With Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk due to open in the UK this week [now released, see Keith’s review here], I thought it might be interesting to re-visit this Ealing Studios film from 1958 – the only other film completely focused on the Dunkirk evacuation. Joe Wright’s Atonement (UK/France/US 2007) includes a long segment dealing with events during the retreat and evacuation, but these form only part of a complex narrative about the relationships between three characters. Nolan didn’t mention these films in his Sight & Sound interview with Nick James in the August issue, arguing that his film will ‘fill a gap’ in British storytelling on screen. (James does mention the 1958 film.)
The military catastrophe that saw the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and a significant part of the French Army trapped by German forces in a pocket around the port of Dunkirk in late May/early June of 1940 was turned into a propaganda victory with the successful evacuation of 338,000 British, French and other Allied troops taken off the beaches and brought back to the UK. Military historians still debate the reasons why the German forces failed to destroy/capture the Allied troops before they could leave. All the equipment, including military vehicles taken to France by the BEF was lost. In addition, many of the French troops rescued at Dunkirk were later returned to France to fight for the remainder of their country and were subsequently taken prisoner after France fell. More than 30,000 French troops in the ‘rearguard’ at Dunkirk were captured. Dunkirk was a defeat – virtually all Allied operations up to El Alamein in 1942 were defeats. The propaganda victory which established the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ was based on the contribution of the ‘Little Ships’ – the civilian boats that augmented the Royal Navy vessels in the evacuation fleet. Here was the image of ‘total war’ and of the British people with their backs to the wall.
As I noted in an earlier posting on the recent British film Their Finest (2016), Dunkirk was not an appropriate film for propaganda purposes (i.e. visualising and representing the evacuation was not as effective as ‘spinning’ the story in more indirect ways) but some of the elements of the story did appear in fictionalised wartime narratives, including films made by Ealing Studios such as The Foreman Went to France (1942) and Johnny Frenchman (1945). In the 1950s Ealing did not join the other British producers in creating 1950s ‘heroic’ war films (e.g. The Dam Busters (1955) or Reach For the Sky (1956)). Instead, Ealing opted for more downbeat narratives such as The Cruel Sea (1953) in which one of the most memorable scenes sees Jack Hawkins, commander of a submarine-hunting corvette, risking the lives of torpedoed sailors in an attempt to destroy a U-boat. In The Ship That Died of Shame (1955), like The Cruel Sea from a Nicholas Monsatrat novel, three ex-Roal Navy men buy their wartime motor boat and find themselves sucked into a smuggling racket to service the black market in ‘Austerity Britain’ of the late 1940s. It’s perhaps not surprising then that Ealing’s Dunkirk film was similarly downbeat. Its director Leslie Norman had been the producer on The Cruel Sea.
In 1958 Ealing Studios was in its last incarnation having moved out of the Rank film empire and re-located to MGM’s British operation at Borehamwood. Leslie Norman had spent much of his career working on Ealing’s ‘overseas productions’ and had just returned from directing The Shiralee in Australia. For Dunkirk he had his DoP and editor from the Australian shoot, Paul Beeson and Gordon Stone. The script was based on several sources including an Elleston Trevor novel and two non-fiction books by military men. The screenplay was written by another veteran of Australian and African productions William Liscomb (with a younger writer, David Divine). Dunkirk is one of Ealing’s ‘small-scale epics’ with a long running-time (134 minutes). The plot sees the parallel stories of a group of small boat owners on the Thames and a small group of British soldiers separated from their regiment in Northern France. The two groups are destined to meet on the beaches of Dunkirk and the narrative cuts between them until those final scenes. We also briefly visit press conferences in Central London and Royal Navy bases in Dover and Sheerness plus General Gort’s HQ in France. Other than that, the top brass are kept out of it, only seen in newsreels watched by the troops. The film had a budget of £400,000 and Norman claimed to come in under budget. (For comparison, the first three or four Carry On films over the next few years were budgeted at less than £100,000 each. Ealing’s films were usually more expensive than the norm.) Dunkirk was expensive and a gamble for Ealing. MGM’s distribution muscle promised overseas sales and the film did go into profit, although the North American response was relatively weak. Surprisingly perhaps, the film only boasted two star names alongside a host of familiar character actors. John Mills as Corporal ‘Tubby’ Binns leads the group of Tommies and Richard Attenborough plays Holden, a rather reluctant boat-owner who needs a lot of persuading and shaming to make the trip. In many ways, the key figure in the film is Charles Foreman, a journalist who is also a boat-owner, played by Bernard Lee, a very familiar face but not considered a star. (He would later gain fame as M in the Bond films.)
Despite its commercial success, Dunkirk failed to inspire critics and scholars. Two of the chroniclers of Ealing Studios, Charles Barr and George Perry, are dismissive of the film. Both find it dull. Barr is particularly damning though he seems more concerned with equating its story of a defeat with Ealing’s own demise as a studio. David Quinlan suggests that it is “routinely exciting, but disappointing”. It seems to me that Michael Balcon as Ealing’s hands-on leader had embarked on a nearly impossible task – to make a commercial picture about a defeat and a propaganda ‘miracle’. Dunkirk comes across as ‘realistic’ in its attempts to include as a many different facets of the actual events as possible. There are attempts to create analysis through the juxtaposition of newsreel footage and scripted dialogue, but mostly the intent seems to have been to represent the events as fully as possible. I suspect its success was mainly with audiences who already knew about the events but who wanted to see them ‘documented’ in this way. In that sense, Balcon was justified. I found the film interesting rather than exciting, but it did make me think about how I might have felt thrust into such a situation.
The Bernard Lee character is clearly meant to be the representative of the ‘ordinary’ (middle-class) British man. And it is a very male film – virtually the only women in the film are the boat-owner’s wives. Foreman (Lee) is a journalist, although he never files any copy and we don’t find out who he works for. He clearly has clout as he knows all the foreign correspondents in London and he attends Ministry of Information briefings. It’s through him that we hear the grumbling about the lack of real information about what is happening in France and despair about complacency during the ‘Phoney War’ (the title given to the first seven months of the war before the German invasion of Denmark/Norway and then Holland/Belgium and France). Tubby and his men watch propaganda newsreels in France and in the UK, the women in Holden’s factory listen to Lord Haw-Haw on the wireless. Tubby (presumably a veteran soldier – Mills was nearly 50 at the time) finds the men in his group are sometimes whingeing. Having established this sense of a nation that doesn’t really know what is happening – in the armed forces or on the Home Front – Dunkirk closes with a voiceover that is actually quite balanced. It remembers the dead and the captured soldiers, sailors and civilians left in France and clearly states that it was a defeat, but then asserts that the evacuated men “dazed and resentful” returned to a nation that had learned that it now stood alone but ‘undivided’. The UK was a nation made whole. The very last scene shows a parade ground on which Tubby and his closest mate from Dunkirk are part of a larger squad being drilled by a CSM who warns them that Dunkirk was a defeat and not a victory and they need to work hard (and quickly) to become an effective fighting force. Tubby gives his mate a knowing look.
Dunkirk‘s producers were able to use an array of military equipment that was still in working order. The film was made on Camber Sands and in the Port of Rye in East Sussex, on the Thames and at Borehamwood. Even so they needed model shots and stock footage to convey the scope of military action. Christopher Nolan has advanced technologies and a huge budget. He promises something much more immersive but still aims for the personal stories of soldiers, sailors and civilians – and adds an airman. Nolan only has 106 minutes and he has talked about preferring the suspense thriller mode to that of the war film. It sounds like he will be less interested in the mythologising impact of the evacuation. It will be fascinating to see what kinds of meanings his film produces – and what it leaves out – and how audiences respond.
Ealing’s Dunkirk is re-released to cinemas in September in a restored version which will also be available on DVD/Blu-ray from StudioCanal. Here’s the Australian trailer from 1958:
Barr, Charles (1977) Ealing Studios, London: Cameron & Tayleur, Newton Abbot: David & Charles
Perry, George (1981) Forever Ealing, London: Michael Joseph
Quinlan, David (1984) British Sound Films: The Studio Years, 1928-1959, London: Batsford
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.
I’m glad I saw this World War II romance drama – one of the best of recent co-productions. I fear that many audiences will have been put off by reviewers like Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian who seem to be completely oblivious to its better points. It isn’t without flaws but mostly it is very good.
It’s worth mentioning the production background in some detail since it’s unusual in some ways. ‘International films’ made in Europe in English have been a feature of mainstream cinema since the 1950s, but usually these are in some way ‘Americanised’ even though they have European settings. Despite a credit for The Weinstein Company (the US distributor) and an American in the lead role, Suite Française is a French property made by Europeans (mostly British) in Belgium, but with a major French partner in the form of TF1 Films and Canadian input from Alliance/eOne. I mention this because some commentators have referred to a ‘Hollywood film’. Suite Française will get a major French release, presumably dubbed into French? It seems to have had a substantial budget and I wonder how many of the actors (mostly Brits and Germans) could have worked on a French language version at the same time? Just to clarify, the French characters in the film speak (British) English with accents and dialects that represent their position in society. The Germans speak German (with subtitles), except when they talk to the French, when, of course, they speak English. It all works fine. As the convention goes (in for example Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander TV series), all the printed material on screen is in the local language, i.e. in French.
Suite Française was published as a novel with two parts in 2004. It was written in 1940-1 by Irène Némirovsky, the emigré Ukranian Jewish writer, successful in France since the 1920s, who was sent to Auschwitz where she died in 1942. Her notebooks were re-discovered by her daughter in 1998. The first part of the novel tells the story of the flight from Paris at the time of the German invasion in June 1940. This is briefly alluded to in the opening scenes in the film which then goes on to adapt the second part of the novel. This deals with the early period of German Occupation of Northern France up to late Summer 1941 when Germany invaded Russia and the troops billeted in the small town/village of Bussy are sent to the Eastern front. Némirovsky had envisaged five parts for the overall story.
The film reworks this second story, ‘Dolce’, and focuses on Lucile (Michelle Williams) a young woman who had barely met her husband before he joined the French Army (and became a prisoner of war) and who must now endure being bossed about by her fierce mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas). Because they live in the best house in the village the two women are forced to accept a German officer as a lodger. Bruno (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts) is a musical composer from a military family, an Oberleutnant, both cultured and ‘gentlemanly’ yet prepared to endorse the ‘spirit of community’ in the German Armed Forces. His fellow Leutnant is more aggressive and creates disturbance in another billet. The ‘other ranks’ are generally boisterous as in most successful invading armies. These are not necessarily the conventional Nazis of Hollywood war films – but they do carry out draconian policies in dealing with the local people.
Various French films of the 1940s have similar themes. For instance the classic Henri Clouzot film Le Corbeau (The Raven, 1943) includes poison pen letters written by villagers about each other during the Occupation and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea, 1949) shares several key elements. This latter film was based on a novel published in 1942 by Jean Bruller but it seems unlikely that there was any connection between Bruller and Némirovsky. However, one link between the narratives does point to a major weakness in the new film – the voice-over narration by Lucile. In the Melville film the narration is essential since the French couple who have a German officer billeted on them refuse to speak (a strategy initially employed by many ‘occupied’ people – including Lucile’s mother-in-law). We learn about their thoughts from the old man’s narration which continues throughout much of the film. In Suite Française the narration comes at various points from Lucile but it is unnecessary in my view – we can see what she is thinking from her facial expressions, posture, actions etc. Not only that but it is mixed in an odd way and sounds ‘wrong’.
However, apart from the narration, everything else works OK. Bradshaw is very critical of Michelle Williams, arguing that she gives “a worryingly awful lead performance . . . [she] looks like she’s got access to serious amounts of black-market Mogadon cut with Temazepam”. I went back to the novel and the first description of Lucile suggests that she is “beautiful, blonde with dark eyes, but a quiet, modest demeanour and ‘a faraway expression'”. I’m not sure what Peter Bradshaw expects here. The narrative is about a woman from a region where middle-class society shows (in Némirovsky’s words) “a complete absence of any forms of emotion”. This is a woman who slowly blossoms and falls for the younger man who has invaded her home – where she is miserable under her mother-in-law’s gaze. I find that an interesting story. My impression is that overall, the adaptation follows the book’s narrative – some scenes are presented almost as written.
I could go on and pick Bradshaw’s review to pieces and I’m tempted because his approach with its ‘witty’ put-downs angers me so much. Instead, I’ll just focus on the issues of realism and social class. There are several interesting video clips on YouTube in which the various HoDs in the crew discuss how they researched French fashions and make-up in the period and how they studied various films including Le corbeau and Renoir’s La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939). They found a village close to the Belgian border which had been by-passed by progress and they were able to dress it effectively. Saul Dibb was appointed director of the film partly because of his success with The Duchess in which he managed to make a film which appealed to modern audiences without losing the sense of period setting.
Social class is crucial to the story. Némirovsky herself was the daughter of a wealthy banker in Russia and she carefully delineates the social strata of village society. At the top are the Vicomte (and Mayor) and his wife. Lucile’s mother-in-law is the richest non-aristocratic landowner. Lucile’s female friends are tenants she tries to protect from her mother-in-law’s avarice. There is also a Parisian woman and her daughter – Jewish refugees able to pay a higher rent (and in some ways representing Némirovsky herself?). The two Leutnants are both clearly ‘gentlemen’ and this is important in their dealings with the women. The women after all are living in a community where most of the fit young men have disappeared. It may be a cliché but we know that the one young man, a farmer disabled by a war injury, will be important in the drama that follows. Bradshaw refers to “a golden-tinted saga of everyday French collaborating folk”. This is an insult to Némirovsky who has actually provided us with certainly a ‘golden moment’ in the Spring and Summer but also a complex set of relationships and behaviours in which both collaboration and resistance are explored, much – one imagines – like they must have been across France in 1940-1.
I’m going back to the novel (which has re-entered the paperback chart) to see in more detail what Saul Dibb and Matt Charman have done with the characters and storylines in their adaptation. As my defence of Michelle Williams makes clear I have a lot of time for her acting skills and I found her scenes with Matthias Schoenaerts worked well. The film has clearly missed attracting the big audience its makers envisaged (it’s unlikely to make £2 million in the UK). I think it may find that audience on the small screen. I’m intrigued to find out what will happen to the film in France – it feels very British to me.
Official UK trailer:
Other French ‘Occupation’ films on this blog include:
Un sécret (2007)
Un héros très discret (1995)
Le silence de la mer (1949)
I’ve been meaning to watch this film for a long time and now, with the release of Suite Française, it seems appropriate. This is the first film to be directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, one of the major influences on the French New Wave. The ‘silence’ of the title refers to the mute ‘resistance’ of an elderly man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane) in the face of the German Occupation of France in 1940 and specifically the ‘occupation’ of their house when a German officer is billeted there. The film is an adaptation of a major novel of the Resistance published by ‘Vercors’ (Jean Bruller) in 1942 and one of the first post-war films about ‘résistance‘ (which was highly mythologised at the time). Bruller was reluctant to allow an adaptation that might misrepresent his novel and the resistance itself, but Melville, himself doubly ‘signed’ as both a member of the Resistance and a Jew, persuaded him – and indeed then got the author to agree to his own home being used as the main location of the film.
The background to the production is described in detail by Ginette Vincendeau in her excellent introduction to the film on the Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD. Melville was fiercely independent, putting together a crew and a small group of actors from outside the French industry. (I’m not usually in favour of using non-unionised crews but Melville who had a very limited budget couldn’t afford to do it any other way.) He had no formal training but chose his team well. The photographer Henri Decaë had never shot a fiction feature but here found a very effective approach. Later he would become one of the principal creators of the look of the French New Wave. Nicole Stéphane and Jean-Marie Robain had not been credited before and they both went on to have film careers and to work with Melville again.
The film is highly unusual in that the central couple remain silent throughout the film. I think the uncle might utter one line, but the rest of the time he ‘speaks’ to us via voiceover narration. The niece never speaks. The narrative proceeds through the uncle’s narration and the German officer’s monologues, all addressed to the couple in beautifully enunciated French that even a cloth-ears like me could follow at times. Played by the Swiss actor Howard Vernon, the Leutnant is a music lover and a francophile. He explains that he loves German music but that he thinks France has the greatest number of literary giants. Later in the film he has a short holiday in Paris, trying to view the famous sites. However, as he mingles with his fellow officers he realises that the war is not being conducted in the way he thinks it should be. Eventually he will leave to go to the Eastern front.
I hope I haven’t spoiled the narrative. This isn’t a film about plot development and very little happens in an obvious way. I should say that there are subtle presentations of the impact of the Occupation revealed by posters on the wall. Otherwise the film works through the metaphor of the ‘occupation’ of the house. The Leutnant is an interesting figure, both disturbing and seemingly benign at the same time. Melville works with a low-key lighting style and elements of a film noir mise en scène to create a disturbed domestic setting and the first shot of the Leutnant’s arrival is very dramatic with a low angle shot of his face illuminated from below by the key light and framed in the doorway against the dark night sky. Howard Vernon has an unusual face and I wasn’t surprised to learn that later he was cast as the heavy or in roles in horror films. The camerawork generally is ‘disturbing’ with several close-ups and framings from low and high angles. One particular shot is repeated in which the Leutnant stands in the room (he’s quite tall) looking down on the couple who ignore him. We see Nicole Stéphane from above, behind or over the shoulder, baring her beautiful white neck, almost as inviting an attack. At other times, out of his frightening Wehrmacht uniform, ‘Werner’ talks about art and civilisation and incidents from his youth – each of which show him to be sensitive.
The presentation of the ‘occupier’ is such that we see the presentation of the Occupation as almost seductive, like a ‘test’. The couple resist by refusing to engage, although at points as the narration (and the musical theme) emphasise they find themselves drawn to the Leutnant’s monologues. Mute resistance does not sound dramatic and it is difficult to make it ‘cinematic’, though as Vincendeau points out and I certainly noticed, he emphasises the silence by making the ‘ticking’ of the clock louder at times and sound is very important in creating the atmosphere of tension. I was completely engaged over 80 plus minutes.
In the first years of the occupation, silence was in fact a good strategy. In 1940 there was little co-ordinated resistance. This would come later with control from London (where Melville was at one point) and support from active resistance within France. The first step was to give nothing away, to retain identity, to observe and prepare for the future. The original novel by Vercors was an inspirational text in 1942 and Melville alludes to this in the opening and closing scenes of his film. Melville went on to make another two films in the 1960s specifically about the resistance and for a long time he was one of the few filmmakers in France to really understand how to represent the period of Occupation.
Melville’s great resistance film is L’armée des ombres (Army of the Shadows, 1969). Another more recent (and excellent) film exposing the mythology of the resistance is Jacques Audiard’s Un héros très discret (Self-Made Hero, 1996). Melville’s Léon Morin, prêtre 1961 is on my future viewing list.
I’m glad I saw this on the big screen at Vue West End (but disappointed to miss the live appearance of Nina Hoss). Put simply this is a great melodrama by Christian Petzold with a setting associated with the Trümmerfilme or ‘rubble film’. It includes elements from Fassbinder’s ‘BRD trilogy’ including the image of Hanna Schygulla as the Maria Braun character from The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) stepping through the rubble and the nightclub at the heart of Lola (1981).
It is a few months after the end of the war in 1945 and two women drive into Switzerland. One is swathed in bandages and is being transported by her friend Lene. Beneath the bandages is Nelly, whose face has been disfigured during her escape from Auschwitz. She is about to visit a plastic surgeon and get a new face. Lene searches in the archives for a new Jewish identity for Nelly who was a famous popular singer before the war. Lene’s plan is that the pair of them should go to Palestine where Lene has already rented a flat in Haifa. But Nelly has other ideas – one of which involves finding her husband Johnny back in Berlin. This is where the bar, the Phoenix comes in. I won’t spoil the plot except to say that Johnny reappears in the guise of Ronald Zehrfeld (previously paired with Nina Hoss in Petzold’s Barbara (2012)). What follows has been likened to Hitchcock or film noir. There is a suggestion that Petzold didn’t know how to end the film, but I thought it was a perfect ending and as Howard Schumann suggests in his IMDB posting, it creates a moment so resonant that it could become one of the great final scenes in cinema.
The script is based on a novel by the French crime writer Hubert Monteilhet which was first adapted for the screen for a British film directed by J. Lee Thompson with Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow and Samantha Eggar in 1965 under the novel’s title Return From the Ashes (Le retour des cendres). This film (which I now want to see – I don’t remember it coming out – is only available on a Region 1 ‘print on demand’ DVD from MGM Archives). Petzold, working on a new adaptation with the late Harun Farocki, changed the location from Paris to Berlin and some of the other story elements – shifting the genre from crime melodrama to something more metaphorical concerned with identity and fidelity.
I’m a little frustrated that I can’t find a Press Pack for the film so I’m forced to look for interviews with Petzold to explore some of his ideas. The film was first seen at Toronto and has since then provoked a great deal of discussion – much of it querying why it was turned down by Cannes and Venice. I haven’t seen Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep yet but if it’s better than Phoenix it must be quite something. I’d like to explore aspects of the film in detail but I’d need to se it again first and I don’t want to spoil the surprises. What I would say is that it looks stupendous shot on Super 35 film in CinemaScope and with rich reds standing out against the rubble. Nina Hoss gives a breathtaking performance. Nelly has to gradually recover her confidence and her sense of self – and then the plot requires Nelly to play another role.
As well as Hitchcock and Franju (Eyes Without a Face) some critics have also referenced Douglas Sirk’s 1958 Hollywood adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel ‘A Time to Live and a Time to Die’ set in the last few months of the war. Sirk changed the title to A Time to Love and a Time to Die. Apart from the setting in a bombed out Berlin suburb for part of the film, Remarque’s story is rather different, but Sirk produced one of the first films to try to deal with the emotional lives of individuals in the chaos of Germany’s defeat. This is certainly what powers Phoenix. Nelly has to find an identity and a major part of her quest is to find out what happened to her husband. Did he betray her? Does he still love her? Does she love him? How will people live in the new Germany(s)? How will they deal with memories? The simplicity of Nelly’s final appearance is a response to these layered questions.
Soda Pictures have Phoenix for the UK and Sundance Selects for the US, Films We Like for Canada and Madman for Australia/New Zealand. In fact most territories are taking the film. Keep your eyes peeled – don’t miss it!
SPOILERS!! This trailer gives away a crucial plot development:
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.
I enjoyed the first episode of Generation War: Our Mothers and Fathers broadcast on BBC2 last Saturday. In the UK this is being broadcast, as I think it was in Germany last year, in three 90 mins episodes. In the US it is being shown theatrically in two parts. The action covers June 1941 to May 1945 and offers a combined combat picture-home front melodrama. At a reported cost of €14 million it has been argued to be a relatively high budget series from Germany which has now got international distribution.
I’m not going to review the series as such until I’ve seen all three episodes but I’m intrigued/disturbed by some of the responses that I’ve come across already. I quickly stumbled into what appeared to be an almost neo-Nazi blog (i.e. it questioned the Jewish experience and deaths in WWII and quoted David Irving with approval) and then some American reviews which took the opposite view and complained that no concentration camps are shown and that this is airbrushed history making it possible for a new generation in Germany to see their grandparents in a more favourable light. So clearly, this series, as well as attracting big audiences and prizes in Germany, is going to be the site for a major ideological struggle.
I’m just a little surprised that so many commentators seem to have ignored the great many films that have been made about both the fighting in Poland/Ukraine/Soviet Union by Polish and Russian filmmakers and the domestic lives of Germans at home by German filmmakers. To be fair, most of the films I could quote tend to deal with the latter part of the war and in that respect this series is different in starting from the high point of German expansion. On the other hand I’ve recently watched Douglas Sirk’s last film A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958) which although set in the winter of 1944 includes some of the same incidents contained in this new series.
At this point I’ll just comment that Generation War: Our Mothers and Fathers is very well staged with exciting action, good performances and detailed production design. But I am sick of reading that the director must have been studying Steven Spielberg in order to handle a narrative like this and to show action so realistically. He may have done of course – but there are also plenty of other directors, especially Russians, who know how to make convincing combat pictures and home front melodramas. The war in Eastern Europe was extremely complex and many layered. Knee jerk analysis isn’t going to help. But perhaps the Saving Private Ryan reference does have some relevance since the series seems to have got families in Germany talking amongst themselves about what actually happened under the Nazis.