248: Kevon Brownlow’s It Happened Here

Archival Spaces 248

Kevin Brownlow’s It Happened Here (1964)

Downloaded  31 July 2020

I can’t believe it has taken me nearly fifty years to catch up with Kevin Brownlow’s first feature film, It Happened Here, which had its UK premiere at the London Film Festival on 1 November 1964. I first became aware of the film sometime in late 1971 – long before I met Kevin – having taken my first film course in Spring of that year, –  when I purchased Brownlow’s BFI monograph, How It Happened Here (1968, Doubleday & Co.).  Perused, I added it to my embryonic film book collection, but never had an opportunity to see the film, initially because it wasn’t available in America until Milestone released it theatrically and on DVD in 2000; don’t know why it took another twenty years, given that my dissertation analyzed anti-Nazi films made in Hollywood during WWII. Thanks to Amy Doros and Milestone, I finally screened the film and was frankly flabbergasted at its quality and modernity  I knew it was an amateur production that Brownlow and Andrew Mollo directed when Brownlow was a teenager; it took eight years to complete the film. Mashing up documentary, newsreel recreations, and fictional scenes in a then completely unconventional style, It Happened Here presages the alternative universes of The Man in the High Castle, down to its use of newsreels.   

Kevin Brownlow ca. 1963

The film visualizes the fictional occupation of Great Britain in 1944 after the German Wehrmacht had successfully invaded the island in 1940 and eliminated any resistance.  When the film opens, armed resistance has flared up again in the Western half of the British Isles, now supported by the Americans.  Brownlow opens with a fake German newsreel that relates the above, and not only totally convincingly mimics the Deutsche Wochenschau of World War II, but also uses a German narrator whose inflection and accent imitates exactly the Nazi original. The film then slowly focuses on Pauline, an apolitical nurse who survives a massacre when she is supposed to be evacuated to London, then slowly slips into the role of a Nazi collaborator, who may or may not have betrayed her friends to the Nazis.

It Happened Here (1964)

Throughout the film, Brownlow returns to German and British “newsreels” that are strikingly accurate in capturing the ambience of 1940s Britain under Nazi occupation. Some newsreel footage restages known historical events, e.g. the execution of refugees by  “Sonderkommandos” (recalling some of the only surviving atrocity footage in Poland), the 1914 Christmas truce along the Western Front; the snowball fight quotes Abel Gance’s Napoleon (and was at that time only to be found in Brownlow’s 9.5mm print of the film). Equally amazing is the footage of Pauline walking through the ruins of London, shot in the late 1950s, when signs of the Blitzkrieg were still visible, as well as the footage of German soldiers on leave, taking in the sights of London. Brownlow scrupulously populates his images with perfect little details, like the sidewalk sale of “Das Signal” (an important Wehrmacht bi-monthly illustrated magazine), the Picture Post advert on a London bus, sidewalk sales of household goods by ghetto inhabitants, or the German/English signage at the edge of the Jewish Ghetto.

It Happened Here (1964)

In keeping with the realism of such imagery, Brownlow stages British Nazi Party rallies, ceremonies, and lectures that reproduce both the original words of British Fascists from the 1930s and the ideology of German National Socialism. Indeed, some of this footage is actual documentary footage of British Fascists. The UK Nazis argue that the English are enjoying a high standard of living, because the “International Jewish Capitalist and Bolshevik” conspiracy has been defeated, while also blaming the Jews for the bombing of London because British politicians rejected Germany’s peace feelers. In another jaw-dropping scene, a British Fascist argues perfectly “rationally” that euthanasia is necessary because the State cannot be expected to support those individuals who cannot help support the State.    

It Happened Here (1964)

Such vile, racist content is articulated without contradiction within a filmic text that demands realism, leading critics in the 1960’s to condemn the film as fascist and anti-Semitic. One can counter that there are no anti-Semitic stereotypes visible in the film, while the arguments of the Fascists are themselves clichéd and stereotypical. When a young woman asks how Jews could be blamed for Communism and Capitalism, the instructor responds nonsensically, there are no conflicts between the Jews of the Kremlin and those in London.

Other critics thought the film unrealistic, because British people would never have accepted Hitlerian rule, without a whimper. Obviously, not even twenty years after the war, the wounds were still too fresh for such an uncomfortable truth. But as Marcel Ophuls’ film about France under the Occupation, Sorrow and the Pity (1969) and Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1997) demonstrate, mild-mannered, middle-class citizens can indeed become fascist collaborators; a lesson we have learned yet again in Texas detention camps and on the streets of Portland.

The film’s penultimate scene proves the point most shockingly. German SS troops who have surrendered under a white flag are led into a field by the resistance  and massacred, as an American Army jeep drives by without intervening. Meanwhile, Pauline, who has been captured by the Allies and identified as a Nazi fellow traveler, begins working as a nurse for the American military; like millions of collaborators (and war criminals) after 1945, she slips back into an invisible, conventional life.    

UK Premiere in Leicester Square, London, November 1964

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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