"Somehow it seemed brutal to intrude upon the privacy of these terror-stricken people, but I did my job. I was making a documentary record of a thing that was really happening. I was impressed by Warsaw's will to survive."
—Julien Bryan in Siege (1940)
On September 1, 1939, Julien Bryan was one of the last reporters holding citizenship of a non-belligerent nation remaining in Poland. His ten-minute film Siege records the horror and confusion of Warsaw during the German attack. Through actual footage taken during the siege, Bryan poignantly describes the frightening chain of events that ended in the capitulation of Warsaw and the occupation of Poland. During the early stages of the blitzkrieg, Polish military authorities commandeered civilians to dig ditches, set tank traps, and shore up fortifications. As the Polish soldiers retreated to the east, German troops encircled and laid siege to Warsaw.
With overwhelming superiority in the skies, German planes destroyed the city with aerial and incendiary bombs, while heavy artillery kept up an incessant bombardment. The Germans eventually targeted hospitals and churches from the air, and German planes strafed refugee columns flooding out of the city to east and other groups of civilians without regard for the lives of women and children.
Narrated by Bryan, this historic film on the fall of Poland is a powerful and timely documentary. The US film production company Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) released the footage in 1940 as a newsreel in its "Realism Series." It represented the first non-Nazi produced footage covering the start of World War II seen in theaters across the US. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated Siege for an Award (Best Short, one reel) in 1941; and the Librarian of Congress placed it on the 2006 National Film Registry in December 2006.
Preserving the Film
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Archives staff located what is possibly the earliest and most complete version of the film in the USHMM vaults in January 2007. In 2008, the National Film Preservation Foundation awarded the USHMM Archives a grant to create a new 35mm film preservation print.
Critical Thinking Questions
- What can be learned from Bryan’s films of prewar Warsaw?
- What risks and responsibilities do photographers and filmmakers encounter in areas of persecution and combat?