In front of a wall of masks a man holds one up, facing it in profile.

Plastic Reconstruction of the Face, 1918

One hundred years ago, in August 1914, the powers of Europe embarked upon a calamitous war which resulted in the death, mutilation, and suffering of millions. This silent motion picture fragment from the collection of the National Library of Medicine documents the work of a small workshop in Paris where men with terribly disfiguring facial wounds were fitted with masks.

Essay by Zoe Beloff

Originally published in Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine, 2011 and also available on Medical Movies on the Web.

A tiny, black-robed woman scurries down a deserted street and ducks into an alley overgrown with ivy. The black-and-white film flickers, as though what is left of the emulsion might crumble away at any moment. The alleyway dissolves; we find ourselves in an artist’s studio. The walls are lined with plaster heads. Are these death masks, works of art, or a gallery of lost souls?

Abruptly a young soldier standing in the foreground removes his chin to reveal a scarred hollow where his jaw once was. He reattaches the chin. A woman in military uniform appraises the fit. She is Anna Coleman Ladd (1878–1939), an American sculptor and former socialite. This is the Studio for Portrait Masks, where, as the soldiers put it, you come to get a “tin face.” A bearded sculptor holds up the cast of a head. As he turns it, the profile switches from classical elegance to terrible deformity. He is Francis Derwent Wood (1871–1926), an artist who pioneered the use of masks to hide the destroyed faces of the men who fought in World War I.

In front of a wall covered in masks a sculpted ear is suspended on wires.The film shows Ladd dipping a sculpted ear into a chemical solution and adjusting the current. The ear, plated with copper, will then be attached to a soldier. To make the attachment, a cast was made of his disfigured features (after his wounds had healed), a suffocating ordeal. The sculptor used the cast to re-create the man’s missing parts and prewar appearance. Details such as eyebrows or mustaches were made from real hair or slivers of tinfoil and glued on. It was difficult to paint masks to convincingly resemble flesh, despite the skill that went into their creation. Children were known to flee in terror at the sight of a masked veteran.

Soldiers are routinely maimed in war, but trench warfare dramatically increased facial injury. These galvanized copper masks offered a way to “face” the world. The psychological toll was enormous. Some men went on to become cinema projectionists, hiding from the world in the darkness of the projection booth. It would surely have been disturbing for them to view again and again films of profound paranoia, centered on the face and shifting identities, in contemporary films such as Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas (1913–14), in which Paris is terrorized by a criminal mastermind who with the help of fake beards or facial prosthesis could become any- and everyone, or Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse (1922), another master of disguise.

In front of a wall covered in masks a woman paints a mask worn by a man.Plastic Reconstruction inverts the ideals of Western art. The plaster casts of classical Greek sculpture that adorned the nineteenth-century sculptor’s studio are replaced by casts that denote the wreckage of those ideals of beauty and symmetry. We see a young woman painting the tip of a soldier’s nose. She appears to be flirting with the handsome mustachioed officer, shown in profile. The image recalls The Corinthian Maid (1782–84), a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, based on a story by Pliny, in which a Grecian girl traces the silhouette of her departing lover on the wall, substituting an image for the man she is about to lose. Plastic Reconstruction, in contrast, looks to a mythic future where man is no longer quite human. Beyond L. Frank Baum’s Tin Man, these soldiers of flesh and metal, hidden behind reproductions of themselves, anticipate the androids and cyborgs that would populate science fiction yet to come.

After the war people stopped paying attention. The war wounded became just another part of the human landscape. The last image in Plastic Reconstruction is of a soldier who literally takes off his face. He turns directly to the camera, fixes us with his one good eye, and the film abruptly ends. We are left with an indelible afterimage: a “faceless” man.

This is one of a series of occasional posts highlighting collections that document medical activities during the Great War, which lasted from August 1914 to November 1918.

Zoe Beloff grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland and now lives in New York City. Her artwork has been featured in the Whitney Museum of American Art, Site Santa Fe, MHKA Museum (Antwerp), and Pompidou Centre (Paris). Beloff works with a wide range of media including film, projection performance, installation and drawing. She considers herself a medium, an interface between the living and the dead, the real and the imaginary. Her most recent project is The Days of the Commune. She is a Professor in the Departments of Media Studies and Art at Queens College CUNY.

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