An intriguing cross between documentary and fiction, Farewell tells a multilayered story of the first around-the-world flight of the German-built Graf [End Page 76] Zeppelin in 1929. For visuals, the film relies entirely on chronologically arranged archival footage, all but a tiny portion of it documentary in nature. For narration, the film describes the journey from the point of view of the Graf’s only female passenger, the journalist Lady Grace Drummond-Hay. Interwoven with Lady Hay’s enthusiastic reports on the flight is her account of a rekindled love affair between her and another journalist aboard the Graf. The title of the film works for both story lines: the film is a kind of envoi for the excitement surrounding the historic flight and the promise invested in it for cheap travel; and it bids goodbye to the romance of the journey and the affair.
The Graf's circumnavigation of the globe began and ended in Lakehurst, New Jersey (not New York, as both the film and a contemporary newsreel excerpted in it state). The trip took twenty-one days, a little over half of which was actual flying time. The Graf made just four stops: Friedrichshafen, Germany; Tokyo; Los Angeles; and Lakehurst. Commanded by its chief developer, Dr. Hugo Eckener, the airship was longer than two football fields and higher than a ten-storey building. It was kept aloft by 70,000 cubic meters of gas. It carried a little over two tons of food for its twenty passengers and crew of forty-one. To lighten the ship’s load and conserve fuel, water was tightly rationed—no showers for the men––and the weight limit for baggage was very low. But the dining service was elegant, comparable to that of a passenger train of that era, and there seems to have been plenty of booze available.
The trip began, continued, and ended with a degree of public hoopla that is seldom seen in our less innocent age. Largely funded by William Randolph Hearst, in whose employ Lady Hay wrote her dispatches, the journey was reported on and photographed profusely. Among the passengers was a newsreel cameraman, providing footage of the crew and passengers and point of view shots from the ship. At each of the four stops, huge throngs welcomed and celebrated the ship, its crew, and its passengers. Scores of cameramen on the ground photographed take-offs and arrivals. Cameramen on small aircraft escorting the Graf at various points in its journey provided additional perspectives. At the three interim stops, numerous social events and public appearances became material for the press and the newsreels.
The shots selected for Farewell from all this footage are superb, and some of them spectacular. The opening sequence, for instance, shows a zeppelin in the process of construction. Its intricate skeletal frame looks like something fashioned from a giant erector set. A worker on a catwalk appears tiny. An insanely tall ladder reaches almost to the top of the structure. Two dozen men carry the nose cone frame. Footage of New York City (just sixty miles from Lakehurst and where most of the pre-flight partying took place) reminds us that the flight took off in the heyday of the roaring twenties, the jazz age, and prohibition. Arial shots of the city are almost startling: in 1929, [End Page 77] this was a city of stone, concrete, and steel. No glass skyscrapers, no suspension bridges.
The high quality of archival footage is sustained for most of the film. In the air, we get a rich view of life aboard the ship. When the airship flies over Siberia, stretches of which had not been charted at the time, we see a wilderness that is scary in its cold vastness. But some of the most interesting footage is of events on the ground, especially in Germany. For most Germans, humiliated by their defeat in the First World War and the punitive terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the Graf Zeppelin was a source of...