Nurse Edith Cavell and Fireplaces

Next week I am honoured to be presenting a talk on Dawn (Herbert Wilcox, 1928) at the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival in Bo’ness. You can book for the talk here, or you can skip straight to the good stuff and book for the film itself here! Two versions of the film survive, one in London at the BFI National Archive, and one in Belgium CINEMATEK. The festival will show the Belgian version which in many ways is more complete than the London one, although not in every way. I was quite familiar with the London version but the Belgian one was new to me when I first saw it in Pordenone in 2018, and I was in the grip of an obsession with fireplaces on film (this year at Pordenone I got obsessed by Chrysanthemums so…). When I got home I resolved to write all about fireplaces, but I got completely side-tracked by Nurse Edith Cavell and this piece of writing wound up being too long to use for anything. I’ve still got more stuff to say about fireplaces, but I guess that’ll have to wait. I don’t plan to use any of what follows in my talk, but if you don’t mind spoilers (it’s basically impossible to talk about Edith Cavell films without spoilers), and you fancy a bit of background to Dawn, you might be interested in some of my fireplace/Edith Cavell musings below. They’re unfinished though, as you’ll see. I’ve more work to do!

This week in Pordenone, I became obsessed with fireplaces. In the days before electric lighting was universal, every filmgoer would have known that moment when the light outside is starting to fade, but the lamps have not yet been lit. Then the eye is drawn to the brightness of the hearth, and in the glowing caverns and flickering uplands of the coal one can draw imaginary landscapes, letting the mind wander from the prosaic concerns of the bright everyday, into the deep reveries and reflections of the half-light. It is a moment often described in nineteenth century, and rendered in the visual arts. Dickens talks about it in Bleak House (1853) and the scene is the starting point for Grahame Smith’s consideration of the cinematic elements of his work in Dickens and the Dream of Cinema. In painting too, the moment has been exploited both for its association with reverie, and for its emphasis on the comfortingly secure embrace of Victorian domesticity. One of my favourite programmes at the Gionate was Valentine Robert’s presentation of a series of Tableux Vivants – films which quote from, re-enact or otherwise ‘realize’ famous and popular images from the visual arts (many of which are forgotten today, despite their immense popularity at the turn of the C19th). The first film she showed was The Pouting Model (US 1901) made by the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company, and based on Canadian artist Paul Peel’s The Tired Model from 1889. A naked child (seen from behind) hides in the shadow behind an elderly artist’s canvas, his arm held up in front of his face indicating his tears, his frustration with the boredom and exposure of posing. The artist, visible to us but not the child, and lit from behind in the cold daylight of the studio leans sideways, attempting to coax his muse to pose for a little while longer. The cold, white light here indicates the workaday – making the child’s nakedness feel vulnerable, chilly and unpleasant. He is merely laboring for the artist’s benefit. No wonder he protests – what pleasure could there possibly be in standing in the chilly light for the inspection of an elder? Peel, it turns out must have been familiar with such situations as many of his works feature children (although he never reached the age of the artist in the image – he died at 31). Perhaps his most famous painting offers a completely different sensation of nakedness.

After the Bath
After the Bath

After the Bath (1890) shows two small children, completely naked, basking in the warmth and light of the fireplace. The fire is the only light source, and the children stand and sit gazing into it enjoying the magical moment between bath-time and bed-time – a charmed interlude where one is enveloped in security, drying and warming oneself before hopping into some cosy pyjamas for the bedtime story. The light here is precisely used to convey that feeling. Rich in colour and complexity, it envelopes the children, ‘flickering and rebounding from unseen surfaces in the viewer’s area’, bouncing off the front of the children with an intense brightness suggesting its heat, while creating shadows and movement that play on the walls and floor around them.[1] The chocolate box nature of the image, together with unease about its obvious pleasure in evoking the flesh of children perhaps explain its obscurity today, but at the turn of the last century, it was wildly popular. I myself am drawn to it, because it evokes memories of my own childhood – of me and my sister drying our hair before the fire as part of an essential Sunday night post-bath ritual.

If, as Pamela Hutchinson has noted, the challenge of silent cinema is to convey the interior lives of characters by purely visual means, one would have expected the reverie of firelight to be a relatively commen scene. Unlike today, every member of the audience would have been familiar with the experience, and think of the possibilities for visual expression, for displaying the best (and hiding the worst) of the features of the actors, for showing the bravura expertise of the lighting designer. In truth of course, photographing actual firelight is fiendishly difficult in this period. The light needed to make any sort of impression on film is so great that a flame just doesn’t register at all – like a lit candle in the sunlight it is rendered invisible. Nevertheless, film-makers have striven to overcome this difficulty and at Pordenone I put some effort into looking out for the different techniques they adopted and the ways that firelight and fireplaces played a role in the narratives they told.

I was reminded of my first example during the festival’s screening of Herbert Wilcox’s masterpiece about the life of Edith Cavell, Dawn (1928). Cavell was an English nurse working in Brussels at the time of the German invasion in 1914. As the film documents, she got involved in protecting allied soldiers trapped by the extraordinary speed of the invasion, and ended up masterminding a network of resistance workers who sheltered allied soldiers, and gave them safe passage back home. Cavell was the embodiment of respectable English femininity. She was virginal, highly religious (she was the daughter of the vicar at Swardeston, which raised a laugh from the English contingent of the Pordenone audience when an inter-title expressed one soldier’s delight at the prospect of ‘seeing dear old Norwich’ again), and to top it all, she was a genius of the sound-bite, particularly when the theme was death, or patriotism or faith. Her execution for treason at dawn on 12th October 1915 was a propaganda gift for the allies, who made the most of the connotations for German ‘Kulture’ that it was prepared to murder ‘in cold blood’ an ‘innocent’ woman who had devoted her life to God and to helping others. Her ‘martyrdom’ became a recruiting bonanza, coming as it did, just at the time when the early enthusiasm for war had started to wane, but before conscription was introduced. In fact, the Germans were absolutely within their rights (and the provisions of international law) in executing Cavell, since the motives for returning allied soldiers were not really anything to do with humanitarianism. An inter-title in Dawn tells us that the reason the Germans know Cavell’s patients are escaping, is because their names appear in the allied casualty lists for later battles. I.E. they are being returned home not to rejoin their loving families, but so that they can be sent back into the fighting.

This is not a nuance you would gather from Nurse and Martyr (Percy Moran, 1915), one of the earliest propaganda films built around Cavell’s story, and made in the year of her execution. Nurse and Martyr is unmistakably constructed as a recruitment film. At the end of the story, after Cavell has been shot by the firing squad, her image re-appears, in a cross-shaped mask like a religious icon. She stretches out her hands directly towards the audience in supplication, and is flanked by two of the soldiers she has saved. ‘The blood of the martyr calls to you’ implores the inter-title. Nevertheless, the sacred thing that this martyr is defending – that the film implores audiences to sign up in order to continue to defend – is the domestic family unit, lit by firelight. This is signaled earlier in the surviving fragment of the film, when scenes of Cavell’s trial and imprisonment are intercut with those of ‘the old folks at home’. An old couple sit gazing into the fireplace. They have just read that their son is missing and each seems lost in a reverie of regret and anxiety as they look into the flames. The scene is lit very simply but with remarkable effectiveness. As with ‘After the Bath’ the flames are not visible in the frame, but they cast the only light illuminating everything we see. The faces of the two old people are turned directly towards the fire, and are bright with detail. Behind them the light falls away so that the edges of the room are barely visible at all. The fire forms the single focal point for their thoughts and regrets. There is a cut to their son, saved by Cavell’s network, unexpectedly entering the room and completing the domestic scene. He enters the earlier frame, coming between the old couple in front of the fireplace, and greeting them both in turn – an ecstatic reunion by the fire.

Later after the trial scene and Cavell’s sentence of death (‘Bah! She is English. She must die’ declares the head of the tribunal, brushing aside a memory of her kindness to him), we return to the reunited family, finding them once again gazing silently into the fireplace. The son in particular is lost in his thoughts, recalling his escape and the involvement of the English nurse who facilitated it. He tells the story to his mum and dad, and all three drop to their knees before the fire, in thankful prayers for his escape.


During the scenes when Cavell is in her cell awaiting execution, the film returns us once again to the family. This time it is a flashback – a repeat of the reunion moment, shown as though in Cavell’s mind’s eye, motivated by an inter-title announcing ‘Reflections: I wonder if they got through?’ The film cuts back to Cavell, apparently gaining renewed strength for the ordeal ahead in the thought that through her agency the family has been reunited. Nurse and Martyr, then, uses the fireside as a central symbol for domesticity – for the desirable stability of family life which the war, and in this version of the story, Germany in particular, threatens. It suggests that the main result of Cavell’s work is to restore and protect the family unit, rather than to replenish the numbers of men in the trenches.


By the time Wilcox was making his version of the story in 1928, the political environment had shifted. Dawn was made two years after the signing of the Locarno treaties (which sought to normalize European political relations after the war – bringing Germany into the League of Nations for instance), and the production proved to be a massive political headache for the British government, as James C. Robertson has brilliantly uncovered.[2] At Pordenone we saw a restoration of the Belgian release print, although a complete 35mm print of the British print survives in good condition at the BFI National Archive. The differences between the two prints are instructive. Both contain the inter-title mentioned above which acknowledges – at least in passing – that Cavell’s work was as much an act of war as an act of humanitarianism. Both prints also include rather strenuously didactic inter-titles at the beginning and end, emphasizing that ‘War’ itself is the enemy here, rather than any particular nationality: ‘The Rulers of Europe were the puppets of Carnage – some more willing than others, but all enslaved to the system of War’. Such titles can perhaps be regarded as the battle-scars of the diplomatic efforts surrounding the film. The British version places more emphasis on Cavell’s Christian beliefs. It follows Nurse and Martyr in showing her praying, and singing ‘Abide with me’, including inter-titles offering the words of the hymn for audiences to sing along to. Famously the ending of the film is most obviously different in the two versions – in the Belgian print a member of the firing squad ordered to execute Cavell refuses to follow orders and is shot for disobedience. Cavell faints at this sight and the commanding officer taps at his pistol holster indicating to his subordinate that he will have to shoot her as she lies unconscious on the ground. The final shots show the graves of the Englishwoman and the German soldier side by side accompanied by a call for peace between nations in the nameof humanity. The story of her fainting did circulate in propaganda accounts from 1915 onwards, although it is untrue. REMEMBER2The detail of the dissenting firing squad member appears to have been invented for the film. In the British version both these elements are truncated. The soldier makes his protest, and the camera cuts to the astonished face of the English pastor… and the film shifts immediately to an inter-title offering Cavell’s most famous aphorism ‘Patriotism is Not Enough – I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone’. No image of his death, or hers is shown, and the final shot is of her grave alone.

One might have assumed that the changed ending was in response to the behind the scenes diplomatic manoeuvres set in motion by Germany’s protest at the announcement of the film’s production. As Robertson recounts, the Foreign Office sought to put pressure on the British Board of Film Censors to censor the film, and also sought a meeting with Herbert Wilcox, its producer. Nevertheless, Wilcox managed to completely out-manoeuvre the FO and the BBFC, getting the film passed by the London County Council and putting on a range of special screenings for MPs before submitting it to the BBFC for inspection. But the cuts to the end of the film were still made, and they are not the only variations between the British and the Belgian release prints. In fact, taken all together, the British print is far more sympathetic to Germany than the Belgian one. It preserves the ‘humane’ actions of Private Rammler in protesting the execution, while cutting out the barbarism of the German officer’s on the spot execution of him for insubordination. It excises the implication that Cavell was shot on the ground as she lay unconscious after her faint – and it seems more likely to me that both these cuts were made due to concerns about taste, rather than political worries.

Nevertheless, other differences in the two prints also contribute to the softening of the criticism of the Germans in the British print compared the Belgian. The British print contains another scene (missing in the Belgian one) which illustrates ability of individual German officers to act out of humanity rather than adhering strictly to the military code. A junior officer becomes suspicious on seeing ambulance men carry into Cavell’s Institute a figure on a stretcher who is entirely swathed in blankets. He rings the doorbell and being let in by a nurse, walks straight in on Cavell tending to the head wounds of a British airman. She looks up, appalled, knowing that she’s been rumbled. He looks equally appalled. He pulls back the blanket, revealing the Royal Flying Corps badge on the patient’s uniform. There is no doubt that he realizes what is going on. But after a few electric seconds, he clicks his heels at the nurse and retreats from the room. A close up shows Cavell watching his movement with her eyes, and a hand gesture follows his route as he leaves the frame, in a tracing of relief. Outside the door he pauses again, looking back as though considering a change of mind. But he relents again, and moves to the outer door, checking to see the coast is clear before slipping away – his admission of humanity has made him, too, move like a fugitive.

This junior officer doesn’t re-appear in the story, so the scene could be cut out of the Belgian print without much violence to the rest of the film (although a stray close up of him hesitating at the door as he watches the ambulance drive off does survive). He does have a counterpart though – a figure who although he appears in the British print, has a much greater role in the Belgian print and who similarly represents the humanity of German individuals who dare to attempt at least to bend the unbending codes of discipline and law. This figure is the German diplomat von Wacken [von Weser in the novelization], the Secretary to the German Governer General of occupied Belgium) who works alongside the American diplomats on behalf of Cavell.

While the British version emphasizes Cavell’s religious conviction, and her moments of reflection and prayer in her cell during the interval between her trial and her execution, the Belgian version places much more emphasis on the diplomatic efforts to persuade [the military authorities] to commute her sentence. Both versions cut between these two elements, but the amount of screen time given to each is different. I’ve already mentioned the section which quotes ‘Abide with Me’ – present in the British and absent in the Belgian version. The image of Cavell alone in her cell praying or reading her bible under the surveillance of an apparently kindly gaoler is returned to repeatedly. She asks for an English pastor to attend her at the end. In discussion with him she makes the series of remarks which came to exemplify her moral sanctity: ‘I have no fear or shrinking; I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me’, ‘I thank God for this ten weeks of quiet before the end. Life has always been hurried and full of difficulty… This time of rest has been a great mercy’, and of course ‘Patriotism is not enough, I have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone’.

Dawn Gas JetIn these scenes, built around the idea of personal reflection, Cavell is shown in a spacious but Spartan cell. She has a bed, ordinary wooden chair and a small desk. The film repeatedly shows her against the plain whitewashed wall, the lighting flattened and washed out apart from the occasional appearance of the shadow of a window thrown upon the plain wall from the other side of the room (a visual motif which occurs throughout the film in the spaces associated with Cavell). This is the visual antithesis of the warm shadowy firelight scenes I’ve described above, and as though to emphasize this contrast, there is a stark gas pipe jutting out from the wall, supplying a single naked fan of gas-jet lighting. The light seems redundant – it doesn’t illuminate the space, which is already flooded with flat ambient light. In its mocking imitation of a fireside, it serves to make the cell, and Cavell’s experience of waiting for death all the more comfortless.

The British version intercuts these scenes with [check] a brief sequence showing Brand Whitlock, the American minister to Belgium dictating a final letter from his sick bed pleading for a commutation of the sentence. His secretary, Gibson receives a dusty answer from von Bissing (the Governer General of occupied Belgium), who tells him [??]. This brief sequence is greatly extended in the Belgian version. Immediately the death sentence is passed by the Court Martial, Baron von Wacken in the black frock coat of the diplomat, is seen remonstrating with Colonel von Sauberzweig [Erdhardt in the novel] in the stiff uniform of the soldier. von Wacken, tries to persuade von Sauberzweig to see the wider picture, ‘Do you think about how responsible Germany is for executing this woman? The American legation uses all its influence to save her. You cannot remain deaf to her call!’ He stands over the seated von Sauberzweig, emphasizing his words with his hands, but the military man, sitting portly at his desk, is immovable – his concern is merely with the rule of law: ‘I am not a diplomat’ he reminds the secretary, ‘I am a soldier. She confessed. She is guilty. I will execute the sentence.’ Stolidly, he sets down his pen having signed the order, as von Wacken glances towards the camera in a gesture of exasperation.

The contrast between the two men, made evident here in the costuming and blocking of the scene, is further emphasized in the scenes that follow. The sequence showing Brand Whitlock dictating the final appeal for clemency from his sick bed is intercut in the Belgian print, with a shot of von Wacken sitting by his fireside in deep thought eventually he stands, still staring into the fire, before restlessly pacing to the window. The juxtaposition of the shots suggests that just as Whitlock and Gibson are doing their utmost to find a solution to the diplomatic problem by writing to von Bissing, so von Wacken (von Bissing’s secretary) is also wracking his brains to think of a way to unbend the brutal military protocol of his superiors. The key motif of the fireplace is

DAWN Fireplace

lit to emphasize the qualities of domesticity and contemplation that I have identified above. The only light bathing the scene comes from the fire – the shadows fall away behind him, and it is evident from a glimpse of the window in the background that outside there is only twilight. Despite the grandure of the room suggesting a diplomatic office rather than a domestic interior, this firelight scene gives von Wacken a moral authority which is not accorded his military superiors. Like Brand Whitlock in the sheets and pyjamas of his sickbed – the fireside suggests a humanity and domesticity which is denied the uniforms and palatial offices of the other German authority figures. The problem of filming fire in this rather lustrous scene is resolved in a similar way to that of Nurse and Martyr – the cavernous fireplace emits light from its unseen depths. Unlike in the earlier film though, we do see the fire itself – or rather we see smoke rising from the cradle of coals, and a suggestion of flames which perhaps can’t register with the powerful lamps shining through them to create the effect of the hearthside glow. The scene manages to convey both the humanizing contemplative qualities of the fireside, and the perhaps chilly formality of the room – von Wacken doesn’t seem to be in any danger of getting warm enough to take off his jacket. He couldn’t relax so far anyway, because his diplomatic dilemma remains unresolved.

When return to von Wacken a little bit later, he is still staring into the fire trying to devise a solution. Brand Whitlock’s secretary Gibson has presented his appeal to von Bissing, and the Governor has offered a typically unbending response: “Mr Gibson, I cannot help you. I am in charge of the administration of this territory. Public order requires the execution of all sentences!” It is no surprise to find that there are no cosy fireplaces in evidence in von Bissing’s palatial apartments! At this point the film cuts back to Cavell in her cell, making her famous remark that “Patriotism is not enough – I must have no hatred or bitterness for any one”. When we return to the scene with von Bissing, he seems to have softened, pointing out to Gibson that in any case, the authority to grant a pardon does not rest with him – it is in the sole gift of the military governor, von Sauberzweig. Gibson senses hope – “Can I intercede with von Wacken?” Given the assent, he immediately picks up the telephone. And von Wacken, in the answering shot of the phone ringing in his room, is discovered still gazing into the fireplace.

DAWN TheatreThe two secretaries, a German and American united in their desire to save Cavell, resolve to visit von Sauberzweig to try ‘an extreme step’. Again, the contrast between the desperate humanitarian work of the diplomat and his unbending superior’s complacency is emphasized. While von Wacken has been staring at the fire, unable to relax but wracking his brains for a solution, the man who holds that solution in his gift has forgotten all about such matters, and taken himself off to the theatre. Von Wacken discovers him in a box, ogling the chorus girls on stage. The shot depicting their discussion brilliantly insists on this contrast throughout, via deep space staging. The men stand in the theatre corridor, on either side of the open door leading into the box. In the space between them, we can see all the way through onto the stage, where the dancing girl continues her performance, her movement a continual distraction, drawing the eye and the attention away from the discussion at hand. At the performance in Pordenone, Stephen Horne perfectly underlined this visual idea by continuing to play frivolous dance music, somewhat muted, throughout the scene. Unsurprisingly, von Sauberzweig is unbending. “Enough” he says, “… any pity would be weakness… Necessity makes the law! The execution will take place.” The shot offers a visual indictment of his ability to compartmentalize his humanity, which is eloquent enough.[3]

None of these scenes involving von Wacken appear in the British print of the film, where the diplomatic activity is restricted to Brand Whitlock and his secretary Gibson’s appeal to von Bissing. Why were they cut out, and why were they deemed more acceptable for the Belgian print? The theatre scene certainly offers a depiction of German attitudes to humanity which might have raised objections from the German embassy, although the brief sequences showing von Wacken by the fireside, like the scene of the junior officer turning a blind eye to Cavell’s assistance of the airman in the British print does seem to soften the more general depiction of German ‘efficiency’. Possibly Wilcox calculated that British audiences were less interested in diplomatic efforts by German characters, preferring instead to concentrate on the pathos of Cavell awaiting execution, while Continental audiences might appreciate a narrative which at least showed a variety of positions being debated. It remains the case that the Belgian print shows at least two Germans – von Wacken and Rammler working against and refusing the execution, while the British print shows none, although it has the compensation of the humane German junior officer in the earlier scene. But the Belgian print also arguably also shows two examples of German inhumanity – the callous disregard of von Sauberzweig in the theatre scene, and the brutality of the commanding officer of the firing squad in executing Rammler on the spot…

The British print of Dawn is available on the BFI Player here.

The surviving fragment of Nurse and Martyr is available on the BFI Player here.



[1] J. Edward Martin, ‘Paul Peel’s “After the Bath”’ in Journal of Canadian Art History, Vol 4, No. 1 (Spring 1977) pp. 73-78, p. 75.

[2] James C. Robertson, ‘Dawn (1928): Edith Cavell and Anglo-German Relations’ in The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 4:1 (1984), pp. 14-28.

[3] Note passage in book (208-214) which deals extensively with this scene is all written from inside von Erdhardt [von Sauberzweig]’s head – it’s all from his point of view. And it literally (and almost admiringly) describes his ability and practice of compartmentalizing his life so that work concerns do not overshadow his leisure time. It is written in such a way as to actually humanize him rather than otherwise – he is presented as hard and ruthless at work, but a rather jovial buffoonish fellow in his leisure time. Nevertheless, the conversation with von Wacken disturbs this ability – mixing the two in the same way that the deep staging shot described here brilliantly does (quote passage from p. 214). Question of why the book (does it come before or after the film? The first title of the British print says it is ‘Reginald Berkeley’s DAWN’ – is it from a play source?) works so hard to humanize him when the film throws him to the wolves in favour of von Wacken (who doesn’t get his fireplace scene in the book). The passage runs thus:

The General was exceedingly put out. Confound the fellow. Bringing up these tiresome official questions out of office hours. The thing had been settled. There was no more to be said. What earthly justification could there be fore persecuting a man who was merely doing his duty, and as it was an unpleasant duty, the less reason to remind him about it. Did they suppose it was a pleasure to him to order a woman to be shot? As for the humanity of the thing, the politicians had sanctioned the sinking of the Lucitania, and did they suppose no women and children went down? Innocent women, harmless children, who had not the remostest connection with the war; but they had justified it on a plea of necessity. Very good, in that case why all this fuss about the executionn of one woman, a self-confessed offender, who had not only defied the authorities, and broken the rules of the Red Cross, but had provided a dangerous example that other people would be only too ready to follow, unless deterred by the fear of merciless punishment? On two grounds the decision was unimpeachable. The woman had merited death, and furthermore it was neccessary to strike terror. It was grossly inconsiderate to reopen the matter. All you could expect from a self-sufficient political humbug like von Weser. It made him furious to be persecuted in this manner. Outrageous. He would speak to the Governor-General. He would really make the strongest protest… Patience, patience. This was a breach of the system. He was not there to agitate his mind with problems of this character, and stale his faculties for next day’s work. Office hours were over until to-morrow morning. Relaxation. He was there to relax his mind. He settled down in his chair to follow the performance. The comedian had finished his mummery in a burst of applause, and at last it was again the turn of the dancer. So. Yes. Very attractive. A lithe, shapely body, moving in slow, sinuous rhythm, Oriental, neo-classical, poetry of movement… Now if you took that girl and put her up with a firing party at five paces distant… or supposing you had a ballet of nurses, walking composedly to the place of execution… He grapple fiercely with his rebellious imagination. The thing was decided, it was settled, there was no going back on it. It had to be… Odd, how like a firing party was that group of men drawn up in uniform in the patriotic chorus that borught the entertainment to an end. Von Erhardt shook himself angrily as he left his box. Decidedly, his evening at the theatre had been an unmitigated failure.

Reginald Berkeley, Dawn (London: The London Book Co. Ltd. 1928[?]), pp.212-214.

One thought on “Nurse Edith Cavell and Fireplaces

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s