“We should all die, presumably, round Ypres.”
In order to begin to understand a region’s moviegoing preferences, you must take a step back and reflect on how its history and landscape shapes identity. One of the main reasons I am drawn to cinema studies is that it truly encompasses every imaginable subject. As I start to draw out my questions relating to Belgium’s cinema culture, excursions such as my day trip to Ypres will have a huge influence on the conclusions I eventually draw. First a quick history lesson:
In World War I Ypres held a key position in Germany’s planned sweep across Belgium into France. The city witnessed some of the most ferocious fighting of the war. In fact nearly as many soldiers and civilians were killed in this small pocket of Flanders as there were on both sides of the American Civil War. Ypres also has the infamous reputation of being one of the first places to witness the horrors of chemical warfare. This was in the Second Battle of Ypres (2nd April to 25th May 1915) when the Germans used poison gas for the first time on the Western Front. This was Chlorine Gas; Mustard Gas – also called Yperite – was used for the first time near the town in the Autumn of 1917.
The entire city was obliterated as a result of the fighting. Many of the Allies, including the then British Minister for War, Winston Churchill, called for the city to become a permanent memorial to the “War to End All Wars.”
“I should like us to acquire the whole of the ruins of Ypres.. a more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world.”
Yet the Belgian people would hear none of it. In a great show of resiliency, the survivors chose to not only rebuild Ypres, but to restore the city to its former Gothic splendor. When walking the streets of Ypres today, it is almost unbelievable to realize that almost all of the buildings in the city centre are less than 100 years old. In regards to commemorating the city and ensuing battleground, a massive arch was constructed just outside of the centre dedicated to the 54,896 missing British and British Empire soldiers who fought in the Great War. The Menin Gate was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield and includes inscriptions of all the soldiers’ names. Field Marshal Plumer said of those whom it commemorated: “they are not missing – they are here.” Yet not everyone felt that the efforts toward commemoration were successful. Poet Siegfried Sassoon described the reconstructed city as a “sepulchre of crime’, a mere ‘sight-seers centre.”
The solemnity of my experience at The In Flanders Field Museum was neither transcendent or grotesque. The site interpretation was quite straightforward, as you navigate the renovated Medieval-era Cloth Hall, visitors follow a more-or-less linear narrative of the First World War, with West Flanders as the central frame. Throughout the two hours I spent navigating the various displays, interactive exhibits, and multilingual interpretive videos, a low timbre dirge played dimly in the background. It corresponded well with the museum’s prevailing statement that homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to man). Throughout the exhibits a series of soldiers, nurses, and civilians are shown on screen describing the futility of their war-time experiences in Dutch, French, German, and English. Yet lost in the presentation the details surrounding Ypres’ revised reputation as “The City of Peace.”
The most poignant part of the museum tour is at the exit where a series of banners list every global conflict since 1919. Following such a visit you can’t help but leave feeling more than a little cynical about the future of our species. In all, the place packs a powerful emotional punch which resonates all too clearly in respect to ongoing news reports in the present day about the Assad regime’s ruthless use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians. Yet in walking through the reconstructed city and surrounding memorials, there was another aspect of the narrative that I felt was clearly missing: the indomitable resiliency of the human spirit. Ypres is a city that rose up from the ashes and despite its terrible history has willingly chosen to embrace its past, all the while keeping a vigilant eye on the future. Next week I will begin to track down a series of WWI-era films where Belgium is the featured subject. The insights I’ve uncovered during my visit to Ypres will certainly do much to shape my impressions on the different narratives constructed around the nation’s wartime experience.