It Happened Here (dir. Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo)
BFI DVD release, 2018
This is a strange, hypnotic, and harrowing film, and one with which this reviewer has been struggling to come to grips for some time. The directorial duo’s later, excellent Civil War-era film Winstanley is a totally different beast to their first effort, made when both were incredibly young: Brownlow and Mollo were eighteen and sixteen respectively when they started filming It Happened Here in 1956, and they finished it in 1964. This counterfactual imagining of an England under Nazi control (invaded after Dunkirk, in the year of Mollo's birth, when Brownlow was two years old), is said to be the most ambitious amateur film ever made. Filmed in a docudrama style in the grainy black-and-white of wartime newsreels, it grips the viewer’s attention not through narrative drive but the outrage and horrified fascination that it generates. The ‘It’ of the title turns out to refer less to the Nazi occupation itself and more to the collaboration and moral degradation that went along with it in other European countries.
It has been said that the psychological legacy of the Second World War was not that it killed religious belief, which had already largely succumbed to the scientific advances of the nineteenth century, but that it extinguished human beings' trust in one another. England, however, was never occupied and therefore did not suffer the full-scale loss of innocence of its Continental neighbours, despite all the destruction and tragedy that it endured; it has been uniquely fortunate in being able to produce a series like Dad’s Army as a comedy. It had no great cause to question its own humanity, which emerged in comparatively good shape from the apocalypse, never tested to the unbearable extent inflicted on the Continent. The first part of John of Gaunt’s speech from Richard II, so often quoted to boost morale during the war itself, appeared to have been ultimately confirmed.
In this film Brownlow and Mollo attack this complacency, suggesting that, under occupation conditions, England would be an innocent island no longer: individualism and scepticism of authoritarian government would vanish like dew in the morning. It is for the viewer to conclude whether the film is convincing in this regard, but too much is left unexplained. In particular, there is a narrative black hole where the film implies that vast numbers of ordinary young Englishmen have voluntarily joined up to the Wehrmacht and are enthusiastically carrying out the few German SS officers’ bidding, without explaining anything about how this came to be apart from showing a thoroughly repellent anti-Semitic fake cinema newsreel which could not proselytise a rabbit.
The film is far more persuasive in the treatment of its apathetic protagonist Pauline, a nurse who initially goes along with the new regime because she is exhausted by the war. She is neither one of the partisans who broadcast their guerrilla victories on illegal radio stations to the accompaniment of Elgar, nor a committed Nazi. She is, however, weak-minded, allowing herself to be indoctrinated by some illogical tripe in the scene in which Brownlow and Mollo decided to allow a few actual fascists to hold court. Pauline is also misdirected by the new sense of purpose with which her paramilitary nursing organisation appears to provide her, before she belatedly sees the light and joins the resistance. However, the central question of the film --what would we have done?— is somewhat muddied by the film-makers’ strange choice of an Irishwoman to play Pauline. This seems not only confusing but more than tactless given, on the one hand, official Irish non-involvement in what was there described as ‘the Emergency,’ and on the other more than forty thousand Irish nationals who volunteered with the British Army. (Interestingly, however, Brownlow’s father had witnessed the actions of Black and Tans in Ireland during the Troubles, and Brownlow has suggested that this gave him his insight into universal human potential for cruelty. This may explain the Irish link.) Pauline Murray nevertheless does a fine job with this part, playing it low-key but exuding an ache for a return to normal life.
Many parts of It Happened Here are truly stomach-churning, most particularly the sequence in a country hospital which turns out to be a cover for the euthanasia of TB patients from Eastern Europe. The above-mentioned fascist colloquium on scientific racism and the denial of the Jewish contribution to culture and science feels as if it goes on for an eternity, though in truth it lasts seven minutes. The film unsurprisingly ran into trouble with its distributor United Artists on its box office release, which insisted on cutting this sequence. Though Brownlow and Mollo had hoped that the scene would show the inhumanity of this philosophy, this had surely been conclusively demonstrated by 1964, and the side effect —disturbing an already traumatised Jewish population— could have been foreseen. This scene, the aforementioned newsreel and the film's obscene suggestion that a ghetto has been set up in London have often been misunderstood as anti-Semitic, but they seem instead to have been insufficiently thought through, a product of a stage of youth when cleverness and energy outpace considered reflection.
It must be asked, what led two such very young men to put so much obsessive time and energy into a project like this? Both of them were history buffs, but in 1956 the war was not yet history. Brownlow and Mollo’s earliest years would have been lived through the war, and it is hard not to conclude that this produced the fear and fascination which lie at the heart of this film. Brownlow notes that his and Mollo’s first memories were not, on the surface, oppressive: “The adults did a wonderful job of keeping the fear from us; as a result, the dogfights, doodlebugs, and military maneuvres were enormously entertaining. But one subject was never discussed: the Nazis. It was a subject as strenuously avoided as pornography to the Victorians.” It seems suggestive that Mollo (whose father was Russian and had served in the Red and White Armies) had already begun collecting German military memorabilia as a child, and would eventually become an expert on army uniforms in general, originally joining this project as a consultant on German uniforms. Brownlow and Mollo’s ability to mobilise hordes of ordinary middle-aged Londoners to crew and act for free (notably, in their own professions) gives pause for thought. Contemporary photographers show the queue to see the film snaking around the block in 1966, when the film was finally on general release. Some online reviewers who are old enough to recall V2s and the blackout rate the film highly, suggesting that there might be something therapeutic about being brought face to face with the nightmare—the mind (especially the young mind) deals with horror by bringing it close and attempting to examine it. The more these aspects are considered, the more the whole project starts to resemble some sort of collective exorcism.
There's another aspect too, however. Humphrey Jennings’ intensely moving docudrama A Diary for Timothy (1945), narrated by Michael Redgrave, asked what the protagonist, born in that year, would make of it all when he was grown up. “We had a feeling deep down inside us that we were fighting for you —and all the other babies….all these people were fighting for you, Tim.” That's a heavy burden for the younger generation to carry, and it is rapidly becoming a truism that the Second World War was a necessary precondition for the sixties Generation Gap. It not only facilitated the youthquake by opening up education to the working class as part of Churchill’s pact with the unions, but it also created a wide and in many cases unbridgeable rift in experience and understanding between parents and offspring. In recent times it has become increasingly clear, partly through a glut of sixties rock-star autobiography, that the war formed a communicative stumbling-block between parents and their children generally, so that the latter felt thrown back on their own devices —all that freedom was in part due to an inability to attach successfully to grey, withdrawn elders. “I fought the war for your sort,” says the middle-aged, ex-military-looking City gent desperately to John Lennon in A Hard Day’s Night, while William Fisher in Billy Liar screams about always having had to be grateful. My London grandparents, whose personalities and marriage were forever changed by the Blitz, nevertheless had one topic about which they could talk for decades, and that was the War, their long murmured conversations creeping up through the floorboards to the upstairs. In his memoir The Progressive Patriot, Billy Bragg movingly depicts his parents as immigrants in the post-war nation: “The old country that my parents came from was called the Second World War....The War poked out from old suitcases tucked under beds and rattled around in the back of sideboard drawers." It's an image that perfectly captures the intergenerational silence on the subject, but the younger generation’s curiosity about the war was nevertheless suggested in small but telling ways, such as the Mod co-option of the RAF logo and the Union flag. (Timothy himself went to grammar school, became a Mod --wearing loud suits, staying out late, and acquiring a Lambretta-- and had a career as a teacher before dying young at fifty-six). When the subjects of A Diary for Timothy were interviewed again in 1960, for an article which urgently asked "Have we done the things we said we would do for the children? As always, it is the children who matter," Tim’s mother observed that her generation were better able to get along with each other, having learnt the knack of clubbing together during the war, but Welsh coal miner Goronwy noted that the young were not taking much of an active part in village social life. From this perspective, Mollo and Brownlow’s collaboration with the wartime generation on the film suggests a reaching-out of hands.
This film understandably caused a very critical, indeed allergic, reaction in various parts of the media, and it isn’t hard to imagine tetchy retired colonels in the Shires sitting at the breakfast table with the newspaper in 1966 and becoming apoplectic over the shots of SS men in Trafalgar Square. However, had they stopped chewing on their moustaches long enough to consider it calmly, they might have seen that the film was in fact a tribute to their sacrifices. In its portrait of the worst case that never happened, it approximates a thank-you to middle-aged veterans from the generation who might now be growing their hair long and agitating for the downfall of society, but who, at the time, were simply too small to understand. --Isabel Taylor