faces the death penalty. The film gives a deep analysis of the tragic fate of Romanians living in Transylvania before the 1918 reunification. By focusing on the protagonists’ mental torments the director avoided turning the film into a patriotic-nationalistic drama.[23] The Transylvania problem was also the main theme of the Trap for Hired guns (1981), in which a massacre of the Romanian population from the Transylvanian village by an officer of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was the main issue.

The new wave of World War I films in Romania arrived in the late 1970s and 1980s. In 1979 one more Ecaterina Teodoroiu film was produced, as a romantic and patriotic film, but which avoids glorification of the war, focusing more on the psychological side of the characters.[24] Generally, Romanian films from this period (The Doom, Trap for Hired guns, Last Night of Love) use war as the setting in which any atrocity becomes possible in order emphasize the meaningless and absurdity of war.

In the whole period of communism, and also after the fall of communism, the most representative Romanian World War I films violently attacked the institution of arms; they have a tragic outlook, focusing on the despair of individuals, caught up in the war-machinery.

Films produced in Greece

During World War I, film production in Greece was not completely suspended, but was limited to newsreels. The main newsreel maker, Dimitris Gaziadis (1897-1961), a Greek cinematographer from Germany, was commissioned by the Greek Army to film the battles and activities of the War.

When the war ended with victory for the Allies, the Greek Army was allowed to take possession of the areas that had been, what the Greeks liked to stress, “the heart and substance of Greek Byzantium” (Constantinople, and all of western and central Asia Minor). But, what followed resulted in “the Asia Minor disaster” of 1922.[25] Since the dream for Greater Greece was lost, memories on these events became crucial in Greek World War I films.[26] The significance of this loss explains why the majority of films on World War I have events from 1922 as the main theme, even today.

Already in the 1920s Achilleas Madras (1875-1972) filmed a short documentary about Greek drama and the refugees and also two feature films, The Athens Gipsy and Maria. Then, in 1922 Dimitris Gaziadis, who was invited to Greece by the government, made Greek Miracle (1922), a documentary that included scenes from the Asia Minor Campaign and the Battle of Sangarios River. The drama of the soldiers who were coming back home after 1922 was the topic of the melodrama Storm (1929).[27]

In the period after World War II, the Asia Minor disaster remained the most important issue in filming the Great War and its aftermath. One of the most famous films on this topic was 1922 (1978), an epic film in which the drama of the Greek population during the Asia Minor Disaster was presented. In this film, the Greek Army is pulling out of the area and the city is surrounded by the Turkish Army. A number of refugees with different destinies become nameless, numbered figures in a long, trudging column of prisoners headed for inland Turkey. Very few of them survive the forced march across the mountains, and the desert of Anatolia.[28] Along with this film, a strong image of Greek national suffering from 1922 was present in The Heavy Cruise of a Split (1968), in the story of people and soldiers trying to come back to ordinary lives after the big catastrophe.[29] The war and refugee problem is also the backdrop of The Weeping Meadow, the first part of Theo Angelopoulos’ (1935-2012) trilogy, which tells the story of Greek history from the end of World War I to the aftermath of World War II, through the suffering of one family. It is a kind of an elegy for the refugee, displaced by the tread of history.

Certain pacifist and anti-war sentiments in Greek filmography can be seen in If All the Women in the World (1967), with a strong gender orientated pacifist agenda. After the war ended, the men return to their homes tired and in an extremely bad state but once they have forgotten their suffering, they prepare themselves again for the new battles. The women decide to take up the reins of government in their mountainous village, resulting in a clash between the peace-lovers and the war-mongers. This leads to a total outcry from women around the world whose goal is peace and social justice.[30]

The latest film to depict the 1922 disaster was the documentary Smyrna: The Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City 1900-1922 (2012). After the number of films with nationalistic approaches to this tragic event from the Greek history, this one brings a new perspective, keeping its distance from a nationalistic narration of the tale. Based on serious historical research, this film presents this national drama through three generations of narrated personal stories, from a Greek, Armenian and Turkish perspective. By using archival footage and oral history interviews, the film presents a balanced account of this tragic event.[31]

Films produced in Bulgaria

In 1915 Bulgaria joined the Central Powers, so it was on the losing side of the war, which resulted in a completely different approach to screening the events from this part of Bulgarian history. During World War I, and after the war, there were few films that had the Great War as a theme, among the most important were a patriotic melodrama Bogdan Stimoff (1916) and a spy melodrama Military Operations in Peacetime (1922).[32]

In the communist period, World War I became an issue in Bulgarian film industry during the 1960s. The first film to deal with the painful Bulgarian experiences from the war was The Tsar’s Pardon (1962). This is a tragic war story about a mother, who on the eve of World War I saves the Ferdinand I, Tsar of Bulgaria's (1861-1948) life by accident, and to show his gartitude promises her that he would never allow Bulgaria to enter a war. Nonetheless, war is declared, and her son goes to the front. After his participation in a soldiers’ revolt, he is tried by a military court and sentenced to death. At the end of the film, the Tsar permits the mother to take the body of her son, which shows all the tragedy of losses in the war.

One of the most important Bulgarian films on World War I is The Peach Thief (1964), directed by Vulo Radev (1923-2001). It was made during the process of destalinization and a period of modernization in Bulgarian cinema. As part of the "new wave" that characterized most Eastern European film industries of the early 1960s, this film was marked with the focus on characters’ emotions and sufferings.[33] This is the film about the tragic love story set at the end of the war in Veliko Tarnovo, between a Bulgarian woman, the wife of a colonel of the Bulgarian army, and a Serbian prisoner of war.[34] In the context of military confrontation, the love affair between the Bulgarian woman and the Serbian war captive is no longer a simple emotional story, but has also of historical significance. The tragic love story of the opposing sides presses home the point that the suffering as the result of war is the same on the both sides of the barbed wire.[35] The film features desperation and disillusionment at the end of wars. Although this film was considered an anti-war film in Bulgaria because it protested not only against the war, but also against national and ethnic divisions, it was not perceived that way in Serbia, especially as the love story of the main characters did not have a happy-ending.[36]

One more World War I film in Bulgaria The Patent Leather Shoes of the Unknown Soldier (1979) emphasizes the tragic destiny of an individual in a war. In this film, the director Rangel Vulchanov (1928-2013) makes his imaginary travels into the distant world of his own childhood, where a part of his memories is the memory of the Great War, which is shown as a vanity fair, with a range of a shabby flags, grotesque rituals and the war hysteria of all the participants.[37]

The most recent Bulgarian film on World War I is the War Correspondent (2008), which follows the front in Dobrudja from 1916 until defeat in 1918. In the film, a Bulgarian officer Yordan Yovkov, the correspondent of the War News newspaper, is traveling to the Dobrudja front. Apart from his notes, Yovkov also carries the painful memories of war. The whole Bulgarian destiny in the war is described by an old, despairing peasant woman: “Boy, we were good… and now look at what’s become of us! Why are we like this now?”[38]

Films produced in Albania

Until World War II, Albania had an undeveloped cinematography and the only cinematic evidence of prewar Albanian films are a few foreign newsreels and travelogues. In the communist period, cinema was massively used for propaganda, and was under strong Soviet influence.[39] Although there were a number of films on World War II, World War I was rarely present in Albanian cinematic life. According to the data from the Albanian Film Archive, only three films were made on this topic - Martyrs of Monuments (1980), The Second November (1982), and Time of the Comet (2008).[40]

Martyrs of Monuments is the first Albanian film shot based on real events that occurred during World War I. In the film, the Austro-Hungarian expedition locates the archaeological area of ancient Apollonia. The experts of this expedition want to plunder the ancient monuments, but the peasants of the area, led by their teacher, engage in fighting to protect them. The brutality of the enemy is shown when the Austro-Hungarians execute the teacher.[41]

The next film, The Second November was approved by Enver Hoxha (1908-1985), who was an ardent nationalist. The film was about the 1912 struggle for Albania’s independence by the legendary hero Ismail Qemal Bey Vlora (c. 1844-1919). Before the film premiered, the regime had ordered cutting scenes that portrayed a confrontation with the neighboring Serbs, as during production, Kosovar Albanian students had revolted and Hoxha worried about possible tensions with Yugoslavia.[42]

The latest film on World War I is the Time of the Comet (2008), which treats the war events in Albania with a bit of sarcasm. This romantic and humorous epic is set in Albania in 1914, which is freshly liberated from the Ottomans, with a German Prince installed as the King of Albania. Upon learning that Albania is no longer under Ottoman rule, Shestan the main protagonist, armed with an outdated map (which underlines that national boundaries in this region change more than often), with his men is searching for battle to free his country, but instead of war he finds the love of his life. Although it is set in the eve of the war, the film is more about the Balkans and the misunderstandings of different ethnic and religious groups.


From the first documentaries from 1914 in Serbia, to the last World War I film on Asia Minor disaster from 2012, cinema in South-East Europe has gone through different phases and different readings of the war. A wide range of genres and topics show different contexts in which certain films were made, as well as the different points of view not only of the film-makers, but also of the countries in which the films were produced. War spectacles, patriotic dramas, ant-war melodramas, not only show the richness of the South-East European cinematography, but also the differing approaches to the re-questioning of the painful past. However, films that were made in last few years which keep distance from the nationalistic narrative and patriotic pathos (Smyrna: The Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City 1900-1922), or tell the war stories from a comic perspective (Time of the Comet) suggest that, at the moment, all is quiet on the South-Eastern Front.

Radina Vučetić, University of Belgrade

Selected Filmography


Atentat u Sarajevu ["The Day That Shook the World"] (1975, Veljko Bulajić)

Besa ["Solemn Promise"] (2008, Srđan Karanović)

Čarlston za Ognjenku ["Tears for Sale"] (2008, Uroš Stojanović)

Kroz buru i oganj ["Through the Storm and Fire"] (1930, Ranko Jovanović and Milutin Ignjavčević)

Marš na Drinu ["March to the Drina"] (1964, Živorad Žika Mitrović)

Sa verom u Boga ["In God We Trust"] (1932, Mihailo Al. Popović)

Sarajevski atentat ["Sarajevo Assassination"] (1968, Fadil Hadžić)

Sveti Georgije ubiva aždahu ["St. George Slays the Dragon"] (2009, Srđan Dragojević)

Za čast otadžbine ["For the Honor of the Fatherland"] (1930, Stanislav Krakov)


Capcana mercenarilor ["Trap for Hired Guns"] (1982, Sergiu Nicolaescu)

Datorie şi sacrificiu ["Duty and Sacrifice"] (1925, Ion Şahighian)

Ecaterina Teodoroiu (1930, Ion Niculescu-Brună)

Ecaterina Teodoroiu (1979, Dinu Cocea)

Frontul roman ["The Romanian Front"] (1917)

In jurul ultimelor bătălii de pe frontul roman ["About the Latest Battles on the Romanian Front"] (1917)

Lumina palidă a durerii ["The Pale Light of Sorrow"] (1980, Iulian Mihu)

Osânda ["The Doom"] (1976, Sergiu Nicolaescu)

Pădurea spânzuraţilor ["The Forest of the Hanged"] (1964, Liviu Ciulei]

Ultima noapte de dragoste ["The Last Night of Love"] (1980, Sergiu Nicolaescu)

Viaţa nu iartă ["When the Mist is Lifting"] (1957, Manole Marcus and Iulian Mihu)


1922 (1978, Nikos Koundouros)

An oles i yinekes tou kosmou! ["If All the Women in the World"] (1967, Nestor Matsas)

Bora ["The Storm"] (1929, Dimitris Gaziadis)

Ellinikon thavma ["Greek Miracle"] (1922, Dimitris Gaziadis)

I odysseia enos xerizomenou ["Odyssey of an Exile"] (1969, Apostolos Tegopoulos)

Maria/Maria Pentayiotissa (1926, Achilleas Madras)

Σμύρνη. Η καταστροφή μιας κοσμοπολίτικης πόλης 1900-1922 ["Smyrna. The Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City 1900-1922"] (2012, Maria Iliou)

To Livadi Pou Dakryzei ["The Weeping Meadow"] (2004, Theo Angelopoulos)

Tsinganatis Athinas I ["The Athens Gipsy"] (1922, Achilleas Madras)

Varia katara o dhikhasmos ["The Heavy Cruise of a Split"] (1968, Petros Makedon)


Богдан Стимов ["Bogdan Stimoff"] (1916)

Kradecăt na praskovi ["The Peach Thief"] (1964, Vulo Radev]

Lachenite obuvki na neznainiya voin ["The Patent Leather Shoes of the Unknown Soldier") (1979, Rangel Vulchanov)

Posledni zhelaniya ["Last Wishes"] (1983, Rangel Vulchanov)

Tarnovskata tsaritsa ["The Queen of Turnovo"] (1981, Yanko Yankov)

Царска милост ["The Tsar’s Pardon"] (1962, Stefan Surchadzhiev)

Voenen korespondent ["War Correspondent"] (2008, Kostadin Bonev)

Военни действия в мирно време ["Military Operations in Peacetime"] (1922?, Vassil Gendov)


Koha e Komete ["Time of the Comet"] (2009, Fatmir Koci)

Martyrs of monuments (1980, Fehmi Hoshafi)

Nentori i dyte ["The Second November"] (1982, Viktor Gjika)

Section Editors: Milan Ristović; Richard C. Hall; Tamara Scheer