On the 75th anniversary of VE Day, Tom Griffiths finds Brownlow and Mollo's alternative vision of Nazi-led Britain in the 1940s still resonates powerfully
It Happened Here, the chilling 1964, ‘What if’ film, eight years in the making by Kevin Brownlow and Kevin Mollo, is the powerful and controversial story of life in Nazi-occupied Britain, should the German Army have successfully invaded in 1940.
To say that it is particularly resonant today with the rise of the far-right in Europe, in Austria, Hungary, Italy and so on, the Trump presidency in America but also recent street brawls and bully tactics on the streets of Britain by the fascist DFLA and others, is almost facile. Mundane. However it needs to be said and it’s the great strength of the film that its handling of the subject matter is astute and nuanced, as well as troubling.
This is not the heroic tale of the noble British resistance; in fact the ‘partisans’ for the most part are in the shadows, taking a background role, their actions not universally lauded by the populace. Neither is it a film about a submissive and downtrodden population; worse perhaps, the largest part of society, of course – as that asinine ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster would have it – gets on with it. What is also made abundantly clear is that there is also – as it was in Nazi-occupied France – a very large number of people who become willing collaborators.
The reasons for collaboration with the Nazis are various, too. One woman joins the new, Immediate Action Organisation (IAO) – a paramilitary auxiliary outfit run by British Union of Fascists or Black Shirts – for perks, specifically ‘proper coffee’. It’s also clear that not joining such organisations would massively hinder you trying to find work at the fascist controlled Labour Exchanges. Parallels for this sort of mass recruitment into the Nazi party can be seen in the real life Germany of the 1930s and elsewhere.
The lead character Pauline (played by Pauline Murray, a semi-professional actor), an Irish woman in her 40’s who’s lived in England since before the war, joins the IAO, partly to find work as a nurse, a job she’s keen to return to, but also because as she says, she’s tired of the fighting and chaos and wants a return to ‘law and order’. As such it’s a damning indictment of many ‘small c’ conservatives - and even liberals - in modern society, who in the name of ‘security’ and ‘stability’ will side with forces to the right of their own pronounced political position when push comes to shove. It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to visualise many, both in the alternative future of Nazi-occupied Britain, and today, making similar Faustian pacts.
It’s a fantastic piece of counterintuitive casting as the down-to-earth, apathetic, approaching middle-aged, Irish woman, becomes the perfect un-heroic and ‘common-sense’ guide to the complex world created by Brownlow and Mollo, speaking to the sophistication of their vision for their film. We follow Pauline from the village of Shaftesbury in 1944 as the civilian population is evacuated to London by the German army in its crackdown against the ‘partisans’. She is left behind, and as the German fighting commandos arrive the partisans open fire killing Pauline’s companions as they do. This clearly represents a final straw for Pauline - it emerges her husband has been killed by the Germans earlier in the war - and enough is enough. Pauline wants an end to the fighting. As she arrives in London she soon finds not joining the IAO is going to make her life difficult; she resists at first – telling a friend, ‘I don’t have a political bone in my body’ – but after a street fight outside a London pub, she bites the bullet and signs up.
It soon becomes obvious that being an auxiliary nurse in the IAO isn’t going to be quite what she expected; there’s political education, firearms drill and marching on the parade ground. What’s perhaps most unsettling about these training sequences is that they seem quite a lot of fun. Pauline finds it all a bit strange at first but soon adapts to her new life; to begin with firing a pistol seems awkward, - even unnecessary – she’s a nurse after all, but she soon takes to that too, firing away on the range with confidence.
Things take an unexpected turn as she re-connects with some old friends from before the war – a London doctor and his wife. When Pauline takes off her coat revealing the IAO uniform they are appalled and try and persuade her of the error of her ways. They wish they’d done more to help the resistance, they’ve done too little too late. It’s the first time Pauline wavers but she never really does – even after her friends' arrest for harbouring a wounded partisan in their small flat, it takes a disciplinary measure by her IAO commanding officer for her association with a ‘deviant’ couple to land her in a country hospital. This is not a typical story of someone learning the error of her ways and fighting back but the inevitable and sobering tale of someone whose decisions lead to her own downfall. She is eventually arrested for showing some dissent – not seen on camera - about the nature of the work at the hospital.
It is of course very likely that many people’s story in a Nazi-occupied Britain would follow a similar route – and of course many more will never have shown any dissent at all, keeping their head down and ‘carrying on’.
It offers a stark warning that the lack of a socialist political education leaves a great majority of people open to complicity in barbarism.
The other type of collaborator is of course the committed British fascist. And sadly there would likely be a significant minority of them willing to play a leading role in running the new National Socialist society. What Brownlow and Mollo decided to do, which caused a huge outcry at the time of the films release – as it would indeed today – is to include some real-life British fascists in the film.
In the interview included as an extra in this new re-issue from the BFI, Brownlow tells how they came to that decision. He claims that one of the extras on the film asked to borrow a swastika flag from the props department to take to a party to which Brownlow and Mollo were then invited. They arrive intrigued, a little dubious, and are shocked to find they’re at a gathering of British fascists celebrating Hitler’s birthday. Brownlow says he had been struggling with writing the dialogue of the Nazi collaborators and so asked one of the men how they could justify the camps and the other horrors of the Reich. The self confident, straightforward manner of the answer he got, making clear his racial justifications for the slaughter, shocked him; ‘I was shattered’ he says of the experience. Brownlow began to think that the best way to show the ‘sick’ nature of these beliefs was to let the adherents ‘condemn themselves out of their own mouths’. It would also add to Brownlow and Mollo’s aesthetic commitment to authenticity.
The scene in question was cut from the film by its distributors United Artists and was only restored for its first domestic release in 1994. It is a shocking scene. It features British fascists Frank Bennett and Michael Passmore and one other uncredited young man, who it appears from my research seem to have been affiliated to or active in Colin Jordan’s British National Socialist revival in the '50s and '60s (some of whom would crop up again in the NF and the BNP). All in IAO uniform set in what is obviously a relaxation room for the paramilitaries, actors, including Pauline Murray ask the real-life Nazis a series of questions, ‘why do you hate the Jews?’, ‘how do you feel about euthanasia?’ and so on. The answers they give are of course horrifying. Pauline Murray asks, ‘Do think that Bolshevism and Jews are the same?’
To which Frank Bennett, (probably – the credits are perhaps intentionally vague) replies,
To a great extent yes, Bolshevism is Jewish. But if I may quote a Jew to you, Dr Oscar Levi, who said of his own people, ‘when we sink we become revolutionaries, when we rise, we rise with the terrible power of our purse.’
The cool and self assured regurgitation of the far-right fantasy of global Jewish conspiracies and socialist evil is quite remarkable. Of shooting the scene Brownlow says, ‘you could cut the atmosphere with a knife.’
The Jewish Chronicle and other organisations, including the Board of Deputies of British Jews, attacked the film as antisemitic. The paper said of the film,
It is deplorable that a considerable amount of footage is devoted to a dissertation of the National-Socialist credo against the Jews. The producers do not even allow one of the anti-Nazi speaking characters to rebut this foul outpouring.
With such an outcry many distributors wouldn’t dare touch the film and United Artists only after insisted on cutting this scene. It is clear that the film is not antisemitic, neither is it more generally pro fascist or even right wing. Famously Brownlow and Mollo would go on to make the excellent film about the proto-socialist English radical Winstanley (1975) and his Diggers. Anecdotally, Brownlow describes being at May Day rallies and on the platform next to Aneurin Bevan at the Trafalgar Square Suez crisis rally too – though it must be said, he was at the latter to try and shoot footage of massed crowds for the film. Brownlow’s interview is quite emotional and I believe honest, he’s often close to tears, and he’s clearly appalled and sickened by the racist and fascist views expressed by those men.
That all said was it the right decision to include real fascists in his film? It’s an interesting problem. Should he have ‘no platformed’ them? If he met with real fascists could he not have noted their response and their manner? Was good research really not a viable option? In a sense the latter question is a misnomer, as Brownlow and Mollo’s meticulous research led them to the conclusion that this was the best way to proceed. It is also the case that the content would necessarily have been the same even if performed by actors. Nonetheless, for those of us on the left who oppose the far right and think their voices must be shut down, it nonetheless proves to be an uncomfortable call made by the filmmakers.
But it is also important to make the distinction between the arena of public debate and artistic and journalistic practice. As such I think it right to respect the filmmakers decision. They chose, I believe, to include them as they would a cut-out from a real Nazi publication if they were making a collage perhaps, or quoting at length Nazis for an article or book which otherwise condemns them, and in this sense it is of course acceptable – indeed I have done so here.
The bitter irony that the left is again being accused of anti-Semitism by the mainstream press and the British establishment and even those on the far right, is of course enraging and will not escape our readers.
It is on this front, that the film (and its own story of how it came about) also resonates today. The film shows us the real dormant danger of how a great many people can be persuaded to accept right-wing ideology in the right circumstances; in the name of stability and ‘law and order’, in the name of simply keeping your head down and of course playing on the latent racism that is in our country both then and now.
It also shows that in attempts to shut down real honest debate about serious issues (in the '60s the resurgence however small, of British Nazism and more generally anti-immigrant racism– and in our time criticism of the Israeli State) the ‘moral majority’ can in the name of calling out anti-Semitism create a situation where the forces of reaction go unchallenged, potentially opening up the ground for an increase of racism and anti-Semitism as it does so.
The film is a remarkable technical achievement. The film looks like the real thing and the uniforms especially – Andrew Mollo’s real passion – are exact to the finest detail. The look of the film is so persuasive that Italian documentary filmmakers believed they’d discovered a real Nazi propaganda film, which they covered in their series ‘Rai’ on national Italian television.
It’s tempting to compare the film to the very different in tone, Went the Day Well? (1942) by Alberto Cavalcanti, which shows the violent brutality the British would have to embrace if they resisted a German invasion and is an excellent film. However its closest cousins (apart from Winstanley) are the films of Peter Watkins, Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965). Watkins was apparently on the crew of It Happened Here and must have learned a lot from Brownlow and Mollo’s approach. These films, too – especially The War Game - offer chilling warnings from history past and alternative future, of repressive and murderous occupying armies (the British in Scotland) and of crazed world leaders dragging the earth into nuclear apocalypse. None of these films can be misconceived as simply a curiousity from the past. Their relevance today, however uncomfortable, cannot be ignored. Oh what a time to be alive.
The BFI have released a restored (full cut) of It Happened Here on BluRay and DVD dual format edition and comes with an excellent feature-length interview with Brownlow and finebook of essays and many other extras.
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