Coloradans, like others around the country, are growing restless amid the stay-at-home orders across the state. Gov. Jared Polis — the state’s first Jewish governor — delivered an emotional response this week to a prominent Republican who accused officials of using Nazi tactics to shut down the state.
President Donald Trump has compared the struggle against the new coronavirus to war, and many others have evoked memories and symbols from World War II.
Without diminishing the horrors of COVID-19, there are still those with us who remember sugar and meat rationing, rubber and tin drives and sacrifices far more difficult than social distancing. They recall fighting actual Nazis during a real war, not the over-the-top hyperbole from politicians seeking to score points with their base.
For those too young to remember, we can turn for inspiration to documentary films that capture the courage, cooperation and aplomb shown by the British people who carried on during the nightly bombing blitz by Nazi Germany.
In 1940 and ’41 the Nazis bombed Britain continually – they blasted cities and ports – and unloaded special fury on London, which in one stretch they hit 56 out of 57 nights.
The stories have become legendary. Night after night, Londoners took refuge in the Underground — what we call the subway — while the Nazis tried to destroy the city, its people and their morale. America’s greatest broadcast journalist, Edward R. Murrow first became famous with his vivid radio reports from London during the blitz.
That terror also gave birth to a slew of documentaries, sponsored by the government, which depicted the violence and horror and also, quite deliberately, created the myth, which still stands, of the enduring British people. The basic idea the government pushed was that if the British steadfastly remained British, they would outlast the bombing and eventually destroy Hitler and his war machine. They were right.
These are the films about life in England during the war. The British also made remarkable films about the fighting itself. In fact, they really taught American filmmakers how to make films about war. But those are not the films that speak to our lives at this moment.
“London Can Take It” was made by Humphrey Jennings and Harry Watt in 1940. The American journalist Quentin Reynolds narrates in an understated, mostly uninflected monotone which matches the almost procedural imagery: people quietly file into shelters in the early evening; fire crews and anti-aircraft batteries get ready for the nighttime bombing, which Reynolds says has now gone on for five weeks. People spend the nights in the shelters; grandparents, mothers and children sleep — they have mattresses and covers. It all looks orderly and dutiful.
In pictures of a random morning, a woman comes out her front door to grab the milk left earlier by the milkman. There’s rubble everywhere. People walk to work; some cars and an occasional bus pass by, while to the side crews clean up the tons of bricks that spilled onto the street when a building was demolished by a bomb. Yet, the narrator says, bombs may destroy buildings and kill people, but only that — the spirit of the country remains intact.
Harry Watt’s 1941 “Target for Tonight” is about the planning and execution of a bombing raid over Germany. It begins with a man parachuting from an airplane with a package. As if he were just going home for dinner, the soldier gathers up the parachute, puts the package under his arm and walks off — all the way to a bomber group photo studio where the film is developed and taken to an analyst who speaks like a guy having the usual at a diner.
His assistant replies, “Certainly is a peach of a target, isn’t it, Sir.” No swelling music, no loud voices, not even sentence fragments. In the plane — named F for Freddy — men are at their jobs. They crawl around the innards of the craft; a jungle gym of pipes and tubes and wires. It’s beautiful shooting that shows human beings interacting with things mechanical.
A crew member is wounded in the leg by enemy fire. His comrades attend to him immediately, but without making a fuss. He says he’s cold, and an officer’s response minimizes the man’s condition.
“It’s the shock, I expect. I had the same when I fell off my bike.”
And after Freddy lands in a thick fog, and the crew is debriefed (the wounded man survives), the last line of the film is spoken by the commander who says, “How ‘bout some bacon and eggs?”
Screenwriting teachers might pull their hair and shout, “Can there be some excitement, please?” There is plenty of drama and excitement, but it’s wrapped inside the procedures, the quiet conversations, and the thrill of a successful mission.
Much of the film is staged — images like German soldiers manning anti-aircraft guns — and at the start, a title says that details are deliberately misleading to confuse the enemy. But every person in the film is re-enacting what they do in real life. So there’s authenticity, and at the end, you understand viscerally that people doing their jobs without embellishment is what will win the war and save Britain.
Humphrey Jennings is the star of the Crown Film Unit, the group that made these films. He has a stunning eye for people at work, whatever they do, and his films combine a sense of the momentous with the unassuming diligence it takes to achieve the great task at hand. That was the idea his films made noble and touching — and it was what the leaders of Britain wanted to show the beleaguered public.
Jennings’ film about the fire brigades who went out every night to quell the fires started by Nazi incendiary bombs has two titles. “I Was a Fireman” is modest enough, but the other title, “Fires Were Started,” nails it. It refuses to credit the Nazis for the fires. It renders the enemy nameless and in that terse little passive voice sentence it treats the Nazis as nonentities.
The members of the auxiliary fire brigade have jobs, and they do them. They go to work, prepare for what’s coming, talk in quiet, procedural voices. They polish, clean, take calls, set schedules. Men play ping pong or pool, waiting for nighttime, while others hang blackout curtains.
They gather around a piano and sing a counting ditty:
One man went to mow,
Went to mow a meadow,
One man and his dog (Spot),
Went to mow a meadow.
Two men went to mow,
Went to mow a meadow,
Two men, one man and his dog (Spot),
Went to mow a meadow.
As they’re called, a few men at a time peel off to get to work.
The water for fighting fires comes from the River Thames. Jennings shows ghostly shots of a pumping ship, tied up to a pier, and sandbags. In the backgrounds of daytime shots, set against bright sunny skies, blitz balloons float placidly, their long cables dangling down to shred Nazi planes that might want to come in low.
Much of the film is re-enactment, again with people playing versions of themselves. But shots of the fires are actual, and Jennings’ drama catches the sense of firemen (all men — but the command post is mostly women) working, climbing tall ladders, coupling hoses, calling headquarters to set the needed pump pressures, and getting equipment to where the fires are at the moment.
Eighty years later, as we confront the greatest worldwide danger since WWII, it’s thrilling to see the refusal of panic — there’s barely even urgency — as people realize that being steadfast rather than flamboyant is what will win the war.
The great jewel of the British wartime non-fiction films is Jennings’ 20-minute “Listen to Britain.” It’s a collage of sights and sounds to embody the country under grave threat. Farmers work their fields; English and Scottish soldiers sing “Home on the Range;” coal miners covered in soot toil away deep underground. In a big hall with a band, hundreds of people dance to “The Beer Barrel Polka,” singing and swirling in a counter-clockwise circle. A sign reads that only men in uniform are allowed.
Children in a schoolyard play a circle game, the sound of their singing then overwhelmed by the rumble of a military convoy.
The famous pianist Myra Hess plays a noontime concert at the National Museum — she actually played more than 1,600 of these daytime concerts during the war. A man in uniform turns the pages. She plays Mozart — German music, deliberately — for an audience that includes office workers, men and women in uniform, random people looking at pictures on the walls of the gallery while listening.
A soldier with his head wrapped in bandages is there, and so is the queen — the mother of Elizabeth II (who was a mechanic during the war). It’s a picture of Britain at the time, everyone listening to the music. But under all these sounds runs the low drone of bombers.
In retrospect, of course, we know how the war turned out. But even now, you feel the quiet strength and know it’s a winner.
Howie Movshovitz teaches film in the College of Arts & Media at the University of Colorado Denver and is a film critic at KUNC.