Lusitania Sunk, Breakthrough on Eastern Front

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 181st installment in the series.  

May 7, 1915: Lusitania Sunk, Breakthrough on Eastern Front 

One of the worst maritime disasters in history, the sinking of the Cunard ocean liner Lusitania by the German submarine U-20 on May 7, 1915 sparked international outrage and almost embroiled the United States in the war, helping set the stage for its eventual entry into the conflict two years later. Above all the incident reflected the utter ruthlessness and spiraling brutality of the struggle, as supposedly civilized European nations prosecuted the war to the very limit of their powers – and far beyond the limits of traditional morality. 

This tragedy, involving the deaths of 1,198 passengers and crew out of a total 1,959 on board, was the direct result of the German Admiralty’s decision in February 1915 to adopt unrestricted U-boat warfare, which in turn followed the British government’s order authorizing British merchant ships to fly neutral flags in a bid to frustrate the German submarine campaign. Neutral nations including the U.S. protested against both the British order and the German response, but were politely ignored. 

In a typically ham-handed PR move, the Germans tried to shift responsibility for the consequences of unrestricted submarine warfare to the citizens of neutral countries by publishing warnings in newspapers, including a specific warning about the threat to the Lusitania (see below) – but many people dismissed it as bluff, figuring that the Germans wouldn’t risk angering the powerful U.S. and alienating world opinion generally. 

They figured wrong.  Although German decision makers understood the risks they ran, they were even more indignant over American exports of weapons to the Allies for use against German soldiers, while Germany’s own commercial ties with the U.S. were severed by the British blockade. Faced with this one-sided situation, the Germans dismissed American claims to neutrality as hypocritical and disingenuous: in their view the U.S. was openly aiding the Allied war effort, and its official belligerent status was a technicality. 

On May 1 the Lusitania set sail on her final journey from New York City for Liverpool; the previous day the German U-boat U-20, under commander Walther Schwieger, departed from Germany and headed northwest through the North Sea, eventually passing between Scotland and Iceland to patrol the North Atlantic. Thanks to captured German naval codes the British Admiralty was aware of U-20’s general location, but British naval intelligence didn’t want the Germans to figure out that the code was compromised, so the Admiralty only issued vague warnings to commercial ships. 

On the other side the Germans had cracked the code used by the Admiralty to communicate with merchant ships, giving U-boats a big advantage when it came to locating their targets. On May 5-6, U-20 sank three ships, including the merchant steamers Candidate and Centurion, both 6,000 tons; the Admiralty learned of these attacks by the early morning of May 7, and broadcast another warning about U-boat activity in the Irish Channel around 11am, but again without specific details. 

By this time U-20 was running low on supplies and Schwieger decided to head home, but first conduct one last sweep of the waters off southern Ireland. Meanwhile as the Lusitania approached the war zone around the British Isles, captain William Thomas Turner ordered the U.S. flag flown even though she was a British liner, in keeping with the Admiralty’s orders. However this didn’t deter Schwieger, who spotted the Lusitania around 1:20pm in the afternoon and fired a single torpedo into the ship’s starboard bow at 2:10pm.  

Shortly after the torpedo detonated, a second mysterious explosion shook the ship, which rapidly began listing. An eyewitness account of what happened next was left by Margaret Mackworth, later the 2nd Viscountess Rhondda, who was traveling on the Lusitania with her father the Welsh industrialist David Alfred Thomas, later the Minister for Food Control, and his secretary Arnold Rhys-Evans. Mackworth had just stepped into an elevator with her father when the torpedo hit: 

There was a dull, thud-like, not very loud but unmistakable explosion… I turned and came out of the lift; somehow, the stairs seemed safer… As I ran up the stairs, the boat was already heeling over… The side further from the submarine was also the higher out of the water, as the boat had listed over towards the side on which she had been hit and the deck was now slanting at a considerable angle… 

After hurrying to her cabin to fetch “life belts” for her father and herself, Mackworth returned to the first deck only to encounter a chaotic scene. Poor passengers from steerage, doubtless aware of the fate of poor passengers on the Titanic, had no intention of being caught below deck when the ship sank. Unlike the Titanic the Lusitania had enough lifeboats, but in the confusion many of them were not deployed correctly: 

Just as I reached the deck a stream of steerage passengers came rushing up from below and fought their way into the boat nearest us, which was being lowered. They were white-faced and terrified; I think they were shrieking; there was no kind of order – the strongest got there first, the weak were pushed aside… They rushed a boat before it was ready for them… Two seamen began to lower the boat, which was full to overflowing… One man lowered his end quickly, the other lowered his end slowly; the boat was in an almost perpendicular position when it reached the water. Half the people fell out, but the boat did not capsize, and I think most of them scrambled back afterwards.

After becoming separated from her father, and more frightened of the frantic mob than drowning, Mackworth stayed on deck as the ship went under: 

I saw the water green just about up to my knees. I do not remember its coming up further; that must have all happened in a second. The ship sank and I was sucked right down with her. The next thing I can remember was being deep down under the water. It was very dark, nearly black. I fought to come up. I was terrified of being caught on some part of the ship and kept down… When I came to the surface I found that I formed part of a large, round, floating island composed of people and debris of all sorts… People, boats, hencoops, chairs, rafts, boards, and goodness knows what besides, all floating cheek by jowl. 

Mackworth then floated in the cold water for a number of hours, using her “life belt” and a piece of wood for buoyancy, but eventually became separated from the other survivors and lost consciousness. However by a stroke of incredible good luck she somehow came to be floating on top of a wicker chair, which raised her body out of the water so rescuers could spot it: 

The swell of the sea had the effect of causing the close-packed island of wreckage and people to drift apart. Presently I was a hundred yards or more away from anyone else… The next thing I remember is lying naked between blankets on a deck in the dark… Every now and then a sailor came and looked at me and said, “That’s better.”… The sailor said he thought I had better go below, as it would be warmer. “We left you up here to begin with,” he explained, “as we thought you were dead, and it did not seem worth while cumbering up the cabin with you.” 

World Reaction 

Predictably, public opinion in Allied and neutral countries was outraged by the “barbaric” attack on the Lusitania, which went down with over 100 children on board, not to mention a wide swathe of the transatlantic Anglo-American elite. The list of “the great and good” who died included Arthur Henry Adams, the president of the United States Rubber Company; Charles Frohman, an American theatrical producer; Elbert Hubbard, a philosopher; and Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, an American millionaire.  

Over the next month the public outcry pushed the U.S. to the brink of war with Germany, and also precipitated the final political falling out between President Wilson and his pacifist Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, who believed the U.S. was compromising its neutrality and provoking Germany by supply weapons to the Allies. In the meantime American diplomats tried to prevent the worst-case scenario by persuading the German government to abandon unrestricted U-boat warfare.

The first American diplomatic note, on May 13, argued that the German submarine campaign was “disregarding those rules of fairness, reason, justice, and humanity, which all modern opinion regards as imperative,” and warned that the U.S. government would not “omit any word or any act necessary to the performance of its sacred duty of maintaining the rights of the United States and its citizens and of safeguarding their free exercise and enjoyment” – a thinly veiled reference to war. 

However the Germans were intransigent at first. James Watson Gerard, the American ambassador to Germany, remembered a bizarre conversation with undersecretary of state Arthur Zimmerman, who would later help bring America into the war with the famous Zimmerman Telegram: 

I believed myself that we would immediately break diplomatic relations, and prepared to leave Germany… During this period I had constant conversations with [foreign secretary] von Jagow and Zimmerman, and it was during these conversations that Zimmerman on one occasion said to me: “The United States does not dare to do anything against Germany because we have five hundred thousand German reservists in America who will rise in arms against your government if your government should dare to take any action against Germany.”… I told him that we had five hundred and one thousand lamp posts in America, and that was where the German reservists would find themselves if they tried any uprising… 

The fallout was hardly confined to diplomatic channels, of course. Around this time Evelyn Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German nobleman, noted the reaction of Americans living in Berlin to the Lusitania: “The Americans openly avoided the Germans… Friendly intercourse was absolutely out of the question… One German turned to me and said, ‘You and other English ladies here have self-control, but these American ladies, once they are roused, do not care how or where they express their feelings.’”

Lasting Controversy 

The controversy over the sinking of the Lusitania continues to this day. The second explosion suggests that the ship was indeed carrying weapons, making it a legitimate target, apparently including four to six million rifle cartridges destined for the British army. Seizing on these facts, German propaganda tried to depict the sinking in a heroic light, but not everyone was convinced that the presence of weapons, or the German government’s warnings to passengers, could justify killing over a thousand civilians. 

In his play The Last Days of Mankind, published in 1918-1919, the Austrian critic and playwright Karl Kraus – a sort of Viennese counterpart to H.L. Mencken – voiced his opinion through the character of The Grumbler, a thinly disguised stand-in for Kraus himself (typically paired with another character, the reliably patriotic Optimist, for contrast). When The Optimist points out that Germany warned travelers not to board the Lusitania, The Grumbler tears this argument apart: 

The warning against the danger was the threat of a crime; consequently, the murder was preceded by blackmail. To exonerate himself, the blackmailer can never claim that he had previously threatened to commit the crime he then did commit. If I threaten to kill you in case you refuse to do, or not to do, something on which I have no claim, I am extortioning, not warning. After the deed I am a murderer, not an executioner. 

Breakthrough on the Eastern Front 

With the Western Front stalemated following the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in fall 1914, in spring 1915 the German and Austrian high commands embraced a new strategy, turning to the Eastern Front in hopes of knocking Russia out of the war. No one seriously entertained the idea of conquering the vast eastern empire, as the Nazis tried to do in the Second World War; instead they hoped to conquer enough territory and inflict enough casualties that the Russians felt compelled to abandon their Western Allies, Britain and France, and make a separate peace. This pivot resulted in a spectacular breakthrough followed by an advance deep into Tsarist territory – but failed to achieve its goal of removing Russia from the game. 

After a preliminary agreement at a meeting on New Year’s Day, Kaiser Wilhelm II and German War Minister Falkenhayn agreed to a detailed plan presented by the German generals at a second meeting on April 13; just over a week later, the Germans would unleash poison gas on the Allied lines in Flanders, beginning the Second Battle of Ypres, in order to cover the removal from the Western Front of eight divisions destined for the Eastern Front, where they would form the core of a new Austro-German Eleventh Army, commanded by the rising star August von Mackensen (below), a protégé of the Eastern Front commanders Hindenburg and Ludendorff. 

The attack began on the night of May 1-2 with a huge bombardment by the Eleventh Army’s artillery, targeting the trenches of the Russian Third Army between the Austrian Polish villages of Gorlice and Tarnów. The attack relied on sheer overwhelming force, as the German guns flattened the Russian defensive works, blowing whole regiments out of existence, followed by massed infantry assaults which overran the remaining Russian defenses, although at great cost. On May 3, British war correspondent Bernard Pares, who was observing Russian operations, described the onslaught in his diary:

We crouched behind the houses amid a constant roar of shells bursting all around us, and firing some of the neighboring huts. The telephones worked incessantly. Now each of the battalion commanders reported in turn – one, that his machine guns had been put out of action, another that there were gaps in his line, a third that he was holding good, but hard put to it. The Colonel explained that his last reserves were engaged… The R telephone gave no answer at all. Life there was unlivable, the trenches were destroyed… 

One soldier told Pares “the whole area was covered with shells till trenches and men were levelled out of existence.” Needless to say, the town of Gorlice itself – the focus of the initial bombardment – was almost totally destroyed (below). 

Over the next few days, as the Eleventh Army pushed forward, widening the gap in the Russian lines, the neighboring Austro-Hungarian Third and Fourth Armies also began to advance, threatening the Russian flanks. The Russian Third Army withdrew to new defensive positions where it put up a stiff resistance, but was unable to hold these as the Germans and Austrians brought up their artillery and resumed the bombardment, followed yet again by massed infantry assaults. 

By May 7 the breakthrough was complete: the Russian line was unraveling, with no prospect of reinforcements to fill the gap. The road to the key fortress town of Przemyśl, captured by the Russians less than two months previously, was open. The Russians now had no choice to withdraw all their armies to new defensive lines, the beginning of what became known as the Great Retreat, lasting from May-September 1915. 

The cost of the breakthrough was heavy for both sides, but especially the Russians, who would lose a staggering 412,000 men in May alone, including 170,000 taken prisoner by the middle of the month. On May 10, 1915, Pares confided in his diary: 

Of some regiments the news was that they were practically all gone; in one case the answer was “The regiment does not exist.” Some one asked of one of the O’s [a regimental soldier] where his regiment was to be found: he answered “In the other world.” I learned that three hundred men of this regiment with the colonel had fought their way back; later, I learned that only seventy-one were left. 

Of another division, Pares wrote: “Of forty officers and four thousand men, in the end two hundred and fifty were left.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
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.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios