Saturday Matinee 006: It Happened Here

Here’s another forgotten film that needs to be remembered, It Happened Here. It was made in the 1950s and 60s in England by two, essentially, kids, Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, as a labor of love. Black and white, their eight years’ effort  runs about an hour and a half.

You would never know it was done by amateurs as it’s thoroughly professional. You particularly would be hard pressed to believe the $20,000 estimated budget.

The story: It is late 1944. The Germans conquered England rapidly in 1940, but now are under pressure by a last ditch Russian offensive in the East. With the best of the Germans withdrawn to fight the Bolshevist hordes, most of the troops remaining to occupy Britain are actually British turncoats and collaborators — of whom there is no short supply. Meanwhile, increasing partisan activity has made life uneasy for the Germans and their collaborators, even as they implement their plans for racial “hygiene”.

The central character is a nurse, Pauline Murray. She’s middle-aged, practical, a bit of an Everywoman, whose husband died in the war. She personifies sturdy British working-class values. Staunchly apolitical, she wants to stay out of everything, but her county is being evacuated to give the SS a free hand to deal with the partisans. She and her friends miss the last evacuation truck and go back to their house, only to wind up in a crossfire between partisans and Germans. The scene is well shot and edited and definitely gives you a sense of the chaos of a night firefight. The Partisans kill the Germans, but also all her friends — women and children. She goes to London only to find that in the new order, a nurse can only work by joining the collaborator Immediate Action party.

Brownlow and Mollo hit the high notes of the Immediate Action party perfectly — it is exactly like the collaborator parties elsewhere in Europe, such as Quisling’s Nasjonalsamling (NS) in Norway. The recruits must not only understand nursing, but they must be on board with the national-socialist aspects of the organization. The political indoctrination and gothic ceremonies are part of it; so is the long Q&A with an Immediate Action ideologist. This character is so convincing that you begin to believe he is a real Nazi. Turns out he is, he was head of the British Nazi Party at the time the film was being made, and they just dressed him up and let him spout off! That’s taking the Stanislavsky Method to the next level.

Pauline circulates beyond the Nazis, or tries to. She has other friends, a doctor and his wife who turn out to have partisan sympathies. Many things happen and everyone in the faces a bunch of unpleasant options. Bad things happen to good people. Bad things come to happen to bad people in turn. It desn’t balance out, rather like real life that way. You see an incredible range of bad people, all perfectly believable (no scenery-chewing Nazis. Worse: reasonable, rational, Nazis). The moral choices they make define them. I don’t want to say any more, because some of you will want to get this (it’s available from Netflix and Amazon).

This is an absolutely brilliant film. The idea of alternate history wasn’t as well established as it is now, but to me the brilliant part of this is telling most of the story from the collaborators’ point of view.

And despite the fact that it was made for next to nothing, the German uniforms, weapons, vehicles, etc. are quite good. All the propaganda posters are spot-on. An absolutely brilliant film.

You can see the first few minutes of it here on YouTube.

Where do we find off-the-beaten-track films like this? Often, we hear recommendations from other war-movie buffs, or follow a trail on the web. In this case, it was a reference another movie’s page on IMDB that produced the Google Reflex. A commenter panned the movie in question and said, “what you want is It Happened Here.” A chorus of other commenters joined in, praising one detail or other of the film, and Brownlow and Mollo (both of whom went on to great success). Mollo, I think, is the guy you go to for military advice and warlike props in the UK. Brownlow has written a book about the making of the film… they started in their teens and it took them eight years.

For a zero-budget film, it doesn’t feel that way. The initial night firefight is chilling and effective (as mentioned). The arms and equipment of both the Germans and collaborators on the one hand, and the partisans on the other, are exactly correct.

They use music very effectively. The Germans are always playing oompah music and singing as they march (and if you’ve spent any time around the regular Bundeswehr, this hasn’t changed). You reach the point where happy singing Germans marching by creep you out, just like Brownlow and Mollo intended. The low budget does have an effect, however, on the sound, which is only fair (and that’s the average — it is poor in some scenes, unfortunately).

Buying this from Amazon is not quite the same as buying some new release. Amazon has the listing, and the fulfillment is up to various individual sellers registered there.We never had a problem until recently, when a DVD copy of Operation Thunderbolt turned out to be an Israeli copy which is in Region 2, PAL. (Regions are an annoyance Hollywood attaches to DVDs to encourage people to buy pirated versions instead).  We had no problem with the It Happened Here DVD, but it was expensive, and it is in a TV aspect ratio.

There have been several similarly-themed films and novels since, but none is as good as It Happened Here. It has a bit of the moral ambiguity of GW, but it’s not hammered into you like Hollywood does it.

We think that having to film to a tight, tight budget can inspire creativity. The greatest creations in history have been made under rigid, formulaic constraints. Think of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Mozart’s symphonies, the Beatles’ three-minute pop songs, Petrarch’s sonnets or the war poetry of World War I.  Leonardo and Rembrandt did not have a free hand, they were hired to paint specific things. This may be why their art sucks much less than the unconstrained art made by self-indulgent artists today. It may be part of why It Happened Here is one of the best war movies — and best underground/resistance movies, even though it is told from the viewpoint of a reluctant collaborator — ever made.