6th December 2008
A few weeks ago I wrote, on this blog, about the short documentary film K.R.O. Germany 1947, which followed a day in the life of a British Kreis Resident Officer (or K.R.O.) in the British Zone of Germany after the war.
I recently viewed another film, ‘School in Cologne’, made by the same director, Graham Wallace, and released later in the same year, 1948.
Whereas the main character in ‘K.R.O. Germany’ was a British official, the Kreis Resident Officer, the main character in ‘School in Cologne’ was a young German schoolgirl, and the commentary was shared, equally, between a British Education Officer and the German girl, speaking perfect English with only a trace of a German accent.
The film shows just how much official British policy and attitudes would seem to have changed in the two and a half years since the grim picture of destruction and understated, almost grudging, sympathy shown in Humphrey Jennings’ film ‘A Defeated People’, made in the autumn of 1945; since the debate in the British Zone Review at much the same time, on whether it was acceptable for British men and women to "feel sorry for the Germans” and since British soldiers were told, in capital letters in The British Soldiers Pocketbook "THERE WILL BE NO BRUTALITY ABOUT A BRITISH OCCUPATION, BUT NEITHER WILL THERE BE SOFTNESS OR SENTIMENTALITY."
The first thing we see in the film ‘School in Cologne’ is a row of children’s feet, some with ragged shoes and some feet bare, while a trickle of rain falls into a tin, from a hole in the roof. The camera scans up to the faces of the children, and we see we are in a crowded classroom, with the children sitting four or five to a desk while the opening credits are displayed on the screen to the sound of the children singing a nursery rhyme. The film then shows the twin towers of Cologne cathedral, followed by children playing in the ruins, and the commentator says: “This is Cologne, in the third winter after the war. When I first came here, two and a half years ago, as a British Education Officer, the schools were still shut. Now they are open again, but our job of reorganising German education is far from finished.”
The film then cuts to a picture of the young German girl, 10-12 years old or so, running and skipping home, barefoot, to what remains of a ruined house. She takes over the commentary and says, in very good English with only a trace of a German accent: “We live in a street where only a few houses are standing. Our old home was burnt down. I live together with my brothers and sister and mother in two rooms under the roof.”
The reason the girl has no shoes, we learn, is because she and her brother have only one pair between them, and today, he has gone to the railway to collect coal for them to burn. The film shows her brother stealing coal briquettes, picking them up from the ground in a railway siding. He hides from a policeman under a railway truck and then runs away home, with his sack of stolen coal, after the policeman has passed. The sympathies of the audience are clearly intended to be with the boy, rather than with the policeman, as the Education Officer says: “The education of these children is one of our biggest problems in Germany. This boy never had any proper schooling during the war years. Now he is 14 years old. He cannot read, and he has never been taught what is right or wrong.”
To pictures of children walking to school, some barefoot, and one young boy with one leg walking on crutches, the Education Officer continues: “I found that when I arrived here, over half the schools in the city were completely destroyed, and of the others, not one was undamaged. Today some 84,000 children use these schools. They are desperately over-crowded. Several schools have to share one building and classes have to be held in shifts. There are still many children who cannot come to school in bad weather, because they have no proper clothing. One fifth of the children in Cologne have no shoes at all.”
The children enter a classroom, and we see the girl has brought her brother and sister with her. She takes over the commentary and says: “My little brother and sister are too young to go to school. But I have to bring them with me. There is no-one at home to look after them. Our father is dead and mother has to work all day in a factory.”
The film continues to show the difficulties faced by the teachers in the school: crowded classes, one textbook shared between four or five children in the class, only odd scraps of paper for the children to make notes and even their slates are broken. “The teachers do their best to improvise, using chalk and their imagination, but there is even a shortage of chalk.”
In a science lesson the teacher uses improvised bits of home-made apparatus to “demonstrate the principles of heat, in a room where the master and pupils have to wear their overcoats to keep warm,” because there is no heating in the school, even in winter.
To try to overcome the shortage of teaching materials, the British education authorities started a schools broadcasting service. We see the children in the classroom listening to the radio, and then the film cuts to a recording studio, where two English women in tweed suits read from a script, speaking very slowly and deliberately, in very proper accents:
“‘Good morning Mrs Smith. Please come in, you are early this morning.’
‘Well I am just on the way to the shops to buy something for lunch and for supper. And if you don’t go early in the morning, there is not much left to buy later.’”
The highlight of the school day is firstly lunch, when a huge cauldron of soup is wheeled into the classroom and ladled out to the children, and the girl says, as she gives her little brother and sister each a spoonful of soup: “This is the first food we have had today. You can imagine how much we enjoy it.”
And secondly the arrival of the post from England. The headmaster brings a number of parcels into the classroom and the girl says, to a close-up shot of her unpacking the parcel with a big smile on her face: “The school in Birmingham sends us clothing and books. I had a lovely big parcel from my English friend Katherine. I was very happy. I hope that one day we can meet and see each other.” The parcel contains clothes, a dress, and a packet of sweets, one of which she pops into her mouth.
The only time we see the British Education Officer, a youngish, very serious-looking man, in his late 30s or so, is when he comes to inspect the school. The children all stand up as he enters the classroom, and he inspects the books the teacher and children are using: “We are also producing new schoolbooks to replace the perverted lessons of the Nazis… With a staff of under 200, we have to tackle the enormous job of controlling all educational activities in the British Zone. We work in close contact with the German authorities, to guide German education along better lines.”
The film continues by showing one of the new British Information Centres, called 'Die Brücke' (The Bridge), in a German high street, where “adults and parties of students” come to read English books and newspapers and “attend lectures and discussion groups in English to further their understanding of England.” We then see a group of earnest young men engaged in discussion round a table: “These are ex-prisoners of war who have come back to school to make up for the lost war years. This man fought at Stalingrad, he was a POW in Canada, in North Africa, in Norway. Between them they have seen quite a lot of the world, and they can be a valuable influence in Germany. Now they are studying so that they can become teachers.”
The last two sequences repeat and sum up the message of the film. The children leave the classroom at the end of term, at the start of the Christmas holidays, each carrying a wooden toy they have made themselves, because there are no toys for sale in the shops. The last to leave the school is the boy with one leg, walking down the steps on crutches with his satchel on his back, as another group of children, the afternoon shift, walk up the steps to start their school day. We then see the first group of children again, now walking outside with the ruined city in the background – the twin towers of the cathedral, a square church tower, ruined houses, heaps of rubble. Then another group of children run down the steps from a school entrance, and as the camera pans up to a ruined dome above the, once imposing, school entrance, the Education Officer says: “Never before has the school been so important. In these ruined cities it is often the only barrier between these children and a life of complete barbarism.”
Finally, at the end of the film, we see a group of children at work in a half-destroyed and derelict school room, carrying ladders and building materials, clearing rubble, sweeping the floor, fitting new window frames, plastering walls. While they work, the soundtrack is of the children singing a Christmas carol and this continues while the commentator says: “Today in Cologne and in the other cities of Germany, the children are working with their teachers to rebuild their schools. Building material is scarce, but much can be salvaged from the ruins around them. Never before has there been such a desire for education as in Germany today. These children are repairing their schools, so as to be able to build up their own lives again. They must clear away the rubbish that Hitler left behind, so that their schools can be a free and solid foundation for the future. We are here to see that this is done.”
And the end title says:
Made for the Control Commission for Germany
By the Central Office of Information
The documentary films ‘School in Cologne’ and ‘K.R.O. Germany, 1947’ were directed by Graham Wallace and produced by the Crown Film Unit. They are both held in the archives of the British Film Institute and I would like to thank BFI staff for locating the films and providing viewing facilities at the BFI Library in London.