As mentioned previously, I’m deep into this massive tome called “POSTWAR” by the recently deceased Tony Judt which seeks to tell the complete tale of Europe from 1945 to 1989. It’s a tall order for sure, but the book is utterly fascinating and goes to great lengths to explain how a ruined Western Europe made its way so quickly into prosperity and peace within twenty years, while the equally ruined East was further humiliated under Communist rule for two generations. The book at one point talks about the austerity measures that took place in Great Britain after the war, and that imposed a humdrum ordinariness on England where nothing was flashy, no one complained and everyone did what they could to get through the day. This was the popular recollection, in any case, and Judt mentioned in particular a short documentary film called “Family Portrait” by Humphrey Jennings that he said captured the austere mood of the early 1950s quite well.
I figured this was my chance to dive back into a Britain we’ll never see again. The dynamic, multi-ethnic and confident UK of 2011, financial issues notwithstanding, is a far cry from the era that survived the war and then survived the peace. Jennings, in his short films, did justice to these people - who they were, what they fought for, and how they kept that legendary British resilience alive through tough times. I downloaded a collection of his films called “LISTEN TO BRITAIN” from Amazon Video On Demand, and gobbled up the three hours over the course of two nights. Far as I can tell, the only way to see these films right now is to do what I did and get them from Amazon. (Correction – you can rent the DVD on Netflix too).
Truth be told, what Jennings was making during WWII were propaganda films, plain and simple. They were produced by the Crown Film Unit for the purposes of documenting the war and stirring the people. Rather than being invective-filled rants about the “dirty jerries”, though, Jennings turned his camera and his attention inward, into the essential Britishness of his subjects. The first film in the collection, “London Can Take It”, is perhaps the best. It has a Canadian journalist doing voiceover about the nightly pounding London was taking from German planes, and how the citizenry were daring and brave for picking up the pieces of their shattered city with resolve night after night. It’s quite moving. The many scenes of destroyed London blocks and row houses, with stoic people trudging by them on their way to work or cleanup duty, is pretty jarring. Similar films mine similar territory, both before and after the war. “Words For Battle” is another good one, but “I Am A Fireman”, about the men who put out the nightly fires from German bombs, goes on far too long and far too often wordlessly to keep the viewer engaged. At least an American viewer in 2011.
“Family Portrait”, the one I rented this collection for, is an ode to the British people in 1951 – their achievements, their empire (though this is only hinted at), their survival in the face of WWII, and their future. It’s really something to watch. In 24 minutes, the imagery rushes by, but with a minimalist, almost poetic narrative that never gets in the way. In fact, it reminded me very much so of Terence Davies’ 2008 documentary film “OF TIME AND THE CITY”, which we reviewed here – just more full of hope and pride, looking at Britain’s losses squarely in the face, and then moving on. It’s what the British people did so well during this era, and what these valuable films convey so exceptionally well.