When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, the only American, and in fact the only neutral filmmaker in the country, was Julien Bryan. He arrived in Warsaw in early September with a cache of roughly an hour’s worth of 35mm motion-picture negative. Given open access to the city by the mayor, he filmed day and night for two weeks, documenting Warsaw’s destruction and Germany’s inexorable advance. Back in New York he assembled the footage into a ten-minute newsreel called Siege. Released in February 1940, the film became for many viewers their first glimpses into Nazi tactics, the first visual proof of the horrors of modern warfare.
Better known for his travelogues and educational films, Bryan had spent the summer of 1939 touring Switzerland and the Netherlands, gathering material to sell to newsreel companies and for his own productions. After purchasing his first 35mm camera sometime in 1930, he filmed throughout Europe and the Soviet Union, capturing everything from ethnic dances and rituals to landscape vistas. Bryan financed his travels in part by selling stock footage to Eastman Kodak, which marketed it to home consumers. He contributed material to eleven “March of Time” episodes, including the notorious Inside Nazi Germany, released in 1938. But he also put together his own documentaries, which he used on lecture tours.
During World War I, Bryan volunteered with a French ambulance corps. His experiences on the front lines became the basis of a collection of essays and photographs, Ambulance 464, published in 1918. Bryan’s spell in France may have lulled him into a false sense of security during the summer of 1939. Like many observers, he believed the coming war would be a repeat of the last, a prolonged stalemate between entrenched forces. Warsaw would serve as his base camp in covering the fighting.
What Bryan didn’t anticipate was exactly how far the German military would take the concept of total war. Before, soldiers in trenches bore the brunt of fighting. Now, civilians behind the lines were the target, and they were catastrophically unprepared to take on a professional war machine. Bryan filmed the desperate attempts by the Poles to barricade the city, men digging trenches across streets and stacking trolley tracks as defensive barriers. He showed German planes dropping incendiary bombs on apartment complexes, with the resulting fires, injuries and deaths. He photographed a church that had been bombed during a Sunday Mass, and a maternity hospital where mothers and infants huddled together in basement corridors. He even documented the destruction of the last film-processing lab in the city. In what he called the most tragic scene he ever photographed, Bryan showed children digging for potatoes in the same field where seven women had been machine-gunned to death moments before.
Bryan filmed as an advocate, appalled, as he said later, at the brutality he witnessed. But he also approached the story with an eye on his market in the United States. His outtakes, available for view at the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, DC, include rough handheld shots of German planes, city blocks full of rubble, corpses in ditches or crushed by masonry–material he ultimately felt was too strong for mainstream viewers of the time. What may be most apparent in the footage today is his respect and admiration for the Poles. Where he initially tried to amass evidence, by the end of the film Bryan is focusing squarely on the victims, shown in a series of devastating portraits. He calls their faces “magnificent,” and they are. They are also doomed, the unspoken but obvious message behind Siege.