Sunday, 5 February 2012

What If?

Over Christmas, I saw a couple of episodes of 'Allo 'Allo, for the first time in a while.  Although it is obviously bawdy farce, there is a thread running through of making light of a pretty awful situation, the Nazi occupation of France.  One can make a case that half of Britain's issues with Europe at a political level are because we weren't invaded in the twentieth century; there is no folk memory of the tanks rolling across the border, of the mass displacements or refugee crises as the blitzkreig swept through, or of the enemy living amongst us, drinking in our pubs, and consorting with our women.

Of course, one piece of British soil was occupied by the Germans.  Any visitor to the channel islands can see the great concrete fortifications thrown up by the wehrmacht, or the site on Alderney which was home to the only concentration camp in Britain.  The Channel Islands experience ought to give the lie that there is any genuine British particularity; that the experience of being occupied would have been any different for the British subject than it was for the millions of Dutch, Belgians and French that actually had to live with the reality of foreign subjugation.  Yet the idea of what Britain would have been like if the Nazis had been successful in mounting an invasion is a subject that has provided fertile territory for film makers over the years, for a variety of reasons.

1) Film as propaganda.

At the height of the second world war, Alberto Cavalcanti made a film of a specially commissioned Graham Greene script - Went the Day Well?  WTDW is a shocking little film, which is quite nasty in many ways.  It tells the story of a German army unit disguised as Royal Engineers, on a mission to disrupt the British radar network on the South Downs, and their interactions with the villagers of Bramley End from arrival, through detection, to the final battle with the regular army.  Of course, being propaganda, I don't think I'm giving away to much of a spoiler to say that the German invaders are defeated, but WTDW does not make it easy, or say that there is anything inevitable about such an outcome.

The film deals with all the obvious points that you would expect the British authorities to want to hammer home to their population: careless talk, reporting anything that looks suspicious, etc, but then goes beyond that.  It raises the existence of fifth columnists in unlikely places, and throughout the film is perfectly clear about the sort of sacrifices which the ordinary citizen may be required to make - from the postmistress killing a German in her kitchen before being killed by another soldier in her turn, to the scene at the manor house where the village's very own version of Linda Snell saves the evacuees by calmly picking up the handgrenade which has landed in their bedroom and walking out onto the landing with it, no one has an easy time.  There's even an eight year old boy who manages to get shot while trying to escape.  WTDW does not pull its punches, and is in many ways a remarkable film - even if some of the acting is a bit dodgy (but full marks to Elizabeth Allen and the young Thora Hird!)

2) Film as escapist fantasy.

By the 1970s, most of the key events of WW2 had been filmed, with varying degrees of success, but the budgets and demand existed for a succession of thrillers, which began to deviate further and further from actual events.  Fitting into this canon are films like The Eye of the Needle, starring Donald Sutherland, and of course The Eagle Has Landed.

Based on the novel by Jack Higgins, TEHL uses the story of a Luftwaffe paratroop unit trying to assassinate Churchill during a visit to Norfolk as the backdrop for what is basically sunday afternoon popcorn fodder.  However, it does, consciously or otherwise, hark back to WTDW in many ways, including the difficulty of villagers trying to communicate their plight with the outside world, and the varying levels of competence displayed by their putative rescuers.  Like the earlier film, TEHL relies for its plot development on the existence of traitors within the local community (In this case Donald Sutherland and Jean Marsh), who are clearly outnumbered by "decent"British types who eventually see them off.  As with the wartime propaganda films, there is never any real doubt about the final outcome.

3. Film as historical counter-factual.

This is what we might call the Virtual History approach, and the exemplar is the most difficult of all the films in the German Invasion genre, Brownlow and Mollo's It Happened HereIHH sets out to provide a documentary style investigation of what it would have been like if a German invasion of the UK had been successful, and followed up with prolonged German occupation.  In the 40 odd years since its release IHH has never been very far from controversy; from its use of actual British fascists as extras, through to a clinical style which is totally non-judgmental about what it is portraying.  The result is a deeply unsettling, uncompromising thesis that turns the British national folk myth of WW2 on its head.

For Brownlow and Mollo, the British would have capitulated before the Germans every bit as readily as was the case anywhere else.  Of course, there would have been partisans and resistance, but the great majority would have settled down quietly under some form of crypto-Vichy regime (in this case under the aegis of the paramilitary Immediate Action organisation, which apparently works in support of a British puppet government, headed by Oswald Mosley).  IHH raises important questions about the role of free will and individual choice, as well as the capacity for realistic resistance in the face of totalitarianism.  Indeed, it asks (and answers in exactly the same way) the core question from Powell and Pressburger's Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - how far should people be prepared to go to fight fascism, given that the alternative to winning is no alternative at all? 

The problem for IHH is that it doesn't supply any easy answers, or offer much in the way of hope. Yes, the film ends with news coming over the wireless of a series of landings by the United States Army in the West Country (a sort of alter-D-Day), but this doesn't kick off delirious national celebrations so much as an orgy of score-settling on the part of the partisans, machine gunning British SS members and anyone that can be loosely defined as a collaborator in woodland clearings and generally setting the scene for a new dictatorship of the left, qua eastern Europe.

All of the films use the national myth of British exceptionalism for their own purposes - whether to stiffen national resolve in the face of external threat, or to provide a cheerful way of spending 2 hours in a cinema in the case of TEHL.  What makes IHH so unsettling is that it attempts to question the veracity of the stories that we tell about ourselves as a nation, and show that we are simply just another part of a wider humanity. 

In this analysis, there is nothing special about Britain or the British, except the luck of having 30 miles of water between us and a succession of European tyrants.

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