There is something hauntingly beautiful about Luzia Schmid’s archive-driven tribute to three fabulous American women journalists who did so much to frame our perceptions of the war in Europe 80 years ago.
Martha Gellhorn, Lee Miller, and Margaret Bourke-White are today such legendary names that we are losing sight of the human beings behind them.
Behind the scenes
Trained to See – Three Women and the War does nothing to take away the glamour of these pioneering female war correspondents# and photographers. But it does go behind the scenes to delve into their frustrations and passions, the men in their lives (who are competitive and fractious – one divorcing his wife by telegram mid-war) and the challenges they faced to be treated equally by a military machine that on paper saw them as fully-fledged war correspondents, but in fact regards them as very much second to their male colleagues.
Their pictures and stories – published in Colliers, Vogue, Life and elsewhere – from the Italian campaign, France, the advance into Germany, and the discovery of the death camps of Buchenwald and Dachau, still have the power to shock today. Such is the stature of these pioneering women photojournalists that we forget they were all young women: in their early 30s and full of energy and sometimes mischief. Photos of them – glamourous and casual, in skirts and military khaki – tend to make them look older. However, the director has dug out enough rarely seen and intimate portraits to pull the viewers back across the decade to their full bloom of youth.
Trained to See – Three Women and the War does nothing to take away the glamour of these pioneering female war correspondents# and photographers.
A new war
There is another war in Europe today where women correspondents are numerous; the war in Ukraine is being covered in a very different way. The Second World War was one relayed in black and white, in newsprint and still images. The newsreels of the day – screened as part of cinema programmes – simply did not have the speed with which to compete. Today, it is all very much faster, and the 24/7 rolling news cycle demands moving images, often shot on mobile phones, that bring a raw urgency into one’s living room or onto your screen.
Those that capture these images are not the stars they once were; some news channels are attempting to give more prominence to the teams that bring the brutal images of Russia’s assault to us, but there is not the same sense of stature that these towering women of the frontline media had 80 years ago.
Perhaps that perception will change with time; certainly, for this writer, the realisation that these women of our grandmothers’ generation were young and vital is a reminder of some of the young women in their 30s he himself knows that are covering the war in Ukraine. It is almost as if they push themselves harder and take more risks than their male companions, wishing to prove themselves. Some of them have died under Russian fire already.
Our trio of women photographers were well-connected and already special in their day. Martha Gellhorn – who was married at the time to Ernest Hemmingway – exchanges chatty and intimate letters with Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady of the early war White House; Lee Miller is friends with Pablo Picasso and looks him up when she got to Paris in August 1944; Margaret Bourke-White, like the others, gets around restrictions to get to the front and achieves exclusives that ruffle feathers in the SHAEF, the allied joint high command.
Schmid has a historian’s eye for detail and has clearly done phenomenal archive research, reaching back into time for the precise images, letters and documents needed to tell the story of how these three women developed and how much they defined our memories of the war. She gives depth and breadth through a beautiful sound and visual style – combining outtakes and contact sheets, the sounds of old-style projectors and specially composed music to bring the interweaving stories of the women to life. A special mention must go to the editor, Yana Höhnerbach, sound director Holger Buff, and composers, Johannes Malfatti and Oliver Alary.
Actors give voice to our heroines, with respectably laconic 1940s snatches of letters and news copy, such as the war being likened to «cutting out a cancer only to leave tuberculosis» behind or the plea that «this war must stop soon before all the humble, beautiful villages of Europe are smashed into grey rubble.» Gellhorn, who stole aboard a hospital ship to get herself across the channel on June 7, 1944 (D-Day+1), only to learn that the preceding two Red Cross ships had hit mines, «drank a lot of whisky because I was very scared, drank and got unscared.»
It is easy to see how men fell in love with such women.
The images of London brought to mind my parents’ stories; they were in their teens at the time. Photos of my mother in 1945 look just like Margaret, Lee or Martha – the hairstyle and shirt collars. At 18, just after the war and in her first job, my mother wore an American ex-army gabardine mac. This fabulous film, full of urgency and history, is not so far away after all.
For all the horrors the women chronicled – their stories and images of the Nazi concentration camps are harrowing – it was clear they found the whole experience addictive.
The post-war years treated none of them particularly well, though Gellhorn continued to work as a war correspondent well into her 80s before, in 1998, suffering from cancer and almost blind, she committed suicide. Bourke-White developed Parkinson’s disease, gave up photography and devoted her life to researching the ailment until her death in 1971. Miller never really found her place again; after the war, she took to heavy drinking as she battled depression. She gave up photography and never mentioned her role as a war correspondent to her son, who only learned of it after her death when he came across boxes of negatives and notes in the family home’s attic.