14th October 2006
I spent last Wednesday at the British Film Institute library, looking for contemporary reviews of the film "A Defeated People," produced by the Crown Film Unit, part of the British Ministry of Information, and directed by Humphrey Jennings, probably the greatest of all the British wartime documentary film makers. It was released to the public at the Tivoli cinema in London, on March 17th, 1946. (See my earlier post on Humphrey Jennings's film: A Defeated People).
At first I was disappointed, for all I could find was a brief reference in the BFI's 'Monthly Film Bulletin' for March 1946.
I then asked the librarian at the desk if they had any other journals with film reviews for 1946, and was amazed when she gave me a microfiche of the Ministry of Information's press cuttings file for the film. In all, there were copies of 14 reviews published when the film was first released, from most of the major Daily and Sunday newspapers, including The Times, Manchester Guardian, Daily Mail, Daily Express, News Chronicle, Daily Telegraph, Daily Worker, Sunday Dispatch, Sunday Times, Sunday Express and Reynolds News.
Most of the reviewers were agreed that, in a week in which there was a shortage of good new feature films: "it is left to documentaries again to bring weight and dignity to the week's screen" (News Chronicle) and the "most important film of the week is A DEFEATED PEOPLE" (Daily Worker).
The headline for the Reynolds News weekly film review column, by Joan Lester, was "A Documentary Film You Must See", and the News Chronicle said "It is a film we have all been waiting to see."
Here are some more extracts from the reviews:
"A DEFEATED PEOPLE, made by Humphrey Jennings for the Crown Film Unit, gives a picture of life in the British Zone of Germany all the more impressive for its restraint. The tone is agreeably free from gloating, and it would need a much more vindictive race than ours to see without sympathy women cooking amid the ruins and crowds studying huge boards covered with the names of missing persons." (Daily Telegraph)
"A Defeated People" (Tivoli, Sunday): an honest attempt by the Crown Film Unit to report to the British cinegoer just exactly what is going on in Germany today. If the report had been three times grimmer it would be about accurate." (Daily Express)
"This is camera-journalism on a brilliant level. The queues - the search for missing relatives - the life in the cellars of Berlin - the rest of the film you and I might see or imagine for ourselves: but it takes an observer with a touch of real inspiration to catch so memorably the spirit of cunning arrogance there even in defeat." (Daily Mail)
"Most important film of the week is A DEFEATED PEOPLE (Tivoli, Sunday), a Crown Film Unit excursion to British-occupied Germany. It is a fine piece of screen-craft directed by Humphrey Jennings. But how the subject screams for a wider, deeper approach." (Daily Worker)
"Two documentary films on modern Germany are the week's best pictures, although both have been cut down to the bone. "A Defeated People" at the Tivoli to-day, is a fine example of British production in spite of having to prove its worth in 18 minutes." (Glasgow Herald)
"This film will stay in your mind and that is high praise of any film. Though it reeks of desolation and defeat it is infused with purpose. You will never obtain from any written or spoken narrative such an effect of empty misery and crushed aggressiveness, of a country so lost it is ripe for anything." (News Chronicle)
"Humphrey Jennings, Crown Film Unit director, has produced some gems in the short documentary field. A DEFEATED PEOPLE (Tivoli) must have been one of the most difficult films he has had to tackle. This deals with the vital and complex problems arising out of the economic, political and human tangle created by Nazism in defeat." (Reynolds News).
"Many people wonder what it is actually like inside Germany today. This picture will show them a grim panorama of destruction and ruin, of shattered industries, of tattered people living in cellars and searching for lost relatives crowding limited transport and working amid incredible conditions." (Star)
"Once again the Crown Film Unit do an inspired job of reporting, this time about Germany today." (Sunday Dispatch)
"This sets out to show the workings of the government of the British Zone. If it has hardly the scope to do that fully, it does show with the inescapable persuasion of visual impact the nature and complexities of the task facing the administrators. And it shows the spirit in which these are being tackled - painstaking, just, practical, determined." (Sunday Express)
"Humphrey Jennings's "A Defeated People," skilled though its mosaic of German problems - transport, health, food, housing, fuel and the dreadful search of a million families for their scattered members - remains oddly tantalising. The attempt to cover in half-an-hour the whole task of the Military Government in the British zone is hopeless." (Sunday Times)
"As a whole it is sensitively planned and much of it is memorable. Yet the very fact that it is impossible to fit such a vast subject into an over-short picture makes a 'line' a necessity, and we are given an elegiac insistence on personal reaction and personal bewilderment which may have been the only solution to the problem of compression, but which makes the entire thing seem a little fragile." (Tribune)
In summary, the reviews confirmed the high regard in which documentaries were held at the time, and the level of public interest in knowing what was going on in Germany after the war.
The reviews also confirmed my view that Nicholas Pronay was wrong when he said (in "Defeated Germany in British Newsreels: 1944-45" in K.R.M. Short & Stephan Dolezel, Eds, Hitler's Fall: The Newsreel Witness) that "there was a basic consensus in Britain about Germany" after the war and that it was a "remarkable fact that, for once, the right-wing populist newsreels and the austerely elitist and left-wing documentarists presented an identical perception of Germany," that of a guilty people receiving their just deserts.
In fact there was a tremendous diversity of views. People recognised that the situation was difficult and complex, and there were no easy solutions.
As Joan Lester said in her review of 'A Defeated People' in Reynolds News: "Mr Jennings has, within certain essential limitations of time and opportunity, brought to his subject understanding, intelligence and humanity."
And as, the brief review of 'A Defeated People' in the Monthly Film Bulletin says, very far from agreeing with it, the film was trying to counter the view of those who said: "Leave the Germans alone: let them suffer and die as they have brought suffering and death to others."
'A Defeated People' was an official film. The Crown Film Unit, who produced it, were part of the government's Ministry of Information. The film was made with the full cooperation of The British Control Commission for Germany and Military Government.
Humphrey Jennings, the director, had made some of the best and most popular wartime documentaries including 'Britain Can Take It', 'Words for Battle' and 'Fires were Started'. A regional film officer, responsible for showing films in town halls and factories, described how the audience "sometimes wept as a result of his direct appeal to the rich cultural heritage of Britain."
I would argue this story shows there were many in Britain who knew that winning the peace, as well as winning the war, meant helping the former enemy, recognising that they too were suffering and needed help rebuilding their lives.