Annihilation at Tannenberg

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 141st installment in the series.

August 26-30, 1914: Annihilation at Tannenberg

The saying “victory has many fathers” is especially true when it comes to the Battle of Tannenberg. One of the greatest triumphs in history—which saw the invading Russian Second Army totally destroyed by the German Eighth Army in East Prussia—Tannenberg was the unlikely offspring of successive commanders, aided, oddly enough, by miscommunication and downright disobedience on the German side.

Russians Rush Into Action

Like the other Great Powers, Russia’s general staff had drawn up elaborate plans for mobilization and opening moves in the case of war. One of the main goals was an immediate invasion of East Prussia, in order to keep Russia’s promise to its ally France. Both knew Germany would probably throw most of its forces against France when war broke out, assuming that Russia would take about six weeks to mobilize. By invading East Prussia much sooner than that—ideally within two weeks of mobilization—the Russians hoped to force the Germans to withdraw troops from the attack on France in order to defend the Fatherland.

Following the decision to mobilize against Germany and Austria-Hungary on July 30, 1914, the Russians kept their promise to France by rushing forces into the field before mobilization was complete, with the Russian First Army under Paul Rennenkampf (192,000 men) invading East Prussia from the east, and the Second Army under Alexander Samsonov (230,000) invading from the south. The armies were supposed to converge on the German Eight Army (150,000) under Maximilian von Prittwitz to complete a classic encirclement; however there were some obstacles (literally) in the form of East Prussia’s patchwork of lakes, which made it hard to coordinate the movements of the Russian armies, while poor communications and logistical issues delayed Samsonov’s advance even more.

After crossing into Germany on August 12, Rennenkampf’s First Army suffered a minor defeat in the Battle of Stallupönen at the hands of Hermann von François, a headstrong corps commander in the German Eighth Army with a habit of disobeying orders, on August 17. Encouraged by François’ modest victory, Prittwitz decided to abandon his defensive stance and advance east against the Russian First Army, while the Russian Second Army was still struggling to move up from the south. However, the German attack was rebuffed at the Battle of Gumbinnen on August 20, leaving First Army in control of the field.

Alarmed by this reverse and the plodding advance of Samsonov’s Second Army, which (finally) threatened to encircle Eighth Army, Prittwitz decided to retreat to the Vistula River, sacrificing East Prussia to defend the route to Berlin. But German chief of the general staff Moltke was unwilling to give up the Prussian heartland so easily and fired Prittwitz, handing command of the Eighth Army to Paul von Hindenburg, an older general called out of retirement, advised by a young, dynamic chief of staff, Erich Ludendorff. Moltke also transferred one regular and one reserve army corps from the Western Front to East Prussia, further weakening the German right wing in Belgium and northern France (just as the Allies hoped).

As Hindenburg and Ludendorff hurried to East Prussia, Prittwitz’s talented deputy chief of operations, Colonel Max Hoffman, was devising a daring new plan. Eighth Army would use East Prussian railroads to suddenly shift François’s I Corps south and catch the Russian Second Army unprepared. To gain time XX Corps under Friedrich von Scholtz, currently the furthest south, would hold off the Second Army as long as possible.

This plan was very risky, since it left Eighth Army’s flank open to attack by the Russian First Army—but, luckily for the Germans, Rennenkampf showed no sense of urgency about following up the victory at Gumbinnen, and First Army advanced at a decidedly sedate pace. His delay provided a crucial window of opportunity for Hoffman’s plan, which was already in motion when Hindenburg and Ludendorff took over command of Eighth Army on August 23.

In fact, the new commanders had been contemplating a similar move, but they now faced huge logistical challenges, working to hurry the artillery for François’ I Corps south by rail, while Scholtz’s XX Corps staged a fierce fighting retreat against forward elements of Second Army, throwing the Russians back at Orlau-Frankenau on August 24. Then on the evening of August 24 the Germans had a stroke of luck, intercepting uncoded radio messages sent by the Russian Second Army headquarters, which gave away its location and direction of march. With this vital information in hand, Hindenburg and Ludendorff now made the crucial decision to order XVII Corps under August von Mackensen and I Reserve Division under Otto von Below to move south by forced marches to complete the encirclement.

The following day Hindenburg and Ludendorff ordered François, whose I Corps was now arriving west of the Russians, to attack—but the normally bellicose commander flatly refused because his artillery was still in transit. Furious at this open insubordination and worried by (exaggerated) reports that the Russian First Army was approaching from the north, the Eighth Army leaders paid a personal visit to François’ headquarters and forced him to issue the orders under their direct supervision. However François, stubborn as ever, found ways to put off their implementation until his artillery finally arrived.

As it turned out, François was probably right: delaying the attack created more time for Mackensen’s XVII Corps and Below’s I Reserve Corps to march south and defeat the Russian VI Corps on August 26, while Scholtz’s XX Corps brushed aside a division from the Russian XXIII Corps and kept the XIII and XV Corps busy in the center. After a fierce daylong battle the VI Corps was in a headlong, disorderly retreat towards the Russian border, leaving Samsonov’s right flank vulnerable and thus opening the way for encirclement. Meanwhile the Russian troops were hungry and demoralized after three days of marching with no food, due to supply failures resulting from the rushed deployment.

On the evening of August 26, with I Corps’ artillery in hand at last, François ordered an attack on the Russian I Corps guarding Samsonov’s left flank the next day, opening with a devastating “hurricane” bombardment at 4am. John Morse, an Englishman serving in the Russian Army, described the artillery duel in this area:

The air, the ground, everywhere and everything, seemed to be alive with bursting shells… Generally the sound of it was a continuous roar. The heavens were lit up by the reflections of discharged guns and exploding shells, and the pandemonium was dominated by a shrieking sound… [from] the rush of projectiles through the air.”

In terms of casualties, Morse noted, “Of course the loss of life was very great. I can only say the ground was heaped with dead and dying.”

As François’ I Corps pushed the Russians back on August 27, Scholtz’s XX Corps was locked in a ferocious battle with the Russian center, still attacking, while Mackensen’s XVII Corps and Below’s I Reserve Corps closed in from the northeast, officers urging exhausted troops towards the thunder of great guns to the south.

By the evening of August 27, the flanks of the Russian Second Army were in complete disarray, falling back towards the frontier all along the line. Alfred Knox, the official British military observer attached to Second Army, described the chaos unfolding just behind the front, on the Russian side of the border:

A long convey of wounded has entered the town… Losses, according to all accounts, have been dreadful, and chiefly from artillery fire, the number of German guns exceeding the Russian. A plucky sister [nun] arrived from Soldau with a cartload of wounded. She said there had been a panic among the transport and the drivers had run away, leaving the wounded… She said that the artillery fire of the Germans was awful.

And things were about to get much, much worse: Unbeknownst to the Russian troops streaming southward, by this time François’ I Corps had sent the Russian I Corps reeling back into Poland and thereby succeeded in turning Second Army’s left flank. On August 28 François followed up with a sweeping attack to the east—once again disregarding Ludendorff’s explicit orders—cutting Second Army’s line of retreat into Russian Poland and completing the encirclement.

The disaster was total: As the remnants of the Russian I and VI Corps dragged themselves to safety in Russian Poland, from August 28 to 30 the rest of Second Army was surrounded and annihilated. The scale of the defeat was breathtaking, as the Russians suffered around 30,000 killed and missing, 50,000 wounded, and 90,000 taken prisoners (below, Russian soldiers surrender) for a total of 170,000 casualties, versus just 14,000 casualties in all categories for the Germans. Along with the horrible human toll, another casualty of Tannenberg was the legend of the “Russian steamroller,” which would flatten all opposition in its irresistible progress to Berlin. Germany was safe, at least for now.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff had scored a victory that surpassed all their hopes, but in truth it was due just as much to Russian failings as German skill. Knox, the British observer, summed up the deficiencies:

The whole machine was inferior to the German machine. There was no proper co-operation between corps commanders. The men were worried by orders and counter-orders. The morale of all ranks was much affected by the number of the enemy’s heavy guns … [The generals] forgot the wonderful capacity of the East Prussian railway system. They sent the 2nd Army forward without field bakeries, imagining, if they thought of the soldiers’ stomachs at all, that a large army could be fed in a region devoid of surplus supplies.

Knox also recorded a firsthand account of the fittingly tragic denouement for Second Army’s commander, General Alexander Samsonov, who threw caution to the wind and rode to the frontline as the fortunes of war turned against him, then found himself cut off in the wholesale retreat:

All the night of the 29th-30th they stumbled through the woods… moving hand in hand to avoid losing one another in the darkness. Samsonov said repeatedly that the disgrace of such a defeat was more than he could bear. “The Emperor trusted me. How can I face him after such a disaster?” He went aside and his staff heard a shot. They searched for his body without success, but all were convinced that he shot himself.

Desperate Fight at Le Cateau

As the Russian Second Army was obliterated on the Eastern Front, on the Western Front the terrible Great Retreat continued, with the French and British armies falling back before the onrushing Germans following the battles at Charleroi and Mons, slowing them where they could with rearguard actions. On August 26, the British II Corps commander General Horace Smith-Dorrien disregarded an order from Field Marshal John French (apparently a frequent occurrence with headstrong commanders in the early days of the war) and decided to make a stand at Le Cateau, about 100 miles northeast of Paris.

The British II Corps faced three divisions from the German First Army under Alexander von Kluck. After an opening artillery barrage, the German infantry advanced in close formation over open ground towards the British lines, as at Mons, and with similarly bloody results, as massed rifle fire and shrapnel shells cut swathes in the attacking units. A British officer, Arthur Corbett-Smith, described the carnage:

A blue-grey mass of enemy infantry appears advancing with steady, swinging pace. At 500 yards or a trifle more one of your regiments opens rapid fire on them. You can actually see the lanes in the German ranks ploughed through by the British rifle-fire. Still they advance, for the lanes are filled almost immediately. Nearer and nearer, until that regiment which began the advance has almost ceased to exist. The remnant breaks and scatters in confusion, and as they break away another new regiment is disclosed behind them. Such is the method of the German massed attack, overwhelming by sheer numbers.

Philip Gibbs, a British war correspondent, quoted an ordinary “Tommy” (British soldier) with a similar, if more succinct view: “We kill ‘em and kill ‘em, and still they come on. They seem to have an endless line of fresh men. Directly we check ‘em in one attack a fresh attack develops. It's impossible to hold up such a mass of men. Can't be done, nohow!”

As casualties mounted, the Germans attempted to outflank the British from the west but were rebuffed by the newly formed French Sixth Army under General Michel-Joseph Maunoury, hastily created by chief of the general staff Joffre with troops from the Army of Lorraine. Nonetheless by mid-afternoon the German frontal assault was beginning to wear the British down and Smith-Dorrien, seeing himself hopelessly outnumbered and with a breakthrough imminent, organized an orderly retreat to the south, covered from the west by French horse artillery. The British had suffered 7812 casualties, including around 2500 taken prisoner, while 5000 Germans lay dead; perhaps more importantly, Le Cateau helped delay the German advance on Paris.

After the battle the Great Retreat resumed, pushing French and British troops to the limit of their endurance. Gibbs, attached to a cavalry unit, recalled:

For twenty miles our cavalry urged on their tired horses through the night, and along the sides of the roads came a struggling mass of automobiles, motor-cycles, and motor-wagons, carrying engineers, telegraphists and men of the Army Service Corps. Ambulances crammed with wounded who had been picked up hurriedly from the churches and barns which had been used as hospitals, joined the stampede… Many who were wounded as they tramped through woods splintered by bursting shells and ripped with bullets, bandaged themselves as best they could and limped on, or were carried by loyal comrades who would not leave a pal in the lurch.

The retreat was made even more difficult by huge columns of refugees, mostly peasants and villagers fleeing Belgium and northern France. A British Corporal, Bernard Denmore, recalled:

The roads were in a terrible state, the heat was terrific, there seemed to be very little order about anything, and mixed up with us and wandering all about over the road were refugees, with all sorts of conveyances—prams, trucks, wheelbarrows, and tiny little carts drawn by dogs. They were piled up, with what looked like beds and bedding, and all of them asked us for food, which we could not give them, as we had none ourselves.

However there was a silver lining, as the journey was equally onerous for the pursuing Germans. John Ayscough, a chaplain with the British Expeditionary Force, wrote his mother: “A German officer taken prisoner yesterday say that their men had had nothing to eat for four days, and had to be driven to fight at the point of the bayonet.”

As the enemy closed in on Paris, the Allies began clearing out of vulnerable positions. On August 28 the British commander, Field Marshal French, ordered the evacuation of the British forward base at Amiens, followed the next day by the main supply base at Le Havre and the strategic channel port of Boulogne; the new British base would be at distant St. Nazaire on the Bay of Biscay. Arthur Anderson Martin, a surgeon serving with the BEF, happened to be present at Le Havre, where he witnessed the chaotic scene at the harbor, involving all the trappings of a modern army:

Everyone was shouting and cursing; contradictory orders were given… The stage between the ship and the big sheds was packed with all sorts of goods in inextricable confusion. Here were bales of hospital blankets dumped on kegs of butter, there boxes of biscuits lying packed in a corner, with a forgotten hose-pipe playing water on them. Inside the sheds were machine-guns, heavy field pieces, ammunition, some aeroplanes, crowds of ambulance waggons, London buses, heavy transport waggons, kitchens, beds, tents for a general hospital, stacks of rifles, bales of straw, mountainous bags of oats, flour, beef, potatoes, crates of bully beef, telephones and telegraphs, water carts, field kitchens, unending rolls of barbed wire, shovels, picks, and so on.

Meanwhile as August drew to a close the chief of the French general staff, Joseph Joffre, decided to relocate his headquarters from Vitry-le-François, located on the Marne River about 60 miles east of Paris, to Bar-sur-Aube, about 30 miles further south, and the military governor of Paris, General Joseph Gallieni, advised the government that the capital itself was no longer safe. Across the channel, on August 30, The Times published a brutally honest account by Arthur Moore, later known as the “Amiens Dispatch,” giving the British public its first unvarnished view of the war to date; farsighted observers now understood that Britain was in for a protracted conflict that would require all her strength.

But unknown to even the highest authorities, the tide was already turning in the Allies’ favor. On the evening of August 30, von Kluck, commanding First Army on the German right, decided to shift his direction of march from due south towards the southeast, to pursue the retreating British. However this would open his fight flank to attack by the new French Sixth Army under Maunoury, drawing on troops scraped together by Gallieni from the garrisons in Paris. Meanwhile Joffre also created a new special army detachment under Ferdinand Foch, one of the most aggressive French generals, with troops from the Third and Fourth Armies.

The stage was set for the Miracle on the Marne.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Warner Bros.
19 Shadowy Facts About Tim Burton's Batman
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Superhero movies are bigger than they’ve ever been before, but we arguably wouldn’t be here at all without 1989’s Batman. Produced at a time before comic book movies were considered big business, Tim Burton’s dark look at a superhero then best known for a goofy TV show is a pop culture landmark, and the story of how it was made is almost as interesting as the film itself. So, to celebrate Batman—which was released on this day in 1989—here are 19 facts about how it came to the screen.

1. AN EARLY MOVIE IDEA RELIED ON THE CAMPINESS OF THE CHARACTER.

As development of a Batman movie began, studio executives were still very tied to the campiness embodied by the Batman television series of the 1960s. According to executive producer Michael Uslan, when he first began attempting to get the rights to make a film, he was told that the only studio who’d expressed interest was CBS, and only if they could do a Batman In Outer Space film.

2. IT TOOK 10 YEARS TO MAKE.

Uslan lobbied hard for the rights to Batman, and finally landed them in 1979. At that point, the fight to convince a studio to make the film ensued, and everyone from Columbia Pictures to Universal Pictures turned it down. When Warner Bros. finally agreed to back the film, the issue of developing the right script had to be settled, and that took even more time. In 1989, after years of battling, Batman was finally released, and Uslan has been involved in some form in every Batman film since.

3. AN EARLY SCRIPT FEATURED BOTH THE PENGUIN AND ROBIN.

When Uslan finally got the chance to develop the film, he drafted legendary screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who had been a consultant on Superman, to write the script. The Mankiewicz script included The Joker, corrupt politician Rupert Thorne, a much greater focus on Bruce Wayne’s origin story, The Penguin, and the arrival of Robin late in the film. The script was ultimately scrapped, but you can see certain elements of it in Batman Returns.

4. TIM BURTON WASN’T THE FIRST POTENTIAL DIRECTOR.

Though Warner Bros. ultimately chose Tim Burton to helm Batman, over the course of the film’s development a number of other choices emerged. At various points on the road to Batman, everyone from Gremlins director Joe Dante to Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman was in line for the gig.

5. MANY STARS OF THE TIME WERE CONSIDERED FOR BATMAN.

The casting process for Batman was a long one, and involved a number of major stars of the day. Among the contenders for the title role were Mel Gibson, Bill Murray (yes, really), Kevin Costner, Willem Dafoe, Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, Ray Liotta, and Pierce Brosnan, who later regretted turning down the role.

6. TIM BURTON HAD TO FIGHT TO CAST MICHAEL KEATON.

At the time, Michael Keaton was best known for his comedic roles in films like Mr. Mom and Night Shift, so the thought of casting him as a vigilante of the night seemed odd to many. Michael Uslan remembers thinking a prank was being played on him when he heard Keaton’s name pop up. Burton, who’d already worked with Keaton on Beetlejuice, was convinced that Keaton was right for the role, not just because he could portray the obsessive nature of the character, but because he also felt that Keaton was the kind of actor who would need to dress up as a bat in order to scare criminals, while a typical action star would just garner “unintentional laughs” in the suit. Burton ultimately won the argument, and Keaton got an iconic role for two films.

7. JACK NICHOLSON WAS THE FIRST CHOICE FOR THE JOKER, BUT HE WASN’T THE ONLY CHOICE.

From the beginning, Uslan concluded that Jack Nicholson was the perfect choice to play The Joker, and was “walking on air” when the production finally cast him. He certainly wasn’t the only actor considered, though. Among Burton’s considerations were Willem Dafoe, James Woods, Brad Dourif, David Bowie, and Robin Williams (who really wanted the part).

8. TIM BURTON WON JACK NICHOLSON OVER WITH HORSEBACK RIDING.

When Nicholson was asked to discuss playing The Joker, he invited Burton and producer Peter Guber to visit him in Aspen for some horseback riding. When Burton learned that was what they’d be doing, he told Guber “I don’t ride,” to which Guber replied “You do today!” So, a “terrified” Burton got on a horse and rode alongside Nicholson, and the star ultimately agreed to play the Clown Prince of Crime.

9. EDDIE MURPHY WAS ONCE CONSIDERED TO PLAY ROBIN.

Though the character of Robin was ultimately scrapped because it simply didn’t feel like there was room for him in the film, he did appear in early drafts of the script, and at one point producers considered casting Eddie Murphy—who, you must remember, was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1980s—for the role. 

10. SEAN YOUNG WAS THE ORIGINAL VICKI VALE.

Burton initially cast Blade Runner star Sean Young as acclaimed photographer Vicki Vale, who would become Bruce Wayne’s love interest. Young was part of the pre-production process on Batman for several weeks until, while practicing horseback riding for a scene that was ultimately cut, she fell from her horse and was seriously injured. With just a week to go until shooting, producers had to act fast to find a replacement, and decided on Kim Basinger, who essentially joined the production overnight.

11. TIM BURTON WASN’T OFFICIALLY HIRED UNTIL BEETLEJUICE BECAME A HIT.

Though he was basically already a part of the production, Burton wasn’t officially the director of Batman right away. Warner Bros. showed interest in him working on the film after the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but according to Burton they only officially hired him after the first weekend grosses for Beetlejuice came in.

“They were just waiting to see how Beetlejuice did,” Burton said. “They didn’t want to give me that movie unless Beetlejuice was going to be okay. They wouldn’t say that, but that was really the way it was.”

12. DANNY ELFMAN THOUGHT HE WAS GOING TO BE FIRED UNTIL HE PLAYED THE MAIN THEME.

Danny Elfman is now considered one of our great movie composers, but at the time Batman was released he didn’t have any blockbuster credits to his name. He recalls meeting with Burton (with whom he had worked on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) and producer Jon Peters to go over some of the music he’d already written for the film, and feeling “a lot of skepticism” over whether he should be the composer for Batman. It wasn’t until Burton said “Play the march,” and Elfman went into what would become the opening credits theme for the film, that he won Peters over.

“Jon jumped out of his chair, really just almost started dancing around the room,” Elfman said.

13. THE JOKER WASN’T ALWAYS GOING TO KILL BATMAN’S PARENTS.

In the final film, The Joker (then named Jack Napier) is revealed to be the gangster who guns down Bruce Wayne’s parents in the streets of Gotham City. It’s a twist that some comic book fans still dislike, and according to screenwriter Sam Hamm, it definitely wasn’t his fault.

“That was something that Tim had wanted from early on, and I had a bunch of arguments with him and wound up talking him out of it for as long as I was on the script. But, once the script went into production, there was a writer’s strike underway, and so I wasn’t able to be with the production as it was shooting over in London, and they brought in other people.”

Hamm also emphasizes that it was also not his idea to show Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave.

14. THE CLIMACTIC SCENE WAS WRITTEN MIDWAY THROUGH SHOOTING.

Though much of the film is still derived from Hamm’s script, rewrites continued to happen during shooting, and one of them involved the final confrontation between Batman and The Joker in a Gotham City clock tower. According to co-star Robert Wuhl, the climax was inspired by Jack Nicholson and Jon Peters, who went to see a production of The Phantom of the Opera midway through filming and watched as the Phantom made his final stand in a tower. Together, they somehow determined that a final fight in the tower was what Batman needed.

“The next day, they started writing that scene … the whole ending in the tower,” Wuhl said.

15. MICHAEL KEATON’S BATMAN MOVEMENTS WERE INSPIRED BY THE RESTRICTIONS OF THE COSTUME.

Batman fans still love to make jokes about the original costume, and Michael Keaton’s inability to turn his head (there’s even a dig at that in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight), but the restrictions of the costume actually inspired how Keaton performed as the Dark Knight. In 2014, Keaton revealed that his performance as Batman was heavily influenced by a moment when, while trying to actually turn his head in the suit, he ended up ripping it.

“It really came out of the first time I had to react to something, and this thing was stuck to my face and somebody says something to Batman and I go like this [turning his head] and the whole thing goes, [rriipp]! There was a big f***ing hole over here,” he said. “So I go, well, I've got to get around that, because we've got to shoot this son of a bitch, so I go, 'You know what, Tim [Burton]? He moves like this [like a statue]!’”

“I'm feeling really scared, and then it hit me—I thought, 'Oh, this is perfect! This is perfect.' I mean, this is, like, designed for this kind of really unusual dude, the Bruce Wayne guy, the guy who has this other personality that's really dark and really alone, and really kind of depressed. This is it.”

16. GOTHAM CITY WAS REAL, AND IT WAS EXPENSIVE.

Production designer Anton Furst put a lot of work into the incredibly influential designs for the film’s version of Gotham City, and the production was committed to making them pay off. The production ultimately spent more than $5 million to transform the backlot of London’s Pinewood Studios into Gotham City, and you can see the dedication to practical effects work in the final film.

17. PRINCE WAS PART OF THE PRODUCTION EVEN BEFORE HE JOINED IT.

Batman famously features original songs by Prince, who wrote so much new material for the production that he basically produced a full album. Even before the Purple One was drafted to write for the film, though, he was influencing it. Burton played Prince songs on set during the parade sequence and the Joker’s rampage through the museum.

18. THE FILM’S MARKETING WAS SO EFFECTIVE THAT IT INSPIRED CRIMES.

By the time Batman was actually on its way to release, it was becoming a phenomenon, and the marketing for the film was inspiring a frenzy among fans. People were buying tickets to other films just to see the first trailer, and selling bootleg copies of the early footage. The poster, featuring the iconic logo, was so popular that, according to Uslan, people were breaking into bus stations just to steal it.

19. IT WAS A BOX OFFICE LANDMARK.

Though studio executives resisted the idea of a “dark” Batman movie for years, the film ultimately set a new standard for box office success. It was the first film to ever hit $100 million in 10 days, the biggest film in Warner Bros.’ history at the time, and the box office’s biggest earner of 1989—and that’s not even counting the massive toy and merchandising sales it generated.

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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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