The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – Powell and Pressburger (UK 1943) Roger Liversey; Deborah Kerr

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – Powell and Pressburger (UK 1943) Roger Liversey; Deborah Kerr

Adrin Neatrour writes: Retro crit: cinema of obsessive desire, this is a film of pure expressive form that uses camera sets props and costumes to create a world characterised by the dark obsessive marriage of sex and death. With his ability to create mood ideas associations and drama through purely filmic means, Powell equals Visconti at his best. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – Powell and Pressburger (UK 1943)  Roger Liversey; Deborah Kerr

Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle  Ticket Price £4-00

Retro crit:  cinema of obsessive desire
The apparent central concern (the one about which most commentators on the movie talk) of Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (LDCB) is the demise of the old fashioned world of the professional soldier’s code of honour and decency. This notion is probably a comforting mythic recasting of history and as a recurrent film theme it’s better handled by Renoir in La Grande Illusion than by Powell and Pressburger.  However probing past its narrative form which is interestingly structured as a series of fragments, but actually weak in its cohesion, this is a film of pure expressive form that uses camera sets props and costumes to create a world characterised by the dark obsessive marriage of sex and death. With his ability to create mood ideas associations and drama through purely filmic means, Powell equals Visconti at his best.   

The three lead female roles – Edith Barbara and Angela are all played by Deborah Kerr whose face and features in all her manifestations become the obsessive object of desire for protagonist Clive Wynne-Candy, career army officer. 

 As in Peeping Tom, Powell’s camera and his mis en scene work to engage the  audience’s collusion in the process of sexual fixation. The camera seeks out the innocent female object with keen eye of the bird of prey for its quarry drawing the subjectivity of the viewer into the shot.  The tracking of the camera into Deborah Kerr brings her affective innocence into the dominion of our gaze where we scrutinize her performance for signs of vulnerability. As indeed does Candy.   In LDCB, Deborah Kerr remains one pace outside of the male world, enclosed in her own bubble of femininity.  Later in Peeping Tom, Powell will create circuits of intensity in which the female through violence and murder will be  transposed as an object of the lens into the male ambit of dominion.  Nevertheless in LDCB there is one scene exploiting Deborah Kerr’s image in her Barbara incarnation that is as extreme as any in Peeping Tom where she is subjected to the most shocking of deterritorialisations and reconfigured as pure victim, the forcible transportation of the female into the male domain.   The militiant culture that offers to the female death as the final solution.   

The opening shot of Deborah Kerr sees her as ‘Edith incarnation’ in Berlin 1902.  She is seated opposite Candy as the camera tracks in on the two shot.  Both parties are talking in matter of fact manner; she giving him information about a certain German officer and Candy seeking elucidation on various points.  The setting is neutral as is the positioning of Edith and Candy.  But we cannot hear anything that is being said because their conversation is overshadowed by Edith’s hat.  She is wearing a white bonnet  in the middle of which pinned out like a specimen prepared for anatomical dissection, is a black raven.   A dead very black raven.  Is this woman a witch or sorcerer?   That  LDCB is shot in Technicolor accentuates the startling explicit image of a woman wearing a dead bird.   It is difficult to follow the thread of Edith and Candy’s talk because we are fixated upon this extraordinary appurtenance completely circumscribes our perception of Edith and  colours the way in which we view and understand the rest of the film.    It is seizure by the animal, an act of bewitchment by the female; a movement into myth and fairy tale. The moment with the hat is the moment where everything in the film changes.  From this point the film is endowed with  a psychic resonance of the realm of  the sorcerer.

The defining moment in the relationship between Barbara and Candy takes place after her death.  Death the moment of appropriation. Candy takes Krettschmar-Schuldorff (more about the political aspect of  KS and his marriage to Edith later) into his den and inner sanctum  The room is his trophy room and Powell has carefully documented throughout the film that Candy shoots big game and has the heads mounted and brought home.  On the  main structural wall the animals he has shot seem to be alive   in their nobility as they protrude intrude and swell out into the room: lion, tiger, rhino, elephant. It seems to be part of his purpose in life to kill beautiful creatures.  Over the fireplace plumb in the middle of this assemblage of death hangs the portrait of Barbara, the dead wife.  The shot leaves the viewer speechless.   Like the totemic bird on the hat, the dead woman’s portrait in the trophy room completely short circuits the faculties.  You can neither see nor hear what is happening in the room,  only physically absorb the shot.  As it is viewed and its implications register, the viewers again are trapped as collusive agents.  Through its deep field of vision the shot becomes a  pure time event for the audience who cannot escape the flood of associations triggered both by the internal dynamics of the film and the external points of reference from their own lives.  There is no escape from what we are seeing and the ironic position of the audience is heightened by the fact that  Candy seems totally unaware of the meaning of his actions, which oblivion compounds our complicity.  The film renews its energy as a dark elliptical fairytale carved out of time that moves from the dead raven on the hat to the dead woman on the wall.

(Unfortunately the projector broke down 15/20 minutes form the end of the film so I DID NOT SEE THE END.  I don’t know if there is a similar shot/scene involving the image of Angela.) 

The camera work is central to the structure of the film and the way in which Powell defines time in the world of LDCB.  The camera movement is integral to the context of the sets and the Technicolor medium both of which create a detached high intensity world.  The sets have a phantasmagorical quality.  In particular the Turkish Bath set and the German military gymnasium both of which are settings the cue key camera movements that define the concept of time in LDCB. 

The Turkish bath sets are built as pure Hollywood sybaritic fantasy.  The textures are soft and coloured by alluring pinks and blues.   The  set’s structure comprises cubicles built around a long central pool which seems to breathe steam and a heady cocktail of vapours.  From  the first,  the pool has a magnetic faerie allure. It is into this water that Candy falls during his confrontation with the young upstart when the pool is revealed to be the fountain of eternal life.  It is indeed comprised of magical qualities that restore youth to all who take its waters. As Candy falls in the pool camera tracks him as he swims along under the water simultaneously transforming space into time. It is the old grizzled rotund 60 year old Candy who enters the top of the pool;  the figure who emerges at the other end is the young officer of 40 years earlier who has just returned from South Africa and is on his way to Berlin.  In one moment the scene is set for a fairy tale in which time is the essential element.

The camera movement in the military gymnasium is an equally powerful statement..  It is the setting for the dual between Candy and KS.  The gym has an  otherworldly quality in its coloration and spacial dimensions.  Moulded out of a light blue wash it suggests the idea of infinite space.  The dual sequence is simply constructed in long and medium shots with the focus on the necessary brisk pace of the preliminary ritual.  As the two opponents take guard and prepare to ‘attaque’ there is suddenly a great sweeping camera movement swinging the lens vertically up high into the ceiling for an overhead shot that pauses for a moment to take in the two tiny figures below still on guard in infinite space before resuming its headlong flight out of the gym finally coming to a stop hovering high in the sky over the roof of the building which twinkles in the darkness of the early winter morn.  The perspective is cosmic and the movement suggests  a switch into cosmic perspective and faerie time. in which anything is possible including time splitting up into different dimensions.  What happens?   The opponents become brothers and there is a reordering of  life as Edith chooses to marry KS.   But in a sense there is a fusion suggested.  In the same way as Deborah Kerr is the fusion of three woman,  so Candy and KS become fused as one split identity operating in different dimensions.   

When critics summarise or talk about LDCB they usually mention that the film was nearly banned by Churchill because of the sympathetic portrayal of the main German character, KS.  In fact these critics miss the point.( let alone the idea that Candy and KS become fused bidimensional identities)  True, the script treats KS as a discrete individual and not as a raving German military stereotype. So Pressberger makes the uncomfortable political point that many Germans including ex-army officers, did oppose Hitler. But the film is much much more radical than this.  It is this deeper radical element buried at the heart of the film that prompted the authorities to want to ban it.  After their dual it is KS who marries Edith and they have two sons.  In his last conversation with Candy,  KS reveals that although he and Edith opposed Nazism and Hitler their sons had become fanatical fervent Nazis.  At this time in 1942 in Britain, this was a  bombshell idea to place in a film script.  The implication was that the Germans weren’t Nazi because of their German-ness. The Germans became Nazi through the social and political matrix of forces unleashed in their country. Pressburger was telling his British audience that being English or even half English offered no immunity from this disease.  No amount of English ‘decency’ (and Edith, on the surface at least,  is a very decent woman) could necessarily protect either us or the Germans from the political sicknesses of the age.  At a time when British propaganda was belting out the message of the intrinsic good qualities of Englishness, Pressberger and Powell’s refusal to submit to biocultural comforting British propaganda in a film intended for popular consumption must have been viewed as treacherous and unpatriotic.

LDCB is a fairy tale implanted into the psycho-sexual war zone.  It has an overt message that seems to be saying something about the nature of war and the British character. Implanted under the skin the tegument of the film is a covert film, abetted by stunning use of décor and creative camera work, which drives deep into the dark sexual recesses of the warrior sees into the military ethos which gives birth to the death machine.  LDCB is not what it seems to be. Even if you don’t get it, its wake leaves behind a wash of psychic disturbance.
adrin neatrour
adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

Author: Adrin Neatrour

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