Some WWII documentary films

These two essays appear in The Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, ed. Ian Aitken, Routledge, 2005.

Churchill’s Island (Canada, 1941)

Churchill’s Island is primarily remembered as the first National Film Board of Canada production to win an Academy Award (best documentary, 1941).  But it is not so much its acceptance by the commercial mainstream as its departure from that mainstream’s discursive conventions and institutional presuppositions that makes the film historically significant and of some continuing interest.  Churchill’s Island marks the visible beginning of a Canadian film alternative to industrial Hollywood, and an extension and elaboration of the documentary idea to new national circumstances and possibilities.

In the early years of its existence the Board’s founder and first commissioner, John Grierson, discovered that much of his time was occupied by administrative and political duties.  As a result, much of the responsibility for day to day producing and mentoring fell to Stuart Legg, a Grierson recruit from the days of the Empire Marketing Board. Legg was particularly noted for his subtle grasp of public, political, and as he would increasingly demonstrate, geopolitical issues.  As head of production, he would explore these topics with great distinction through the Board’s flagship wartime series, Canada Carries On (of which Churchill’s Island was an early entry) and The World in Action.

The March of Time was an acknowledged influence on the Canadian series.  Legg was impressed by the quality of its reporting, its concision and cinematic craft.  For the task at hand however, Legg and his collaborators were anxious to move beyond the entertaining reportage so often characteristic of the existing newsreels.  Propaganda played a role in this decision.  The United States was still officially neutral toward the European conflict, and so the Board series had a great gap to fill in informing and motivating its domestic audiences.

Churchill’s Island is a vivid response to this challenge.  The film, which recounts the details of Britain’s home defense against the Nazis, is completely compiled from the Board’s extensive stock library.  Future Board stalwart Tom Daly was largely responsible for maintaining this library.  His seemingly complete recall of its holdings would make him increasingly central to the compilation films that would make up a good portion of the Board’s early output.  Daly has ascribed much of their motivational success to Legg’s principle of “waves,” which was that sequences were to rise to a climax and then diminish, before the next sequence came along and increased the intensity.  The emotional results are still clear in Churchill’s Island, in which the high stakes, the national peril and the national opportunity, are quite palpable.

Although there were motivational (and manipulative) imperatives, Legg also intended to move his films toward the depth and breadth of the best investigative journalism.  In Churchill’s Island this deepening process is visibly well underway.  There is a conceptual, even dialectical element to the film that was emblematic of the innovations and elaborations that Legg and his newsreel collaborators would develop throughout the war period.  In addition to emotional appeal, there is a constant illumination of causal chains, a setting forth of the tactical and strategic elements of the conflict.

Legg introduces us to the main participants and the key processes, insuring not only sympathetic identification, but also understanding.  The exposition discusses varying threats of invasion, the defensive responses thereto, and over all, the abiding courage and leavening influence of Britain’s everyday army.  These three elements recur through what are essentially the film’s three acts.  The first gives an account of the Blitz, for which Legg takes a characteristic retrospective turn.  He reviews the causes and conditions of the German action to that point, thus insuring that the emotional audience member always remains historically oriented. Next we witness the Royal Air Force’s defense of Britain’s skies, and, from the Nazi perspective, the German blockade that was devised in response.  During this second act there is a clear discussion of the tactics of the U-boats, and a frank admission of the great cost of their activities.  There is also a clear message, quite common in this period (cf. London Can Take It, Foreign Correspondent, etc.), to the neutral Americans.  With the rising toll of sinkings, the ever more bold encroachments toward North American soil, it is intimated that no one is safe, and no one can remain neutral.

In keeping with Grierson’s instruction that these films be “truthful, but not defeatist,” these warnings give way to an expression of gratitude for help rendered, and confidence for the future.  The U-boats are on the run, and even as the third act outlines and then just slightly glosses over the possibilities of and preparations against a possible land invasion, the film moves toward a stirring, even pugnacious climax.  As the last wave crashes we hear narrator Lorne Greene’s mighty challenge to the Nazis to “come…if you dare!”  This justifiably famous conclusion remains extraordinarily powerful.

Churchill’s Island was a great success.  Along with the practically prophetic War Clouds in the Pacific (November 1941), it facilitated the remarkable access that Board newsreels would have not only to Canadian audiences, but to screens in the United States as well.  Although that access would continue, the tone of the newsreels would be altered.  Wartime propaganda under Legg would further shift from the emotional and the partisan, however justifiable these things may have been at the time, to a more global, humanitarian approach.  In this endeavor Legg’s sensibilities coincided with one of Grierson’s most important convictions, which was that wartime films were also a preparation for peacetime, and that an awareness and anticipation of the needs of peacetime were essential to their successful execution.  In this we can see that the Board’s activities strongly prefigured the international role that Canada, and Canada’s documentary films, would assume in the decades after the war.

As Aristotle had suggested in another context (Poetics, chapter 4), it is only in action that character is revealed.  It can be argued that during the war, as well as in the period of Pearsonian diplomacy that followed, Canadians stopped their customary agonizing about who they were and started pitching in, and so came to know and to be themselves, at least for awhile.  If this is true then it was substantially through the Board’s auspices that this happened.  In their wartime activity the filmmakers, and the public whom they served, shared a sense of urgency and purpose.  In so sharing they revealed to each other how anxious engagement in a goodly cause left Canadians with a fully constituted identity.

Churchill’s Island (Canada, National Film Board, 21 minutes).  Produced, directed and edited by Stuart Legg.  Commentary by Stuart Legg.  Narration by Lorne Greene.  Music by Lucio Agostini.  Sound by Walter Darling.  Research by Tom Daly.

Aitken, Ian, Film and Reform, London: Routledge, 1990

Aitken, Ian, The Documentary Film Movement: An Anthology, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998

Ellis, Jack C., John Grierson, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000

Evans, Gary, John Grierson and the National Film Board, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986

Evans, Gary, In the National Interest: a Chronicle of the National Film Board of Canada from 1949 to 1989, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991

Grierson, John, Grierson on Documentary, edited by Forsyth Hardy, London: Collins, 1946, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1947; revised edition, London: Faber, 1966, New York: Praeger, 1971; abridged edition, Faber, 1979

Hardy, Forsyth, John Grierson: A Documentary Biography, London: Faber, 1979

James, C. Rodney, Film as a National Art: the NFB of Canada and the Film Board Idea, New York: Arno Press, 1977

Jones, D.B., The Best Butler in the Business: Tom Daly of the National Film Board of Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996

Rotha, Paul, Documentary Diary, London: Secker and Warburg, and New York: Hill and Wang, 1973

Sussex, Elizabeth, The Rise and Fall of British Documentary, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975


The True Story of Lili Marlene (UK, 1944)

The True Story of Lili Marlene raises important questions relating not only to the films of Humphrey Jennings, but to the entire British documentary film movement, and indeed to any canonical hierarchy selected from a wider range of expression and discussion.  The films that we write about and remember contribute much to our critical attitudes and our historical understanding.  A closer look at the films that we have not remembered reminds us of how arbitrary the processes of selection and validation can be.

Discussions about the work of Humphrey Jennings have often proceeded in terms of masterpieces and also-rans, with the latter quickly disappearing from view.  Contemporary reports suggest that this division is rooted in the initial reactions to the various films.  The acknowledged masterpieces—Listen to Britain, I Was a Fireman (Fires Were Started) and A Diary for Timothy—were much remarked upon and generally, though not universally, appreciated from the start.  Some of the other films, less effective, or perhaps more elusive, also elicited immediate responses, which seem for the most part to have been quite a bit cooler.

The hardening of this division into a kind of received wisdom probably begins with Lindsay Anderson’s celebrated appreciation of Jennings’ work, which first appeared in Sight and Sound in 1954.  This critical eulogy, entitled “Only Connect,” is a superb piece of sympathetic criticism that is largely evaluative.  This is to say that Anderson is talking about good films and bad films, and that his judgments are based on criteria that are more personal than they are textual or historical.  The result is a critical position that is quite defensible without being quite comprehensive.

The Humphrey Jennings in Anderson’s portrait is an intellectual and a propagandist, one who in his finest work avoids, by his great humanity, the pitfalls so often associated with these parts.  The great films by this great artist avoid the elitist inaccessibility, the hectoring coercion to which intellectuals and propagandists are prone.  This is certainly a true likeness, or at least part of one, and through its continued inclusion (Lewis Jacobs, 1975, Kevin MacDonald and Mark Cousins, 1996) or reflection (Barnouw, Ellis, Barsam) in the most popular documentary anthologies and histories, it has become a matter of record.

In a survey sense this is as it should be, but connected to all this enthusiasm there has emerged a consistent and connected idea that appears even in the more specialized studies of Jennings’ work.  This idea is that the other, more complicated elements of Jennings’ personal and aesthetic makeup—the scholarly complexity, the intellectual’s irony, the surrealist’s awareness of the indeterminate—are not as easy to contain or to comprehend.  It is suggested that the films that are reflective of these less tractable qualities are less coherent, less representative, and finally, less useful.

The True Story of Lili Marlene is one of these films, and if its almost universal dismissal needs reconsidering, then its undoubted difficulties also need to be accounted for. Both its subject and treatment are unlikely: it traces the permutations of a sentimental German song, Lili Marlene, from its first appearance in the 1920’s, through its appropriation as part of the Nazi propaganda machine, to its final “capture” and recouping by the victorious allies.  Its careful juxtapositions and its telling use of music are typical of Jennings’ work, but the lack of a real protagonist, single or collective, the lack of a clearly unifying mood or message or even through line separate it from the best known and, most would say, the best of his films.

The record suggests that Jennings himself was frustrated during the film’s production, and not fully satisfied with the final result.  It is not coincidental that this frustration, the mixed feelings and lack of focus, would become the explicit subject of Jennings’ next film and last unequivocal success, A Diary for Timothy.  With regard to finding a place for Lili Marlene it could at the very least be argued that its production provided a refining space in which Jennings confronted and came to terms with his own confusions, the better to counsel with and console his countrymen in their own.

But Lili Marlene also has merit beyond its contribution to more acclaimed works. As with Jennings’ similarly underconsidered Eighty Days and The Silent Village (both 1943), in this film we see the intellectual emerging from beneath his propagandist’s banner.  If the results are uncertain then it is at least partly because Jennings is exploring new ground, both in representing the war and in critically questioning the documentary film’s place in that representation.

Lili Marlene reveals much about the conflict during late 1943 and early 1944, as well as the state of the nation and its citizens.  With the tide having turned and victory becoming a real possibility, the need for unambiguously reassuring propaganda gave way and made room for admissions of doubt and vulnerability, for searching and questioning.  If Eighty Days hints at how bewildered and broken the victims of German bombings must have been, even in the days when London was proclaiming how well it could take it, then Lili Marlene reaffirms the common ground—humanity, sentimentality and sentiment, susceptibility to suggestion—that all of the combatants shared.

But it is particularly in exploring that susceptibility, in turning its gaze upon its own workings, that Lili Marlene marks an advance, however tentative, in the history and maturing of the documentary film, most particularly in Britain.  The elusiveness of its story suggests that story is only the ostensible subject, a means to investigate the rhetorical and ideological underpinnings of our unquestioned communications.  Its formal and narrative strategies, its much criticized unconventionality and artificiality all inhibit conventional illusion and identification, allowing for and even demanding a deeper intellectual engagement.  This is not a propaganda film so much as it is a film about propaganda.

The True Story of Lili Marlene raises the possibility that there is a substantial neutrality in the songs, stories, ideas, and representations that we take to heart and take for granted.  It is no wonder then that a wartime film about propaganda’s neutral nature, its susceptibility to tone and context, a film which exposes the workings of narrativity by tracing the history of a not-so-Nazi air did not quite motivate the masses like the standard words for battle. These many years later such notions are familiar, and just as disconcerting.  Jennings’ neglected film deserves credit and attention for its contribution to this current and always relevant discussion.

The True Story of Lili Marlene (UK, Crown Film Unit, 30 minutes).  Produced by J.B. Holmes.  Direction and Script by Humphrey Jennings.  Narration by Marius Goring.  Cinematography by Henry “Chick” Fowle.  Music by Dennis Blood, directed by Muir Mathieson.  Editing by Sid Stone.  Sound by Ken Cameron.

Further Reading

Brecht, Bertolt, “The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre,” in Brecht on Theatre, trans. and ed. by John Willett, New York, Hill and Wang, 1957

Hodgkinson, Anthony W., and Sheratsky, Rodney E., Humphrey Jennings: More than a Maker of Films, Hanover, University Press of New England, 1982

Jackson, Kevin (ed.), The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader, Manchester, Carcanet Press, 1993

Jacobs, Lewis (ed.), The Documentary Tradition, New York, Hopkinson and Blake, 1971

Jennings, Mary-Lou (ed.), Humphrey Jennings: Film-Maker, Painter, Poet, London, British Film Institute,1982

MacDonald, Kevin and Cousins, Mark, Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary, London, Faber, 1996

Swann, Paul, The British Documentary Film Movement, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989

Sussex, Elizabeth, The Rise and Fall of British Documentary, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1975

Winston, Brian, Claiming the Real, London, British Film Institute, 1995


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