Parades Gone By
To begin the new year with something old: Milestone Film and Video has just re-released two films of antiquarian interest, directed (appropriately enough) by British film historian Kevin Brownlow in collaboration with Andrew Mollo.
You may know of Brownlow as the author of a standard work on the art of early cinema, The Parade's Gone By... If you've read his more recent book, Behind the Mask of Innocence, you will also know he's interested in early social and political films, having recovered a good many of them from the oblivion that descends when people tag a bygone time as "simpler." Brownlow's twin passions--for reviving the past and recomplicating our relationship with it--animate the two features he made with Mollo and are reason enough to visit them, at New York's Film Forum (during their current theatrical run) or wherever they're shown.
It Happened Here reconstructs forties England with absolute physical accuracy, the better to dramatize what daily life might have been during a Nazi occupation. Conceived by Brownlow in 1956, when he was all of 18, the film required eight years of highly independent production, using nonprofessional actors, borrowed military uniforms and equipment (including Mollo's extensive private collection), scrounged film stock (some of it donated by Tony Richardson and Stanley Kubrick) and a budget of $21,000. Then came the challenge of distributing the picture. In one of those rare yet perennial breakthroughs that characterize do-it-yourself filmmaking--an enterprise that is always starting to blossom and has always just withered away--Brownlow and Mollo signed a contract with United Artists.
The release was gratifying, unremunerative and incomplete. It Happened Here won considerable attention for its authors during a limited run. On the other hand: In their zeal for authenticity--and also, perhaps, to show how the past remains a living reality--Brownlow and Mollo had included genuine sixties fascists (including English Nazi Colin Jordan) among the film's imaginary forties blackshirts. The result, I think, was a useful blurring of documentary and fiction, like the filmmakers' use of rubble-strewn London locations, which were still in ruins twenty years after the Blitz. But various groups complained about the sequence that involved Jordan, not trusting the audience to see through his idiocies. Such pre-emptive protests were a feature of public life in the sixties, as much as now; and the outcome, as now, was not always happy. United Artists cut six minutes from It Happened Here--the most compelling six minutes in the picture--which only now have been restored with the Milestone re-release.
Here's how we get to those minutes: It's 1944, and Pauline (Pauline Murray), a nurse and war widow, has been "evacuated" by German forces from the partisan-contested area of Salisbury and sent to London, which flourishes under the sort of home rule that Paris also enjoys. At least, Pauline is willing to see it as home rule. As a sensible person, she believes the task at hand is to "get back to normal"; and so, though she declares herself to be nonpolitical, she joins England's Nazi party (an organization called Immediate Action), through which she can find work and a new pair of shoes.
To me, this understated, sympathetic portrayal of fascism-by-default is more startling than the "actualities footage" of German soldiers sightseeing in London or the concocted, collaborationist newsreel that's inserted as a film within the film. Clever, hard-working cinephiles can be counted on to render such physical details. But sociological realism is harder to come by, especially from filmmakers as young as were Brownlow and Mollo. That's why I'm impressed most of all by the nuanced, believable portrayal of Pauline--including the mixture of unease and acquiescence with which she receives a lesson on racial science from Colin Jordan.
There was the paradox. Although the war had been over for only a few years, Brownlow and Mollo were dealing with a period that was already historical and for which they had to reassemble the material reality. They were praised for doing so. Yet at the same time they were blamed for presenting the ideological reality, which required no reconstruction but was available for the shooting. Their next and last collaboration would bring this paradox to fresh heights of aggravation.