Marta Gellhorn | Photo by Eric Smallwood

Trained to See—Three Women and the War Review: Women’s Perspectives During WWII

Hot Docs 2023

4 mins read

Trained to See—Three Women and the War
(Germany/Italy, 106 min.)
Dir. Luzia Schmid
Programme: Artscapes (North American Premiere)


Veteran director Luzia Schmid has made a brilliantly researched and well-told doc that approaches the complex history of World War II with a fresh perspective. Schmid has crafted a new way into the war in Europe through the eyes of three of the finest journalists of the period—and, like her, they are women. Margaret Bourke-White was a star photographer for the most prestigious magazine of the time, LIFE, and defied the odds against women through her skill and the support of the famous publisher Henry Luce. Lee Miller was glamorous, a former model turned photographer and journalist who worked for Vogue, spoke French, and was a great friend of artists in Paris, especially Picasso, who painted quirky works inspired by her. Before World War II began, Martha Gellhorn had already established a stellar reputation as a war reporter, who had covered the Spanish Civil War and the bloody conflict in China. She wrote mainly for Collier’s, then one of the most important magazines in America. All had celebrity husbands: Gellhorn was married to Ernest Hemingway, Bourke-White to Erskine Caldwell, famous for the hit play Tobacco Road, and Miller was engaged and eventually wedded Roland Penrose, the leading British surrealist and art promoter.

Using letters and diaries by all three women and photographs by Bourke-White and Miller, Schmid weaves the stories of these extraordinary journalists as they reported on World War II. Gellhorn and Bourke-White covered the campaign in North Africa as well as the Allies’ invasion of Italy, while Miller went from France to London and back to the continent after D-Day. Each experienced prejudice against women, with Gellhorn being sidelined several times for refusing to follow sexist orders while Miller found herself sent away from the French front in 1944 when she subversively covered the campaign in Rennes without proper permission. Bourke-White had to lobby for six months to be able to fly on airplane missions while less seasoned male photographers were allowed on board within weeks.

Trained to See—Three Women and the War offers unique insights into World War II. As women and seasoned journalists, Gellhorn, Miller and Bourke-White offer brilliant insights into how the war was organized and fought. You really get a sense of the average soldier in this film, thanks to the images and texts shot and written by the three. The revelations of the concentration camps and the fate of the Jews is recorded in stunning detail near the end of the film. The footage still has the capacity to shock. But it must be said that the film does have a lovely final set of images. Miller was able to talk her way into Hitler’s private apartment in Munich and she actually took a bath there—on the day the war ended. That’s something truly extraordinary!

Trained to See screened at Hot Docs 2023.

Get more coverage from this year’s festival here.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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