Sieg ha ha, it’s Burl once again, and I’m here to review a movie on a pretty somber subject! That’s right, it’s a What If picture, and, as usual, the question is What If Those Horrible Nazis Won? The movie is called It Happened Here, and it’s a British semi-amateur production that took almost ten years to make!
Ha ha, the story behind the making of it is one worth telling! The picture was made by the famed historian and reconstructurist Kevin Brownlow, who became something of a legend to me around the time he was working so hard on Abel Gance’s Napoleon! He co-directed it with Andrew Mollo, whose devotion to accuracy in war costuming is known across the world! And these two worthies were but teenagers when they began this project! (Ha ha, Mollo was the brother of John Mollo, the famous costume designer, who also was obsessed with period military garb! Ha ha, two of them in one family!)
Brownlow and Mollo weren’t old and grey when they finished it, but they must have felt it at times! With a star whose age visibly fluctuates over the decade-long shoot; stylish work from the very talented cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, who later shot The Empire Strikes Back and many David Cronenberg pictures, like A Dangerous Method; and a little post-production financial and logistical help from friends, they finally completed and released the movie in 1965, and it got plenty of attention!
The shooting conditions certainly informed the storytelling, which is episodic and sometimes appealingly choppy! Our main character is Pauline, a nurse, whom we meet in an England that has been beaten and occupied by Hitler’s armies! After a partisan attack on German soldiers claims a number of Pauline’s friends, she ends up in London and decides to tread as central and apolitical a path as she can! She joins the Immediate Action group (“a name that sounds like a laxative,” one of the more sympathetic characters opines) and engages in nursing work - a job that eventually turns nightmarish!
Pauline, played by a non-actor also called Pauline, has a compelling face and an accent that, when the poor sound recording allows, gives charming hints of her Irish background! The style of the film, and the way the action scenes, and Pauline’s reactions to the horrors of fascist occupation, are presented, are impressionistic and decidedly modern; one can’t be sure at which points the talents of Brownlow and Mollo end and the exigencies of a paltry budget begin! The movie has a few professional performers in it, notably Sebastian Shaw playing an antifascist doctor! Ha ha, if he looks familiar it’s because he would go on to play the unmasked Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi! And yes, John Mollo designed that mask, and yes, he based it on German army helmets! Ha ha, and so the wheel turns!
It Happened Here has a newsreel authenticity to it (little wonder Suschitzky went on to shoot Peter Watkins’ The War Game, ha ha!), but this verisimilitude tips into creepiness when we realize that Brownlow and Mollow found some genuine Oswald Mosely-style British fascists to play some of the collaborators, and spew some of their actual loathsome views! Others are merely actors who are frighteningly good at pretending to be people who’ve embraced the twisted cross and all that comes along with it!Of course there is much sad relevance to our situation today! A number of European countries, and our fair neighbours to the south with their loopy, pan-fried president, seem engaged in flirtatious dances with, or indeed outright embraces of, this troublingly inhumane ideology! More and more we hear something close to the rants of O’Brien from 1984 coming from the lips of authoritarian goofballs! And while this picture has an ostensibly happy ending, it’s a barbed one, both for our character and for the future of humanity! “The appalling thing about fascism is that you’ve got to use fascist methods to get rid of it,” says Shaw’s doctor. “We’ve all got a bit of it in us. It doesn’t take very much to bring it to the surface.” And therein lies the message of the film, and its warning! It’s an extraordinary work in many ways, and I give It Happened Here three and a half boots stamping on a human face - forever!