Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Cinematic fascination: the machine in war propaganda

New sources of energy and power-driven machinery changed industrial production and work. The industrial promotion film soon developed as a genre, drawing attention to technical progress in general and in detail. Many films were made during the war showing the efficiency of the industrial war effort in Austria-Hungary.

As the nineteenth century came to a close, petroleum, gas and electricity as new sources of energy changed everyday life and work. Artificial light lengthened the day, and industrial production and working procedures underwent incisive changes. Modern power-driven machines were introduced, and smaller automatic work units were developed, heralding the conveyor-belt era. By the end of the nineteenth century mass production permitted standardization of complex assemblies such as bicycles, sewing machines and armaments.

At the same time, there was an increasing fascination with mobilization and mechanization. Modern production methods and new technical achievements were not only discussed by specialists but also made their way into films. The efficiency of the domestic economy was emphasized through pictures of industrial companies and their high-technology production methods. The films featured recurrent style elements of both a demonstrative and informative nature. Viewers were guided in their interpretation and understanding above all by explanatory title cards, which split up the recordings, organized the images and provided the desired interpretation. Most of the time they remained pragmatic, succinctly explaining the production processes being shown.

Industrial promotional films from the War Press Office offered a considered presentation of high-quality and precisely controlled manufacture of strategic products. The film Werdegang einer Soldatenmontur. Aufgenommen in den Spinnereien, Webereien und mechanischen Konfektionsfabriken der Firma Wilhelm Beck und Söhne [Manufacture of a soldier’s equipment filmed in the spinning, weaving and mechanical finishing shops of Wilhelm Beck and Sons] (A 1917), for example, sought to link history and tradition with the mechanized modern era. The film starts with copper engravings showing cloth-making in 1727 and is followed by industrial shots demonstrating the technical progress achieved since then. Long shots and close-ups of cogwheels, motors and conveyors suggest modern-day mechanized production. The film concentrates on the object being made and the machining process. The camera gradually zooms in on the machines, scanning them and showing the machining processes step by step. Hitherto hidden sights are made visible in this way.

Human manpower was still needed to change the bobbins, tension the threads and operate the levers, insert the cloth or finish the material with special sewing machines and presses, and full mechanization of the process was still a long way off. The theme of quality assurance is evident here as in so many industrial films during the war: raw materials, intermediate products and fabrics are continuously checked by skilled workers, and the finished product is inspected by high-ranking officers. The quality and value of the uniforms is emphasized in the final shot of a sentry taking up position in front of the clothing store.

Translation: Nick Somers


Eigner, Peter/Helige, Andrea (Hrsg.): Österreichische Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, Wien/München 1999

Weitensfelder, Hubert: Technischer Wandel und Konsum im 19. und frühen 20. Jahrhundert, in: Breuss, Susanne/Eder, Franz X. (Hrsg.): Konsumieren in Österreich 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, Wien 2006, 105-123

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    War and art

    Many artists, intellectuals and writers welcomed the outbreak of the First World War. They saw it not as an apocalypse but as the opportunity for a change for the better. As such they joined in the patriotic fervour of the first weeks and months of the war. What motivated them not only to devote their artistic energies to the fatherland but also to take an active part in the fighting? How were anti-war sentiments articulated by artists? What other forms of relationship were there between art and warfare during and after the First World War?

  • Aspect

    Guiding the masses

    Guiding the mood of the masses was an important aspect of warfare during the First World War. Considerable information and communication work was carried out to persuade the population of the “true facts”. All areas of life were influenced by propaganda in a way that had not been seen hitherto: reports in the newspapers, posters on the walls, even teaching material in schools now communicated controlled information. What methods and media were used? How did the various warring nations attempt to influence public opinion? What was communicated and how effective was the propaganda?

Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object

    Mechanical warfare

    In the years and decades before the First World War there were many innovations in arms technology with the result that the entire war machinery and with it the strategic and tactical considerations had to be fundamentally rethought. The artillery, with its powerful arsenal of guns, mortars and howitzers, epitomised the dominance of “fire power”. It was the prototype of industrialised mechanical and mass warfare and responsible for a larger number of casualties than any other type of weapon.

  • Object


    All Quiet on the Western Front was released in 1930. It was the film of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same name about the experiences of a soldier during the First World War. Remarque’s book and the film adaptation are classic anti-war statements. Alongside the patriotic, glorified heroic epics and “authentic” documentation of service for the fatherland, this was just one way in which the First World War was portrayed in literature and films – a medium that had come into being only twenty years before the outbreak of war.

  • Object

    Monitoring & control

    Everyday life in the Habsburg Monarchy was characterised by propaganda, monitoring and control, as can be seen by the many blank spaces in the daily newspapers and deletions in private correspondence and telegrams. At the same time an attempt was made in texts and audio-visual media to whip up general enthusiasm for the war. Not even the youngest inhabitants of the empire remained untouched, and the influence of the state was also felt in the schools of the Monarchy.

  • Object

    Depicting the war

    The photo by Alexander Exax shows a scene in the trenches in Galicia in 1915. The title “im Feuer” [“under fire”] gives the impression that the picture has been taken in the middle of the action. Dynamic photos like this were typical of the pictorial iconography of the First World War. The illustrated weeklies were among the most important distribution media, but there were others: exhibitions and posters, picture postcards and cinemas collaborated with private picture agencies and the official propaganda to provide a visual depiction of the war.