It Happened Here
Kevin Brownlow, Andrew Mollo (UK 1965) Pauline Murray
Viewed: VHS 1st June 2014
1943 and another proposition…
Brownlow and Mollo’s movie puts foreword a proposition about human behaviour that resembles in some critical aspects Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, published some 3 years earlier in 1962. Both fictive works explore the proposition of the unheroic accommodating aspect of human nature in particular circumstances: both works draw on a structure that highlights the ordinary as opposed to the extraordinary, the unheroic as opposed to the heroic.
Like A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, It Happened Here is an extraordinary work both in the projection of its proposition and ideas, and in its expressive delivery.
The performance of Pauline Murray (the eponymous Pauline) lies like a jewel at the heart of the movie. In her persona she carries the concept of defeat and occupation like a cross up her own personal Golgotha. Like the Tube Shelter sketches made by Henry Moore during the Blitz, her physicality emanates a commonality of form not a subjectivity: and her face is lined and fixed with the universal marks of the grinding demands of living through hardship. It is an extraordinary presence, or rather unpresence, on screen from an actress, born in 1922, who will have known the reality of those times.
And I was also reminded of the film footage from the second world war, and seeing the faces of Jewish women herded out of the Warsaw Ghetto onto trucks on the journey that will take them to Auschwitz. Witnessing this silent film watching these Jewesses deprived of their life and their voice, I feel a terrible sense of loss. I have no words just tears just a breathing out. I stand and watch an obscene disaster, each face I glimpse has had their fate decided Before destiny there is only silence.
Of course Pauline can’t in actuality be compared to the Jewish women. I am certainly not saying this, but it was a similar kind of silence that defined my response to Pauline. Pauline’s role, albeit in a different context, is articulated by the same forces that made up that line of Jewish women, beaten dog harried and forced to scramble up onto the tail gate of a truck. Pauline’s response to her situation is pushed and moulded by similar imperatives: fear and self survival. And in Pauline’s situation survival seems best assured by doing what you are told to do, keeping your head down and avoiding at all costs being noticed. He role is that of the passive collaborator. We forget: often it seems there is no other choice.
Pauline’s context in terms of Brownlow and Mollo’s script is that she is an Arian . As a nurse if she conforms and joins the party she has the right to work and so the right to live. But this right to live is provisional. Pauline, like the Jews (from whom she averts her gaze), also has the right to die if she does not agree to collaborate with the Nazis. Which collaboration though, also marks her out for retribution from the Resistance. And it is on this edge that she lives. Her fear and shrunken battered psyche are all emblematically imprinted upon her and Pauline Murray plays her newsreel role without fuss without resistance as if she had been a face in the crowd all her life.
And we are silent before her.
And this silence is partly engendered by the filmic quality of the movie, offering as it does to the eye images which recreate the look and dynamic of the 1940’s black and white newsreel. This surely is Kevin Brownlow’s achievement, already in his early 20’s a student of newsreel form and able to use this knowledge to produce the replication of news and documentary footage that is a virtual product of the era: a phenomenological gloss on events denied but easily imagined that with character and location seem to step out of the period’s 35mm Pathe reels and reconnect us with the intentions and textures of those days.
The filmic form and performances of It Happened Here are given substance by the intelligence of the script and the way the script works to project the key idea implicit in the project.
The key controlling concept is the reality of national defeat and occupation. As B and M will have observed from the response of the people in occupied France, most of the population did not fight back. The French, once defeated, wanted their lives back: a return to normal existence where you got up in the morning had breakfast went to work and returned home at night. Normalcy junkies. They accepted the justifying banalities their new Masters and turned a blind eye to the terror and murder in their midst. Although the script for It happened Here is more temporally extensive, it has the essential dimensions of a Day in the Life of…. Like Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan, Pauline goes about her daily round: being indoctrinated, working according to the Party diktat, compromising, ‘not seeing’ , eating and going to bed. All unheroic but the perfect vehicle for the viewer to understand the plausibility of the film’s proposition. As contrary to British jingoistic fantasy, most of us are likely collaboration fodder, easily scared, and whatever the cost, put our own and our families’ survival first.
Looked at from one point of view it Happened Here involves a slight but significant transposing of ideas from Orwell’s 1984 into its script, which significantly effects the credibility of the material. In particular B and M made the adroit scripting decision to detach British 40’s Nazism from the Hitler Fuhrer cult. By the 1960’s Hitler had already become a kind of joke figure, a hobgoblin a troll. The sight of British Nazis making the fascist salute and screaming Heil Hitler would have engendered only laughter. So the script minimises Hitler (I spotted one portrait of him in the picture), and there are very few references to him. He is replaced by the idea of the primacy of the State. Everything for the state. The Nazi ideology with its forcefully pitched empty rhetoric and junk ideas remains, but there is the slight effect of Orwell that gives the structure and rhetoric of the Nazi Party greater plausibility and coherence.
It is a horror with which we are all too used to now after the horror of civil wars in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, but It Happened Here captures the essential insane logic of internecine conflict. Between the opposing forces the Resistance and the Home Nazi’s, lie the civilians, who want to live but have no options other than to die as they are a part of the contested real and imagined territory over and about whom the conflict rages. The civilians are collateral damage.
On viewing It Happened Here almost 50 years after it was released, my feeling is that it is a remarkable film, extraordinarily incisive in its understanding and recreation of social dimensions and relations in Britain. Of course it was and still is probably political unfashionable. There are no real heroes or heroines, just a woman lost to herself trying to survive. There is no overt social message, and the covert social message is pessimistic. Perhaps this is why it seems to have been mostly ignored by commentators and writers discussing the new British Cinema of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. On my estimation Brownlow and Mollo may have only made one film, but it is on a par with anything produced by Richardson Reisz or Anderson. Ironically like the invasion it proposes that never happened, It Happened Here has also been consigned to oblivion. Adrin Neatrour firstname.lastname@example.org