11th November 2006
Last week I read Kevin Jackson's biography of Humphrey Jennings (Picador, 2004). His view of the film 'A Defeated People' is quite different from mine. Jackson speaks of a "prevailing grimness of the piece," whereas I saw a very different picture; a humane film that showed people as individuals, that showed pity for their suffering and hope for the future (see my earlier postings).
Jackson refers to a meeting between Jennings and the poet Stephen Spender: "They argued about the Germans, Jennings taking the harsher and more vengeful line on German culpability." He then goes on to say that: "The more [Jennings] saw of the defeated enemy, the less respect he felt...It is at times shocking to see how his new-found scorn for the Germans curdled into disgust."
He also quotes from a letter Jennings wrote to his wife Cicely towards the end of his stay in Germany and refers to the language as a "vocabulary of ethnic hate...There is nothing else in Jennings' writings even remotely like this; and the film that resulted from his trip through the ruins was a good deal more balanced in tone."
Here is the passage from the letter:
"Have I think been getting nearer the problem of the German character and nation - and a grey dust-swept character it is: seeing, watching, working with the Germans en masse - terrified, rabbit-eyed, over-willing, too friendly, without an inch of what we call character among a thousand. Purely biological problem - almost every attribute that we strive to make grow, cultivate, has been bred or burnt out of them, exiled, thrown into gas-chambers, frightened, until you have a nation of near zombies with all the parts of human beings but really no soul - no oneness of personality to hold the parts together and shine out of the eyes, The eyes indeed are the worst the most telltale part - no shine, often no focus - the mouth drawn down with overwork and over-determination - to do what? Terrified of the Russians - cringing to us. Certainly there is a difference between the SS or the Nazi party in the sense that these are the dupes of those. Yes they can laugh and cry and do almost every thing that so called normal humans can and do - yet there is something missing - helpless now, untrustful of any thing most of all themselves - precisely not 'The Triumph of the Will.'"
It seems to me that Jackson, writing with the benefit of hindsight, does not fully appreciate just how common it was in Britain at the time to speak about individual people in terms of their supposedly collective 'national character' and how much prejudice there was against all foreigners; Germans and others. Official and public attitudes in Britain towards race and ethnicity have changed dramatically in the past 60 years.
Jennings' letters to his wife Cicely, published in Kevin Jackson's earlier book 'The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader' give a more balanced picture. They show how confused he was, unable to make up his mind on what he saw in Germany. As he said in his first letter written on 1st September 1945: "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..." And in his second letter a week later: "I am still unable to give any sort of reliable picture of Germany... for the moment the contradictions are too great."
Towards the end of his stay, his letters do change in tone and show signs of the prejudice, arrogance and self-righteousness that is so evident in British policy and actions in Germany after the war. (See my earlier posting on 'Humphrey Jennings' letters home from Germany').
But what is most remarkable about the film 'A Defeated People' is not what it shows us about conventional British views and attitudes at the time: such as self-righteousness and arrogance and distrust of German people after the war. The film does contain these elements, but it also shows understanding and pity for the suffering of others, whoever they are, and hope and concern for the future.
In the same way that Jennings' earlier film 'A Diary for Timothy', made in Britain at the end of the war, instead of dwelling on victory, looks to the future and what will happen when the war is over, 'A Defeated People' also looks to the future and not to the past. It shows people as individuals, not collectively as the enemy. It shows people suffering. The commentary shows no hesitation in blaming them for "the war they started" but this does not mean the British can leave them, in Jennings' words, to "stew in their own juice." The film doesn't provide the answers, but it does show people surviving in terrible circumstances, and the "Life Force" stirring again.
In summary, 'A Defeated People' is not, as Kevin Jackson sees it, a grim piece about destruction and the aftermath of war. It's about people surviving despite the destruction and chaos all around them, about hope for the future and Winning the Peace.