Over many gruelling months in 1919, after the last shots of the First World War, the leaders of the major powers and a host of other delegates met in Paris to piece together a new world order. Owing to the pitfalls of modern documentary filmmaking, it has taken the National Film Board of Canada and a host of broadcasters even more time, a number of years, in fact, to create a film of those events.
The NFB's long-awaited co-production of Paris 1919, its half-documentary, half-dramatization of the tenuous Paris peace conference, is finally making the rounds of the film-festival circuit before it eventually airs in various countries.
Inspired by Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan's award-winning book Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, the film focuses on the idealism, nationalism and competing egos among the Big Four, namely U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, French prime minister Georges Clemenceau, British prime minister David Lloyd George and Italian prime minister Vittorio Orlando.
The original plan for the film had a kind of Wilsonian idealism, akin to the President's lofty ambitions. "There'll be no revenge," the film quotes Wilson saying to Clemenceau. "I'll give you something better. I'll give you a League of Nations and peace everlasting."
The early plan for the Paris 1919 film was also ambitious, in its way, in relying for the most part on actors' re-enactments of the peace talks and thus testing the boundaries between what constitutes a documentary and what is historical docudrama. For years, there has been talk about this project in the documentary community.
But in the end, the number of re-enactments in Paris 1919 were cut back due to budget constraints, and archival footage made up a higher proportion of the finished film, director Paul Cowan said.
But what a trove of footage the filmmakers found, enabling Cowan to play in greater depth with both archival shots and re-enacted scenes in ways the earlier idea for Paris 1919 might not have allowed.
"For me, the challenge was to make a film where the dramatic material and the documentary material would flow seamlessly in and out of each other," Cowan said. "What we did was to start combing archives all over the world. I knew approximately the story I wanted to tell. But once I found specific sequences, then I would write drama that would flow in and out of that documentary sequence.
"Generally, it works the other way around: You do drama and then you go find documentary footage to fill in the bigger picture or the external shots you can't afford, or you just use it for filler. But I felt that the archival material had to be as knitted into the story as the dramatic material, that I didn't want it just to be cutaways. I wanted it to be actually advancing the story, and I wanted to see the same individuals in the archival material that I was seeing in the dramatic material," he said.
Black-and-white, hand-cranked vintage footage of the ruined countryside and death on the battlefield is juxtaposed with the celebratory mood in Paris, then with the smoky, colour-depleted re-enactments of the peace conference.
Yet it's the original footage that pulls the viewer in. It was the era when men still tipped their bowler hats while walking in front of a moving-picture camera, and when women in ankle-length dresses paraded down the boulevards, arm in arm, celebrating the end of war. In one of many miraculous bits of old footage, the American president, seen as the great shining hope for peace in Europe, rides past throngs of waving Parisians in an open-top carriage, gendarmes pedalling alongside on bicycles.
But Cowan had to bridge the enormous gulf between this light-hearted footage and the inner failures of the Paris peace talks. And cameras then were simply not allowed into the conference rooms. On the few times they were, film speeds were too slow for the dim light, and the movies of course were silent as well. Many historians have written gripping accounts of how the leaders failed. Cowan had to show it.
"First of all, it was an enormous conference that dealt with hundreds of different issues, literally everything from disarming the world to poppy-growing in Afghanistan," Cowan said. "It became fairly clear to me early on that all we could deal with, essentially, at the heart of the film would be the Germans. I didn't want to deal with all the minutiae of trying to create a peace treaty.
"I felt what was more interesting was the character of the individuals. It became the story of men trying to do something great - greater than they were - and essentially being limited by their own personalities. At that time, it was really their own personalities that dictated the peace."
In the re-enactments, Wilson is the stalwart, if increasingly exhausted character, riding the adulation of the cheering public and coping with the constant demands of his allies in the claustrophobic conference rooms. Lloyd George is sympathetic, yet removed, for Britain has its own imperial world order in mind. The Italian PM Orlando is basically a side character, ultimately ill-equipped for the task. And then there's Clemenceau, truly the pivotal force as he pushes and prods Wilson for protection for France and debilitating reparations against Germany.
"We were very limited in the number of scenes that we could shoot," Cowan said. Actual filming lasted only 10 days in Paris. "I was really relying heavily on the dramatic scenes, and yet at the same time, I was quite limited in what I could do."
Cowan noted that he would have liked to have shot more scenes with Wilson. But in the next breath, he added that that would have made the film more of a docudrama focusing on the inner feelings of the characters. Instead, the film maintains a documentary's sense of remove and is more concerned with telling its highly intricate story.
"I really do see it as a documentary. The dramatic material is just scenes that one would have filmed if you had been a documentary filmmaker there [at the time] That was really the guiding principle that I used. I wasn't going to film in Wilson's bedroom, for instance. Or I wasn't going to film intimate scenes with Clemenceau talking to his advisers. I was going to keep it on a level where one could conceive that a documentary filmmaker might have been able to film those scenes."
Cowan especially concentrated on crowded interiors. The rooms of the Paris peace conference are tense and airless spaces. Lloyd George's economic adviser John Maynard Keynes and his temporary office of the British reparations committee go through exhaustive lists of lost property, damaged houses, livestock lost or killed - an endless number of claims, to say nothing of the incalculable cost of human lives. It was Keynes who ultimately argued that an enormous bill for Germany would only cause future instability.
But the dramatic turning point is the arrival of the German delegates. Belatedly summoned to the conference, the Germans believe that Wilson will hand them a reasonably just treaty. Germany had pushed its own warlords aside, and internal political crises had led to the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Germans saw themselves as victims too and the end of the war as an armistice, not a defeat.
The film maintains its attention to detail, showing the German delegates playing Wagner at full blast on gramophones in their hotel headquarters in order to undermine listening devices. And it is their anger at the Allies' intractable demands that ultimately creates the film's dramatic arc.
"For me, it was purely, how do I tell the story? … What I was really trying to do was create documentary material," Cowan said. "I was not overly concerned with whether we were pushing the [documentary]form or not. It was just, how do we tell the story?"