Extracts from four letters Humphrey Jennings wrote to his wife while filming 'A Defeated People' have been published in Kevin Jackson's book 'The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader' (Carcanet, 1993).
I have already quoted one long extract from the letters in my first posting on Humphrey Jennings' film 'A Defeated People'.
The letters show that Jennings was initially confused and uncertain what to make of post-war Germany. In his first letter, written on September 1st 1945, he says:
"Well I have been quite overwhelmed by Germany in the past few days and can't really say anything sensible yet - it is quite unlike anything one has been told or thought - both more alive and more dead ... There is of course too much to photograph - ugly and beautiful - life and death - one can only choose bits and hope they are the right ones. I have never had to record a people or a country before. Of course really it's impossible - specially as so many things really don't seem to make sense: one can only go on looking at them until they do."
A week later he was still none the wiser:
"I am still unable to give any sort of reliable picture of Germany - even of the bits (Cologne, Essen Hannover, Hamm) which we have seen - for the moment the contradictions are too great ..."
One specific example can perhaps give a more detailed illustration of the contradictions he may have been thinking of. Later in the same letter he says:
"Then again there is here the Dusseldorf Symphony Orchestra run by the Oberburgomeister which shows that not only Beethoven survives Fascism and War and Famine and all (which we knew) but also the capacity and the wish to play Beethoven ... or perhaps the two are unconnected since the playing was encouraged by the Nazis or what? difficult points ... at any rate we are encouraging it and at the same time quite rightly arresting the ex-Nazi orchestral players however good as players."
This echoes scenes in his earlier British wartime documentary films, (described in my posting last week), where British people are shown playing music by German composers.
In 'The Heart of Britain', to pictures of the Halle Orchestra playing Beethoven's Fifth symphony, the commentator says: "But in Manchester today they still respect the genius of Germany; the genius of Germany that was." To the sounds of the music, the film moves on from showing the orchestra playing, to scenes of bomb damage and ruined buildings in Coventry. The message is ambiguous: either, there are two Germanys, the good and the bad, or alternatively, how could people who created such beautiful music create such destruction?
In 'A Diary for Timothy' the same theme reoccurs but with a different emphasis. In a sequence of Myra Hess playing Beethoven's Appassionata piano sonata, at one of her National Gallery lunchtime concerts, the commentator says (speaking to baby Timothy): "Did you like the music that lady was playing. Some of us think it's the greatest music in the world. Yet it's German music. And we're fighting the Germans. That's something you'll have to think about later on."
Although the film 'A Defeated People' makes no reference to the concentration camps, the issue was clearly in his mind. On 1st September he wrote:
"I have working with me besides our boys, an Army Film Unit Lieutenant who was at Belsen and did most of the films shot there: exceptionally nice chap."
And a week later:
"We have by the way with us one Lt Martin Wilson - Army Film Unit and ex-documentary film maker who was the first photographer in Belsen concentration camp and took most of the famous film pictures there and who has been all through the last German campaign and a great deal of the desert and Italian fighting. He is our 'conducting officer' and is really terrific. For this job the ideal assistant director."
So not only was Humphrey Jennings, the director of the film 'A Defeated People', the man who more than anyone else was responsible for creating the heroic images of Britain in wartime and the mythic image of the London Blitz, but its assistant director, who assisted with filming in Germany, was the first British photographer in Belsen.
This makes is all the more remarkable that the image portrayed in the film 'A Defeated People' is (as I wrote in an earlier posting) one that shows ordinary German people as individuals, that shows pity for their suffering and hope for the future.
But these letters also show that Jennings was not immune from the arrogance and self-righteousness that is so evident in British policy and actions in Germany after the war - despite a genuine desire by many, perhaps most, of the Military Government and occupation officials to do all they could to help rebuild a shattered country.
Jennings writes happily about how good the food is - for the British - and how listless and apathetic the Germans appear, (a condition due in large part to the near starvation diet they were living on at the time).
On 30th September, writing from Hamburg, he refers to the waiters in the hotel he was staying at:
"the German waiters - 'the dwarfs' as we call them - scurrying like Black Beetles - listening apparently for the crack of the whip - pathetic and beastly..."
In his final letter towards the end of his stay he comes back to the same theme - clearly it was common practice among the British occupying forces to refer to the German waiters who served the officers in the mess as 'dwarfs', in Dusseldorf as well as in Hamburg:
"We are back in the mess (Park Hotel) where we were on our first visit to the Ruhr a month ago - extraordinarily comfortable - with excellent drinks and food and hot water and countless little German waiters ('Dusseldwarfs') longing to be ordered about - I must say after two or three hours on straight roads towards Aachen in an open Jeep one needs all of them. Military Government has quite rightly taken over the best of everything and keeps up - particularly I think here - a very polished turnout and manner - simultaneously strong and 'correct' - the only trouble seems to be that the Germans are really incapable of doing anything for themselves - so long as someone is there to give them orders well and good. Only our job is to make them capable of behaving sensibly without instructions from us - at least otherwise we shall be here indefinitely..."
Fortunately the film itself has no pictures of German waiters in the British officers' mess portrayed as 'dwarfs' (with all the associated racial overtones more reminiscent of the Nazis than the British), but conveys a much more humane image of 'A Defeated People'.
If your college of library subscribes to Screenonline you can see the film for yourself, and make up your own mind.