Kevin Brownlow & Andrew Mollo | 96 mins | DVD | PG
Alternate histories are always fun, and nothing seems to have provoked more than the Second World War. Which, as a defining event in modern history for a good chunk of the world, is understandable. It Happened Here is perhaps one of the earliest examples, depicting a 1940s Britain under Nazi occupation.
Co-directors Brownlow and Mollo use a dramatic narrative, as opposed to faux-documentary, to show off their vision of an occupied Britain. They shoot it in grainy, handheld black-and-white with a rough-round-the-edges feel that gives it the air of documentary even when it’s undoubtedly scripted and performed. How much this is deliberate and how much an accident of circumstance, I don’t know — they were both young, amateur filmmakers at the time, working on a small budget; United Artists spent more on the US trailer than was spent on the entire film. Whatever the cause, it works, because they’re also not trying and failing to convince us this is a documentary, simply employing the visual cues which help sell their history as real. Using a dramatic narrative also gives the viewer an identifiable character, nurse Pauline, which works nicely by drawing us into the story’s world, helping us feel and relate to the compromises and sacrifices that have to be made — and, as the film forces us to realise, would be made — under such circumstances.
Pauline is apolitical, which for the sake of the film means she can get buffeted around, seeing many facets of occupied life. She’s drawn into the regime without losing our sympathy, but when she legitimately disagrees with it she’s shoved out of the way to a country hospital — which allows us to see another aspect; namely, the quiet but methodical enacting of The Final Solution in an occupied territory. The whole film builds to this point, gradually showing the darker and deeper levels of cooperation — which starts out almost harmless and ends with organised mass murder — meaning it never feels like Brownlow and Mollo are pushing an agenda too hard, but still confront us with the reality: that we’d probably succumb too, and this is where we’d end up.
The film is distinctly anti-Nazi, then, though not without its controversies in spite of this. At one point, real fascists play themselves. I think you can tell, because I suspected as much before I looked it up to see: they’re not great actors, but they deliver their horrific polemics with a calm zeal. The argument that this merely gives some hateful people a platform for their views isn’t without merit — they’re certainly given a good chunk of time to discuss them — but it’s an ultimately effective sequence. Other characters ask questions — or perhaps other cast members do, because, knowing the fascists are real, it becomes hard to tell if it’s all scripted and in character or just a real-life Q&A that Brownlow & Mollo filmed. Either way, it works because any right-minded person is going to see the inherent ridiculousness of their views with ease.
Another controversy arose over the villains being British collaborators — few German Nazis are seen — and the ease with which many agreed. But this is based in the facts of what occurred in other occupied territories; maybe Britain’s plucky spirit would’ve shown through, as many like to believe, or maybe many would have caved for the easier life — or, indeed, life at all. The film is examining several perspectives of occupation, and using the fictional context to good effect: this could have happened, the film says, however much we like to believe we wouldn’t have collaborated like (and/or resisted better than), say, the French.
Talking of the resistance, I presume the controversy didn’t stop with its depiction of collaborators: both sides are shown to be just as/almost as bad as the other. The film opens with occupying Nazis massacring women and children, including a hurried and confusing gunfight in which it’s unclear whether Pauline’s friends — all women and children — were slaughtered by the Nazis or a group of resistance fighters holed up nearby. Mirroring this, the film ends with a group of British resistance (and/or invading American and British troops) rounding up surrendered collaborators and gunning them down in cold blood. No one comes out of this well — and that is perhaps the most truthful part of all.
Nonetheless, It Happened Here is more anti-Nazi than pro-Nazi propaganda, in my opinion, though it’s easy to see why any material critical of the Allies could have outweighed the overall bias when the film was first released, just 20 years after victory in Europe. Generally, and viewed from a much more removed perspective, Brownlow and Mollo do a good job of offering conflicting perspectives with minimal comment, allowing the viewer to decide how ridiculous certain newsreels or opinions are, or how weak or misguided characters may or may not be — on both sides.