Their Finest is a most enjoyable film that had us sobbing as well as laughing. Mostly light, it also has very dark moments and I thought that this was a well-crafted script by Gaby Chiappe that manages to mix references to contemporary 1940s Home Front films, documentary and propaganda work and more modern perspectives on viewing the wartime period. Based on the 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, this is a story about what it might have been like for a bright young woman to find herself thrust into the British film industry in 1940 as a dialogue writer at a time when films were part of the war effort and it was important to find the ‘authentic voice’ of people across the UK. Up till then, the industry was best known for putting West End plays on screen or casting working-class comedians in films for Northern audiences. Think Anna Neagle vs. Gracie Fields. There was a female writer at Ealing in the period who might have been a model for the film’s protagonist. Diana Morgan did in fact work alongside some of Ealing’s major screenwriters and directors. Her wartime work includes a co-scripting credit for Ships With Wings (1941), a ‘romance melodrama’ about a Fleet Air Arm pilot flying in the defence of Greece against the Germans. Better known now is the Cavalcanti film from Ealing Went the Day Well (1942), the very effective warning against German invasion and the dangers of ‘fifth columnists’. Morgan worked on this screenplay as well. She too was Welsh, like Catrin in Their Finest and roughly the same age, but she had experience writing successful West End revues with her husband
Lissa Evans tells us that she researched the wartime industry and watched many of the films – and it shows. Our heroine is Catrin/Katherine, a girl from Ebbw Vale living in London with her husband, a Spanish Civil War veteran prevented from joining up because of a war wound and now a struggling artist. Catrin works is working as a secretary when a chance meeting lands her a job at the Ministry of Information writing the ‘slop’ – women’s dialogue in short propaganda films. I don’t think I’ve heard that term before but the general sexism – and the responses to it from women ‘liberated’ by the accidents of war – are all too familiar. I’ve heard some comments and read some reviews which refer to the ‘silliness’ of the plotting in Their Finest, but I suggest that the writers ought to spend a little time looking at the work of The Archers (Powell & Pressburger), the documentarists drafted into propaganda work, Ealing Studios, Launder & Gilliat with Millions Like Us and many more. I think I could find a wartime film reference for most of the incidents in Lissa Evans’ story.
Catrin is played, wonderfully, by Gemma Arterton. I’m certainly a fan of Ms Arterton and she looks terrific in those 40s outfits. I’m pleased that she seems to have given up Hollywood blockbusters for smaller independents and stage work. Perhaps she will benefit from the Lone Scherfig touch. There is some similarity, I think, between Catrin in this film and Carey Mulligan’s Jenny in An Education (UK 2009). An Education made Mulligan a star and kick-started Scherfig’s anglophone film career. Lone Scherfig is also served by a host of female collaborators: the writers, producers, casting agent, film editor, production designers and production managers – and composer Rachel Portman with a nicely judged score and choice of non-original material. One inconsequential scene stood out for me. Gemma Arterton is not a waif-like leading lady. She’s quite tall and shapely. At one point, when she is moved into a new writing office, she finds herself squeezing uncomfortably between desks and cabinets to get to her desk. The position of her desk is deliberately awkward to emphasise her place in the pecking order. When the two men leave her working one night, she is told she should ‘tidy up’ the office. When they return, she has indeed tidied up and now her desk is free of clutter, and if I remember rightly, now higher up than the mens’ and easy to access. She doesn’t make a fuss but simply smiles sweetly. This is an aspect of the film for which Scherfig and Chiappe have been praised highly. Instead of putting down or confronting the sexism (which might appear anachronistic), these extremely capable women simply demonstrate that they are right without fuss.
Their Finest is primarily a “let’s make a film about ‘x” narrative which involves a rather warm and nostalgic view of wartime filmmaking, but also accurately represents the problems facing the industry. The close collaboration of the writers also sets up the possibility of a romance between Catrin (whose husband doesn’t appreciate her abilities) and her chief tormenter, the writer Tom Baker played by Sam Claflin. Claflin is best-known for franchises such as The Hunger Games and The Huntsman and I confess that I didn’t take too much notice of him, but here with a thin ‘tache and round glasses, he presents an interesting character and his dialogues with Catrin are often witty and rapid-fire. Some reviewers describe the film as a romcom. I’m not sure I agree. It certainly has both romance and comedy but not the typical romcom structure. It draws on a wide range of repertoires and interesting sub-plots and secondary characters that don’t necessarily bear on the romance directly. I should also add that there are some surprising plot twists which confound romcom assumptions.
The film being made is ‘based on a true story’ and involves two young women in the evacuation of troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. As far as I’m aware, there were no wartime films directly about Dunkirk. Ealing’s film with John Mills was made in the late 1950s. The only ‘real’ major conflicts that were celebrated in wartime films were victories – and then often it was documentary realism that came to the fore, e.g. in Desert Victory (1943). ‘The Nancy Starling’ (the name of the young women’s ship, named after their mother) seems to me an amalgam of several ideas for films early in the war. The most likely source for the ideas about the film-in-film production here is The Foreman Went to France (Ealing 1942) in which a Welsh engineer is sent to France in 1940 to try to bring vital machinery back to the UK before it is captured by the invading German forces. He is helped by the film’s star, comedian Tommy Trinder and Gordan Jackson as British Army soldiers. I was also reminded of One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) made by Powell & Pressburger for the Ministry of Information and featuring Googie Withers and Pamela Brown as Dutch women helping an RAF crew who had to abandon their plane over Holland get back to England. That film highlighted the Dutch resistance and the importance of the British war effort for Occupied Europe. Their Finest deals with a production which halfway through the scripting is required to appeal to American audiences. This did indeed happen with documentary films such as Humprey Jennings’ Listen to Britain (1942) with its tagged on appeal to American audiences (by a Canadian). There are some nice jokes about a documentary filmmaker directing ‘The Nancy Starling’. The idea of featuring a ‘real’ American airman in ‘The Nancy Starling’, a volunteer from one of the Eagle Squadrons formed for the RAF, is also based on fact. Powell & Pressburger cast Sgt John Sweet of the US Army in their 1944 film Canterbury Tale (arguably their strangest ‘propaganda film’). Most of Powell & Pressburger’s wartime films were part-funded/supported by the Ministry of Information or other government agencies. This enabled them to use expensive Technicolor filmstock, but also created major problems when their films didn’t conform to official propaganda lines – see the strife over the Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (1943). Both Technicolor and War Office interference are evident on the production of ‘The Nancy Starling’.
Most of the reviews of Their Finest, single out Bill Nighy’s performance as the ageing actor Ambrose Hilliard. Nighy does what he does best and it is indeed entertaining – and certainly provides plenty of audience pleasure. But for me, his part is perhaps a little too big. Helen McRory plays his agent and represents another capable woman, doing her job well, but the character I would like to have seen with an expanded role is Phyl, the 1940s lesbian (played by Rachael Stirling) whose job I didn’t fully understand, but she seems to be the Ministry of Information’s manager on set. I’d have liked to have seen more of her adviser/mentor role for Catrin. She also represents the character who most brings to mind the retrospective view of women in wartime which has appeared in several plays, novels, TV and films since the war and particularly since the 1970s. The one that I remembered was Sarah Waters’ novel (and later a TV adaptation) The Night Watch 2006. I was interested in reading North American reviews of Their Finest by a remark about the ‘British sub-genre’ of the Home Front drama. I think Hollywood sees the ‘Home Front’ as a relatively small part of the range of narratives surrounding the Second World War, but in the UK, the ‘total war’ meant that women were involved as much as men.
Their Finest is an important British film with a wonderful cast of British character actors including Eddie Marsan, Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Irons and Henry Goodman. It was shot on location in West Wales and in Pinewood – standing in for the host of 1940s London Studios. I hope it goes on to a long life on DVD and TV and perhaps encourages audiences to seek out the films of the 1940s that informed it. After I finished writing this post, I came across the detailed piece on ‘Women and WWII British film’ by Stephen Woolley, one of the producers of the film, in Sight and Sound (May 2017) . He gives a great deal of information about the research for the film and mentions many more film titles and writing about film production in the wartime period. There is also an interview with Lone Scherfig.
The Overlanders is a highly significant film, an Australian classic helping to re-establish filmmaking in Australia after 1945. The Australian government approached the British Ministry of Information in 1943 in the hope of producing a film celebrating the Australian war effort. The MoI passed the request to Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios and Harry Watt was eventually despatched to Australia. Production began in 1945 at the time the war was coming to an end in Europe. It was released in September 1946 when the war had been over for a year (though ‘policing’ duties carried on in the Dutch East Indies during the Indonesian War of Independence). The film was extremely successful in Australia and sold well around the world. (See this Australian Screen website for more background information.)
Harry Watt was one of the most distinguished filmmakers of the British documentary movement of the 1930s, probably best known for Night Mail in 1936, co-directed with Basil Wright. After directing the documentary Target For Tonight in 1941, Watt moved from the Crown Film Unit to Ealing and in 1943 directed Nine Men, a fictional war combat film set in the North African desert in which a small British squad hold off an Italian attack. In 1945 he was not yet 40 and quite prepared for a gruelling shoot in Australia. He took some Ealing personnel with him but recruited local Australian talent as well.
The story, written by Watt, was based on real events suggested by the Australian authorities. The film opens in 1942 in Wyndham, the centre for meat-packing in the Kimberley region of Western Australia (but in effect on the North coast of Australia). Bill McAlpine (Chips Rafferty) a cattle ‘drover’ has just delivered 1,000 local cattle for slaughter and processing, but the perceived threat of Japanese invasion following the bombing of Darwin in February 1942 sees McAlpine ordered to shoot and burn the cattle as part of a ‘scorched earth policy’. The whole area is being evacuated. McAlpine refuses to abandon the cattle and declares that he will drive them over 2,000 kms to the outskirts of Brisbane. It’s the worst time of year to cross a huge expanse of brush and mountains and rivers and McAlpine struggles to put together a motley crew that includes a sailor (‘sick of the sea’), a gambler, two Aborigine stockmen, two horse traders (facing the same problem) and a local family fleeing south. The family includes an experienced man and wife and their two daughters, one a 20 year-old rider. What follows is a form of ‘Australian Western’ that actually predates the classic Hollywood ‘trail Western’ Red River (dir. Howard Hawks, 1948) with John Wayne.
Chips Rafferty, destined to become one of Australian cinemas first international stars, is an interesting actor – physically tall but here proving a strong leader because of his calm demeanour, knowledge of cattle and terrain and decisiveness rather than his physical presence. Wikipedia quotes a line from what I assume was an obituary notice in 1971, he was: “the living symbol of the typical Australian”. Watt manages to make the drive interesting by carefully structuring the narrative to include potential hazards and set-backs ranging from ‘poison grass’, river crossings with crocodiles in attendance, bogs, drought and dangerous mountain crossings. He also brings aircraft into play, including the Flying Doctor service. Watt’s documentary background enabled him to make good use of these scenes – I especially liked the farmer who pedalled a generator to contact the Flying Doctor by radio.
The presence of an attractive young woman in the shape of Daphne Campbell would have certainly pushed a similar Hollywood narrative in particular directions, but here she is celebrated mainly for her horse-riding skills, even if a brief romantic interlude does lead to a lack of attention to the cattle. (See the poster which certainly ‘oversells’ the romance.)
There are two aspects of the film that seem important in the context of its production. At one point the cattle are taken through a gorge and watching them from the top of the cliffs is a group of Aboriginal men – dressed for hunting as they would have been for thousands of years. The scene is familiar from John Ford Westerns but instead of some kind of stand-off, McAlpine and his drovers simply acknowledge the men on the cliffs who return the recognition. Throughout the film the ‘otherness’ of the Aboriginal characters is not emphasised as such. Given the exposure of institutionalised racism in Australian society in the 1930s in more recent films such as Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) it’s tempting to see the attitudes in The Overlanders as representing a British left/liberal position as set out by Watt. The script still registers ‘difference’ – as when the drive comes across a small town with “The first white man we’d seen” – and the two Aboriginal drovers are not promoted to major speaking roles. But at least they are part of the group. This links to the second key scene picked out by Charles Barr in his book on Ealing Studios.
In several of the British films made during the latter part of the war, especially those from Labour-supporting writers and directors, there is often a short speech about how future plans should work out and what kind of world might be built when peace arrives. In The Overlanders, that speech goes to McAlpine when he discovers that Corky the gambler wants to ‘exploit’ the Northern Territories by forming a private consortium. “No”, he says – “the development has to be national and to involve all Australians”. This is, indeed, the logic of the film’s narrative with the group of drovers representing Australia (including the Aboriginal groups).
Ealing went on to set up a production base of sorts in Australia and produced four more films over the next ten years –but generally declining in quality according to Barr. Two of those four were directed by Harry Watt (Eureka Stockade (1949) and the last official Ealing film, The Seige of Pinchgut (1959)). In the intervening period, Watt found himself in East Africa where he made two features. The first, in Kenya, was the early ‘eco-thriller’ about the struggle to establish game parks in the face of poaching – Where No Vultures Fly (1951). Charles Barr dubs this film an ‘African Overlanders‘ and like the Australian film, it attracted appreciative audiences in the UK and abroad. The two films suggested that there might be an international market for British films (as distinct from ‘Hollywood-British’) with ‘adventure narratives’ and spectacular scenes made overseas, but for a variety of reasons this didn’t really develop in the early 1950s. However, The Overlanders did give confidence to an Australian film industry struggling to recover after the war.
The Imitation Game has provoked strong views about cinema. The film is doing excellent business, mainly with older audiences. But it has also been the subject of attacks about historical accuracy and ‘authenticity’ some of which are misguided because those making the attacks don’t understand film culture all that well.
The screening I attended was quite busy for a Saturday night with an audience mainly over 50 who seemed to enjoy it. The older audience is not a surprise given the subject matter about the codebreakers at Bletchley Park in World War II. The central focus is on Alan Turing and the film’s title is taken from the name given by Turing to the exploration of the concept of artificial intelligence and how to define it. The two factors which mean that the film differs considerably from the Michael Apted thriller Enigma (UK 2001), set around the same historical events, are that Turing was a singular mathematician and a gay man in the 1940s when homosexuality was illegal – and the character is played by the star du jour, Benedict Cumberbatch. Given the strong box office there must be plenty of the younger Cumberbatch fans (some of whom are female fans known by the unflattering description ‘Cumberbitches’) who have turned up to see an extraordinary performance.
The attacks on the film – apart from a few clueless media reviewers who don’t understand why the film works – are represented by online pieces like the Alex von Tunzelmann one in the Guardian entitled ‘Inventing a new slander to insult Alan Turing’. At the time of writing this had attracted 745 comments. The ‘new slander’ inserted into the script sees Turing not reporting a Soviet spy in the codebreaking team because he fears exposure as a gay man and the spy knows this. This is the only real charge against the script – the other changes to the historical record are not so important given the difficulty of condensing a long story into a film under two hours. (This length issue too has been challenged since Harvey Weinstein’s talons are around the film for a US release and he has a track record of trying to cut European and Asian films that he acquires.) There is certainly an argument to be made that the ‘Alan Turing story’ would need a ten part TV serial to cover all the ground in sufficient detail. There have been several films and TV fictions as well as documentary programmes which have covered the code-breaking activities during the war but this is the one that will reach the widest audience – the audience which before the film will know little or nothing about Alan Turing. And for that reason I think its historical ‘conveniences’ are excusable.
The ‘Soviet spy’ incident (which as far as I know is completely fictitious – although the historical character who was subsequently suspected of spying did work at Bletchley he didn’t work with Turing)) is interesting but I don’t want to spoil the film’s narrative by analysing how the plot works. What I can note is that the film focuses on three crucial periods in Turing’s life, as a public schoolboy of 16 in 1928, as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park from 1939 to 45 and as a gay man in 1952 accidentally caught up in a police investigation. The Russians aren’t mentioned in 1928 (although Turing did want to go to the Soviet Union in the 1930s and he did go to Germany) but by 1942 they were British allies, so spying activities were part of the complex power struggles between the allies over the conduct of the war. In 1952 the ‘Cambridge spies’ Burgess and Maclean had made headlines by ‘disappearing’ and their stories would become part of the Cold War debates about spies, double agents etc. over the next thirty years. The history of interest in the Soviet Union and Marxist political thought at Cambridge in particular during the 1930s is an important context for Turing’s own development but the film narrative doesn’t have time to explain this fully. (The Cambridge spies were also associated with a gay community in the university.)
The best compliment I can give the filmmakers is to say that after the screening I rushed home to find my copy of Andrew Hodges’ book, a detailed biography by a gay mathematician about a fascinating Englishman and his tragic death. Alan Turing the Enigma of Intelligence in its 1983 edition is over 500 pages of very small print with a huge reference section. It’s a phenomenal piece of writing and has deservedly been re-published. The author’s website has all the relevant publishing details.
The film’s script by Graham Moore is based on Hodges’ book and it’s one of the two main American contributions to the production (the other is editor William Goldenberg) – which is a truly global affair with a Norwegian director (Morten Tyldum), a Spanish DoP (Oscar Faura) and a French musical composer (Alexandre Desplat). British production designer Maria Djurkovic describes her work on the film in a BFI interview and, of course, the cast is British. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing very well – but then it’s almost like a Ken Loach casting decision, he fits the part so well in terms of background. The rest of the cast is good too and in terms of entertainment value, Charles Dance as the bone-headed naval officer in charge at Bletchley and Mark Strong as the MI6 man are priceless. Keira Knightley often seems to get criticised but she is actually a hardworking actor who takes a diverse range of roles and she’s very good here. Praise too is needed for the boys who play the younger Turing and his schoolfriend.
I was surprised that I enjoyed the film so much. I thought the narrative was well-constructed, moving smoothly so that there isn’t really time to think about the historical inaccuracies. My only criticism about the production is that the inauthentic shots of the railways aren’t needed and the presumably quite expensive shots of bomb-damaged London streets could be represented by newsreel footage playing in a cinema. The film is quite conventional overall and that helps it to reach a wide audience. But it also made two good points about wartime Britain and the concept of total war, i.e. the idea that everyone is involved in the war effort. In terms of Bletchley Park this meant that all the brightest mathematicians and cryptanalysts were brought together (though I suspect that the film underplays the important roles of the women in this operation) but that the young men must have faced a great deal of public criticism as they were not in uniform and seemed not be doing anything for the war effort at all (because it was all secret).
So, the story is being told about the wartime work. But the last episode about Turing in Manchester in the early 1950s is not really adequate – either about Turing as a gay man or about what he was doing in terms of artificial intelligence. The title of the film does refer to both the ‘Turing test’ and to the fact that Turing himself had to imitate a heterosexual man throughout his life, at least in public. Perhaps we can have another film about Turing in the post-war world?
Earlier this year I posted on Miyazaki Hayao’s anime The Wind Rises. BBC2 recently transmitted the British equivalent film to Miyazaki’s hymn to the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane. The First of the Few celebrates the work of the aero designer R. J. Mitchell whose designs included the prize-winning Supermarine S5 and S6 floatplanes, winners of the Schneider trophy in the 1920s, and then the single most important fighter of the Second World War, the Spitfire which first flew in 1936.
The First of the Few has several similarities with The Wind Rises. Both designers are inspired by the flight of birds, both are obsessed with their work, both visit Germany – and admire the Italian love of high speed planes. Both have important relationships with understanding women that end tragically. But there is also a major difference in that the British film began shooting in 1941 and was completed in 1942 just two years after the ‘Battle of Britain’ (the title is taken from Churchill’s speech about the debt owed to the fighter pilots who flew the Spitfires – and in larger numbers the Hurricane). It was therefore produced in the context of the war effort and has been described as ‘propaganda’. I’m not sure that is the most useful term. The film doesn’t work crudely to ‘persuade’ its audience – it assumes that the audience understands the aims of the war effort. Nevertheless it doesn’t refrain from milking the emotional response to a British success story which was crucial in 1942 when the outcome of the war was still in doubt. German and Italian figures in the 1920s and 1930s are shown as sometimes comical characters, though like the Powell & Pressburger films of the period, some Germans are shown sympathetically (e.g. the airmen of the the Great War in the Richthofen Club).
The wartime context allowed the producers to get the active support of the RAF and Vickers Supermarine. Mitchell was played by Leslie Howard who also directed the film. Howard was a major star who tragically died, shot down by the Luftwaffe on a civilian flight, in 1943. The other ‘marquee’ name in the film was David Niven who was released by Sam Goldwyn in exchange for the US rights to the film. Unfortunately Goldwyn decided to rename the film Spitfire in North America and to cut around 35 minutes from the 123 minutes UK running time (supposedly because as the test pilot, Niven didn’t appear throughout the film). There is a great deal of background on the film’s production on the website of ‘South Central Media’ (i.e. the locations around Southampton) and also on this Leslie Howard appreciation blog.
The Leslie Howard website (see above) reveals that the story and script of the film went through several processes to end up with the final version in which the development of Mitchell’s ideas to eventually produce the Spitfire is told in flashback to a group of young pilots by the Niven character Crisp, now a Station Commander during the Battle of Britain. The film begins with one of those familiar wartime montages introducing the threat of invasion (though it seems bizarre that the British audience of the time would have needed such an intro – this may have been deemed necessary to introduce the story to an American audience). It ends with a quasi mystical image of a Spitfire flying into the sun as seen by Niven, now up in a Spitfire himself. These last few shots seem to prefigure the Powell and Pressburger films A Canterbury Tale (1944) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). In the first of these a flying hawk from a medieval Canterbury noble is transformed into a Spitfire flying over Kentish fields – an iconic image as many writers have noted. In A Matter of Life and Death, Niven is again an RAF officer, this time caught between life and death and quoting Andrew Marvel as his Lancaster bomber crashes into the sea on its return from a bombing raid.
Howard plays his role very well and portrays Mitchell as a sympathetic character. He and the test pilot (Niven) are solidly middle-class, supposedly from the same school with Mitchell as introspective and Crisp as outgoing. In reality Mitchell was a working-class lad from Staffordshire, imposing and athletic with a temper. It’s interesting to conjecture how different the film might have been if made in 1944 or 1945 when working-class characters were starting to appear in lead roles as the country prepared for a Labour government. In the 1930s, most British leading actors were middle-class (or played as such) and in 1942 Howard and Niven certainly sold the film to audiences. But by 1945 someone like Eric Portman might have played Mitchell ‘for real’. Although a biopic of sorts (but only covering Mitchell’s later life), a great deal about the story of The First of the Few has been changed – the trip to Germany for instance never happened – with focus on the Spitfire presented at the expense of Mitchell’s other work. One aspect of the film that does represent the realism of documentary however is the brief montage of the craftsmen at Vickers working to produce the parts for the first prototype Spitfire. Watching the film now is to be reminded how much has been lost in the UK with the neglect of engineering in the last 40 years. The other ‘documentary’ feature of the film is of course the appearance of ‘real’ RAF pilots, some of whom had fought in the Battle of Britain themselves. There seems to be a suggestion in the writing about the film that the focus on the young pilots (many of whom were lost in aerial combat) and the pre-war struggles to get the Spitfire built meant that the film had a very different tone to that expected by Goldwyn. There are relatively few combat scenes and there is an emphasis on how only Mitchell’s brilliance saved the UK in 1940. If this is propaganda it is of the ‘warning to future generations’ kind. In fact the RAF were seeking a fighter like this from the early 1930s onwards. The First of the Few is also a romantic picture in which the shy Mitchell seemingly dies from overwork in completing his design. In reality a very successful top designer suffered from cancer which killed him aged 42. Just as tragic but perhaps not as romantic.
After the final episode of Generation War, BBC2 in the UK offered a discussion of the series by three distinguished academics alongside the series producer. The discussion was chaired by Martha Kearney, a regular presenter of cultural programming on the channel. This strategy was once fairly common on the BBC after controversial films or television productions but this is the first time (that I can remember) when a foreign language production received this kind of attention.
The discussion was intelligent and stimulating and the three academics, specialists in this period, historians Richard Evans and David Cesarani and writer/literature professor Eva Hoffman, all expressed their agreement on how well-made and exciting the film was as well as the range of problems it raised in terms of the history of East/Central Europe during the Second World War. The programme also included some brief interviews with two writers but my main problem with the discussion was that no one was prepared to discuss the film ‘as a film’ and there was no other filmmaker’s voice apart from the producer Benjamin Benedict. Richard Evans, while asserting that the film was not plausible in historical terms, noted that it was as if five young Germans from today had been parachuted into the events of 1941-45. He also admitted that it was impossible to represent characters from the 1940s in a modern drama in an historically accurate way. Of course, he is right and that’s why the film needs to be discussed as a modern drama, not a historical reconstruction. Its artistic intention is to engage younger Germans in an exploration of what their parents and grandparents might have experienced.
The second major issue raised was the depiction of the Poles, Ukrainians and Russians in the film and specifically their treatment of Jews. Again, the academics agreed that the events shown did have a historical basis but that they weren’t representative of the whole experience – and yes it wasn’t possible to cover the whole war in 4.5 hours! My argument is simple, let’s discuss this fascinating mini-series as a long-form film narrative. It is intended as popular entertainment on mainstream television. Inevitably it will use the conventions of mainstream cinema, including the generic conventions of the combat picture and home-front melodrama. We should consider the riveting performances and the stupendous production design as well as the music and cinematography. As a popular film it does have some flaws and we need to address these – but it captured its audience and got audience members talking to each other. Finally, we should consider how it compares to films from other combatant nations in 1941-5.
Outline story (no major spoilers about what happens to the characters)
The film begins in the Summer of 1941 when five young people are celebrating in Berlin before they split up and the war takes them into different stories. The five are aged from roughly 18 to 21. This is important since they are just old enough to have known Germany before the Nazi regime took complete control, but have also been bombarded with propaganda as adolescents. They are Berliners so possibly more liberal than those elsewhere in Germany, but even so, two of them have approached the war in the spirit of fighting for the nation. “I represent German womanhood” Charlotte says when she presents herself as a nurse at a frontline hospital. Wilhelm has already fought in Poland and France and is a Leutnant in the Wehrmacht. Greta and Viktor are lovers. He is a Jewish tailor’s son and this character attracts most of the critics’ attention. Is this plausible they ask? I don’t know – but it is a useful narrative device, requiring Greta to act in a way that will help Viktor escape Berlin. Friedhelm, Wilhelm’s younger brother is the most problematic character for me given the narrative structure. The scriptwriters send three of the friends to the Eastern front and Greta will visit the front as a popular singer for the troops. After the party in Berlin, the five are never together again but four of them meet up on the front and at various times Wilhelm and Friedhelm fight in the same unit and meet Charlotte. Viktor goes his own way but meets Friedhelm. At the end of the story, three of the five are together again in Berlin.
The scriptwriters contrive to weave the five separate stories together so each of the three 90 minute films, subtitled ‘A Different Time’, ‘A Different War’, ‘A Different Country’ features something of each of the five characters’ stories. This means that the coincidences of melodrama are more obvious as the writers bring characters together in different ways. Friedhelm seemingly changes the most in his behaviour, yet it may be that his understanding of the psychology of war remains the same. I couldn’t work it out. He begins as the ‘rebel intellectual’ (rebelling against his father and to some extent against his older brother) almost unable to fight but in time becomes a ruthless killer. Wilhelm travels in the opposite direction, recognising quite early that Germany will lose the war. Charlotte becomes a better person. Greta perhaps gets ‘above herself’ but arguably suffers more than she should. Viktor becomes the catalyst in the story, both for Greta’s actions and for a lengthy sub-plot about the anti-semitism of some members of the Polish ‘Home Army’ – but also the courage of other Poles.
I wonder if the series would have worked better as a longer narrative in which each of the five characters had their own one hour episode plus an opening and closing episode where the five stories coalesce. This might have allowed more attention to character development and required less manipulation of the separate stories. In a sense, Viktor’s story is different, simply because he exists ‘outside’ the central German narrative (i.e. in relation to the German military, Gestapo etc.). I think that overall I reject much of the criticism that the series has taken re the representation of Jewish characters and the ‘too positive’ representations of the young (and attractive) German characters. The films don’t ignore the Jewish question and they certainly represent both the cruelty and viciousness of some of the Germans and the political naivety and ideological confusion as well. Having said that, I do think the final scenes in 1945 don’t represent the horror of Berlin as well as Anonyma– Eine Frau in Berlin (Germany-Poland 2008).
The main problem for film viewers and critics in the Anglophone world is that we don’t know enough about the Eastern front from 1939 to 1945. There are a couple of UK/US films that do engage with the range of issues in Generation War. Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (UK/West Germany 1977) and the recent Defiance (US 2008) by Edward Zwick are both worth exploring but mostly it is German, Polish and Russian films that should be the basis of comparative analysis. Sophie Scholl (Germany 2005) is a very different kind of film but it shows very well what kind of ideological ‘work’ is possible in stories about Germany from 1943 onwards when the ‘final victory’ becomes increasingly less likely for some young Germans – as distinct from the younger teenagers recruited into the German forces in 1944-5 who are depicted in Generation War as completely driven by propaganda.
The Russian and Polish films discussed on this blog include Trials on the Road (USSR 1971/85) and Katyn (Poland 2007). These films view the events of the war through the eyes of Russians and Poles as much as Generation War focuses on the views of young Germans. What all the films explore is the sweep of the action across a huge swathe of territory disputed over centuries by different occupying powers. Individuals in 1939-45 often changed sides and changed uniforms, atrocities were committed and great courage was shown. Notions of ‘friend or foe’ must have been very difficult to negotiate and concepts of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ soldiers or morally correct civilians seem hard to apply. Of course there were internal conflicts in all the countries occupied by the Axis powers in Western and Southern Europe during 1939-45 (and films have been made about them in those countries) but I don’t think those conflicts were quite as complex in terms of identity as in the disputed lands of Eastern Germany, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus etc. Generation War offers another perspective on what happened in the East as far as five twenty-something Germans were concerned. Now it would be good to see a bit more about what happened at home in Berlin (the father of Wilhelm and Friedhelm is a mysterious character and I’d like to know about Charlotte’s and Greta’s families). I’d also recommend Lore (Australia/Germany/UK 2012) as a good follow up to Generation War (which is now available on DVD in the UK). And of course it’s always good to go back to Edgar Reitz’s mammoth TV serial Heimat (West Germany 1984), also on DVD.
The Cornerhouse programme of ‘Matinee Classics’ continues during the ¡Viva! Festival so that there is a rare chance to see a screening of an earlier Spanish classic film in the usual Sunday/Wednesday afternoon slot. Las largas vacaciones del 36, directed by Jaime Camino, is a familiar reflection on the experience of the Civil War, made more intriguing by its release in 1976 during the last days of the Francoist regime and soon after the release of Cría cuervos by Carlos Saura (a clever and popular satire of the impact of the regime).
I wasn’t able to find out much about the film before or after the screening, so I’ll have to respond directly to what I saw. I’d classify the it as a family melodrama, except that its style is relatively muted and high emotion is reserved for the closing stages of the film. The title refers to the holidays taken by a couple of bourgeois Barcelona families each year in a village in the hills surrounding the city. In July 1936 the families are in their summer residences when the Civil War begins and they remain there trapped by the war until the fall of Barcelona in early 1939.
The script focuses on two families with one firmly associated with the Republican cause and the other much more pragmatic. This second family reluctantly hides a rich fascist and his partner (and their car) but is then ready to receive the Francoists in 1939. There is a flurry of action in the first few days of the war as the local Republicans secure the village, but for most of the film narrative, the families have to pass the time, finding ways to survive as food runs out and establishing a temporary school for their children. The focus on children ties in with the censorship demands of Francoist cinema (which proscribed what kinds of films would be sanctioned for production), except that these are rather older teenagers. There is nothing very remarkable about the script or the characters, except perhaps the role of the maid Encarta (Angela Molina) who is quite outspoken and has a relatively explicit sexual encounter with one of the teenage boys that perhaps challenged the censor at the time. However, though the film appears quite conventional it does offer an interesting take on the impact of the war including the experience of both boredom and hunger and what it might have been like to have been a middle-class teenager cocooned from the action. The performances are very good and visually the narrative benefits from its unique location above the city. I was reminded of British ‘home front’ films from 1939-45 when characters watch the bombing raids on the city below, signified by the searchlight beams and fires. The film won a prize at Berlin in 1976 and it fits well into the home front genre of war films.
One of the interesting aspects of watching what I presumed was a 35mm print was the variable quality of the reels – damage at reel changes is to be expected, but it was noticeable that some reels had gone ‘pink’ while others had retained a good colour balance. Overall it was fine. In the days of digital projection it’s good to be reminded of both the good and bad points of archive film. I would certainly recommend the film as an archive treat. It shows again on Wednesday this week with the chance to discuss the film with Carmen Herrero, Head of Spanish at Manchester Metropolitan University.