Trained to See: Three Women and The War (Drei Frauen und der Krieg) Review – A Vital Film That Puts Women’s War Reporting Back on the Record

Trained to See will be screening at the Castlemaine Documentary Festival on Saturday 17 June 2023. Tickets are available here.

There are many iconic photographs from WWII, from the patriotic to the weary angst of soldiers dying in leagues on the front lines, to the sorrowful and indelible pictures of concentration camps and the victims of the Holocaust. Few people realise that some of the most poignant images and reporting from the frontlines of the war came from women war correspondents.

Swiss director Luzia Schmid corrects the record by concentrating on three remarkable women who battled not only sexist bureaucracy and the notion that women were too sensitive to be allowed access to battles (unless as nurses) to create some of the most important reporting and visual records of the period. Those women were Americans; Lee Miller, Martha Gellhorn, and Margaret Bourke-White.

Of the three Gellhorn and Miller stand out as the most famous in part due to their personal lives and adventures. That is not to undermine Margaret Bourke-White whose photographs for Life magazine are iconic. Margaret Bourke-White was the first American journalist to be allowed behind the Iron Curtin and her photograph of Stalin remains a cultural touchstone of the time.

Luzia Schmid crafts a documentary that gives each woman her voice through their images, diaries, letters, and articles. She and fellow screenwriter Katarina Cvitic want you to see what the trio saw with an intimacy that allows the audience to learn not only about the correspondents but their individual journey through WWII and the complex emotions they each felt.

For Martha Gellhorn who wrote for Collier’s, war was a grand adventure. Already a seasoned war correspondent (having covered the Spanish Civil War) by the time America joined the fray in 1941 she had been previously been reporting on the rise of fascism in Germany. When WWII broke out, she was aching to cover it but her husband at the time, Ernest Hemingway, resented her absences and deliberately did everything he could to block her reporting. Gellhorn wrote to her close friend Eleanor Roosevelt not only encouraging her to push her husband further into the war effort, but also to bemoan Hemingway’s pettiness. Throughout her “grand adventure” during WWII her rebellious spirit turned to weary and bitter anger. Denied a press pass by the US government (who gave that pass, ironically, to Hemingway) Gellhorn faked her way to D-Day by pretending she was going to interview some nurses on a medical vessel. As the war progressed, she was constantly stymied in her efforts to get access to the front and was assigned secondary positions. However, her reporting on Buchenwald and Dachau and the fall of Berlin remain essential documents in alerting the American people to just what kind of war they had joined.

Lee Miller, an American photographer, model, artist, and muse was already in London when war broke out. For many years Europe had been her home as she travelled to learn (and perfect) photography techniques with Man Ray in Paris. Most of her surrealist friends were forced to leave France and Europe as the war broke out, yet she remained because of her partner Roland Penrose, and the fact she felt a duty to her adopted continent. At first Vogue was still having her take frivolous fashion shots in London but as the war progressed and the Blitz made London in many places uninhabitable, Miller’s fashion photographs began to stress the darkness of a city in rubble. Eventually Condé Nast gave Miller proper accreditation as a war correspondent. There is a famous photograph of Miller in Berlin bathing in Hitler’s bathtub – the beauty of Miller still undeniable against the foreground of dirty combat boots. It’s little surprise that Miller took her artist’s eye to Hitler’s apartment and judged him to be all the more evil because his taste in art and furnishings were pedestrian at best.

Margaret Bourke-White was one of the first women to receive press accreditation to cover the war. Originally, she was ensconced with the Airforce and had to fight her way on to a plane. She travelled to Tunisia, Italy, and to Berlin. Her husband at the time, writer Erskine Caldwell (who eventually became a correspondent) divorced her because he wanted to move to Hollywood, and she wanted to photograph the American troops – what was more important she asked? Bourke-White also spent a lot of time with the medical corps, where she photographed the wounded. Of two sets of film she sent to Life one was ‘lost’ by the Pentagon – a roll that showed the horror of the dying and the lack of supplies the army was dealing with. In later years Bourke-White would find out that she had a record with the House of Unamerican Activities.

Each woman’s voice (read by actors) and imagery is recorded to give a sense of how much the war changed them. Gellhorn’s grand adventure turned into a plodding nightmare that filled her with rage and a sense of futility. Gellhorn would remain a war correspondent – covering Korea and Vietnam and the war in Central America. She is by far one of the most important voices in 20th Century conflict journalism. Brave, bold, and never to be underestimated (she kicked Hemingway to the curb) she was still shocked by what she saw and experienced. She was begging for peace by the end even if that meant a question of what’s next? for her as a professional.

Lee Miller returned to London after the war and married Penrose. What she experienced caused her to fall into depression and alcoholism. She never spoke of her time as a war correspondent – in fact her son Anthony was unaware of her activities until after her death when he found a hidden archive of her work. The eternally glamourous Lee Miller who had been painted by Picasso, had her lips immortalised by Man Ray, become a living statue for director Jean Cocteau, was also a ground-breaking photojournalist who watched not only the people she loved suffer (including Penrose who was in the British Army) but the Europe she loved destroyed.

Perhaps the greatest challenge was for Bourke-White who had an unshakeable sense of patriotism originally. She was imperious with her camera but lacked the cynicism of Miller and Gellhorn. For her one of the most shocking realisations of the terror of Nazism came from meeting an erstwhile fellow journalism student in Berlin. The woman who was educated in America followed Hitler’s party line to the point that she believed that the Jews and their “grip on the American economy” meant that was why the United States joined the war effort. Bourke-White, along with Miller and Gellhorn could scarce believe how casual the German public had been with atrocities happening mere miles from their comfortable homes.

Trained to See: Three Women and The War is not only a vital piece of documentary making about WWII it is a tribute to the women who served in any capacity. Gellhorn, Miller, and Bourke-White each give their accounts and they are unforgettable not only for their contributions to reporting but also because of what each woman went through to “keep up with the boys.” The documentary is as important to recognising the contribution of women during wartime as it is to showing the vast and personal horrors that were faced. Trained to See: Three Women and The War shatters myths and proves that a woman’s eye is in every way equal to that of a man’s.

Director: Luzia Schmid

Featuring: Margaret Bourke-White, Martha Gellhorn, Lee Miller

Writers: Katarina Cvitic, Luzia Schmid

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Curb on Patreon
Become a patron at Patreon!