20 September 2006
The documentary film "A Defeated People" is remarkable both for its images of life in Germany immediately after the war, and for what it reveals of the attitudes of the British occupation forces.
The film was made in 1945, soon after the end of the war, by the Crown Film Unit, part of the British Ministry of Information, with the full support of the Control Commission for Germany. It was directed by Humphrey Jennings, arguably the greatest of the British wartime documentary film makers. His films include "London can Take It" and "Fires were Started," which has been described as "one of the key works in creating the mythic image of the London Blitz. Those heroic figures silhouetted against the blazing inferno sweeping the dockside warehouse etched themselves into history, embodying the epic of the ordinary men and women who calmly and courageously took up the defence of their city." (Anthony Aldgate and Jeffrey Richards, Britain can take it: The British Cinema in the Second World War. Oxford, Basil Blackwell 1986)
In 1940 Jennings wrote to his wife: "Some of the damage in London is pretty heart-breaking but what an effect it has had on the people! What warmth - what courage! What determination ... Everybody absolutely determined: secretly delighted with the privilege of holding up Hitler. Certain of beating him: a certainty which no amount of bombing can weaken, only strengthen..."
Angus Calder in his book "The Myth of the Blitz" calls Jennings "Britain's most remarkable maker of official films," and goes on to describe how "virtually everyone in Britain must have seen a fairish proportion of "London Can Take It" as the images from the film have been "recycled almost every time events in 1940 have been narrated on TV" (even if the source is not acknowledged) and in sequences in many feature films. (Angus Calder, The Myth of the Blitz. London, Jonathan Cape,1991)
Roger Manvell, a regional film officer during the war, responsible for arranging showings in factories, public halls and clubs, (and later to become a well-known film critic and writer), included a film by Humphrey Jennings in nearly all his programmes, and tells how "I do not exaggerate when I say that members of audiences ...(especially during the earlier, more immediately alarming years) frequently wept as a result of Jennings' direct appeal to the rich cultural heritage of Britain ... going back to Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, to Purcell and Handel."
What did this Englishman who created the "mythic image of the blitz", make of Germany after the war?
According to Nicolaus Pronay, the image of Germany presented in Jennings' film "A Defeated People", is the same as that presented by the popular newsreels; that of a guilty people receiving their just deserts. This image could be summarised as: "The Germans were a guilty people with an inborn compulsion to war; it was they who were responsible for Hitler, just as they had been responsible for the Kaiser, and not the other way round. The German government merely represented the character and the aspirations of the German people: unless these were changed the Germans would start another war as soon as they felt strong enough." ("Defeated Germany in British Newsreels: 1944-45" in K.R.M. Short & Stephan Dolezel (Eds), Hitler's Fall: The Newsreel Witness)
Pronay goes on to say that: "Perhaps the most illuminating demonstration of the extent to which there was a basic consensus in Britain about Germany - spanning both the intellectual and the class divisions - is to be found in the remarkable fact that, for once, the right-wing populist newsreels and the austerely elitist and left-wing documentarists presented an identical perception of Germany, in all essentials, for their both socially and educationally different target audiences."
It's true that the script of Jennings' film "A Defeated People" shows no hesitation in blaming the Germans for "the war they started," but it is possible to interpret the film as a whole in a very different way from Pronay.
While the script tells one story, the images show a very different picture; one that shows people as individuals, not as a collective guilty nation, that shows pity for their suffering and hope for the future.
At the end of the war, both the defeated Germans and British occupiers were confused, overwhelmed by the destruction they saw all around them, daunted by the magnitude of problems which seemed insoluble, but nevertheless prepared to try to do their best, to bring order out of chaos, and even, in their own way, make the world a better place, after the horrors of war.
This different picture is illustrated in the film, in, to take a few examples: A picture of a broken clock on a bombed out railway station with the commentary "at the end of the war, life in Germany ran down, like a broken clock." Vast numbers of people on the move, in all directions, looking for somewhere to live, or for lost friends and relatives. People leaping into cattle trucks as a train pulls into a station and the announcer saying over and over again "it is forbidden to ride on the bumpers." Bewildered refugee children huddled over suitcases. People living in cellars under the rubble of the cities, or in a room on the third floor of a building, with two of its four walls blown away and missing. Trains taking coal from the mines to the liberated countries, while German women saw up logs in the forest to take the wood home in prams to use as fuel because "for the Germans there is no coal."
While the script at one point warns ominously of children "growing up like their fathers," the film ends by switching between two sets of images which present a positive view of the future: a group of young girls holding hands in a circle and a group of German judges being sworn in, promising to uphold the constitution.
In summary, in Jennings' own words it was "a hell of a tangle" and one thing only was certain: that we, (the British), can't "leave them to stew in their own juice."
Jennings' own mixed, complex and uncertain reactions, were expressed in a letter he wrote to his wife on 10 September 1945, while filming in Germany:
"At lunchtime today we were photographing a family cooking their lunch on campfires in dixies on the blitzed main stair-case of the Palace of Justice at Cologne - one of the few buildings still standing in the centre of the city - outside apparently deserted - surrounded by miles of rubble and weed-covered craters - but inside voices cries of children and the smell of drifting wood-smoke - of burnt paper - the sound of people smashing up doors and windows to light fires in the corridors - the smoke itself drifting into side rooms still littered with legal documents - finally adding to the blue haze in front of the cathedral. The cathedral now with all the damage round immensely tall - a vast blue and unsafe spirit ready to crumble upon the tiny black figures in the street below - permanent figures: Cologne's Black Market ... and then returning to Duesseldorf - much less knocked about - blitzed but not actually destroyed like Cologne and Essen and Aachen - still a beautiful city, returning here to tea we meeting sailing through the park-like streets a mass of white Sunday-frocked German school children standing tightly together on an Army truck and singing at the tops of their voices as they are rushed through the streets (where?) ... In Essen they still fetch their water from stand-pipes and firehose in the streets and the sewers rush roaring and stinking open to the eye and the nose - seep into blitzed houses into cellars where people still live. Look down a deserted street which has a winding path only trodden in the rubble - above the shapes of windows and balconies lean and threaten - below by the front-door now choked with bricks you will see scrawled in chalk 'IM KELLER WOHNEN:'... and the names of the families who have taken over the underground passages where there is no light (or once I saw one bulb crawling with bees - they too must live through this winter in Essen) no water - no gas - a ray of daylight from the pavement level airhole ..."
"Once no doubt Germany was a beautiful country and still remembers it on summer evenings in the country. For the people themselves they are willing enough or servile enough or friendly enough according to your philosophy of History and the German problem. They certainly don't behave guilty or beaten. They have their old fatalism to fall back on: 'Kaput' says the housewife finding the street water pipe not working ... and then looks down the streets and says 'Kaputt ... alles ist kaput.' Everything's smashed ... how right - but absolutely no suggestion that it might be their fault - her fault. 'Why' asks another woman fetching water 'why do not you help us?' 'You' being us. At the same time nothing is clearer straight away than that we cannot - must not leave them to stew in their own juice ... well anyway it's a hell of a tangle."
(Mary-Lou Jennings (ed), Humphrey Jennings: Film-maker, Painter, Poet. London. British Film Institute, 1982)