A rarely-seen but super-chilling war film returns: It Happened Here

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Director: Kevin Brownlow

PG | 1h 33min | Drama, Fantasy, War | 12 May 1966 (UK)

Screening at the BFI 23 July and out now on remastered bluray

This week the Smoke Screen caught a special BFI re-release of the chilling and provocative counterfactual WWII Brit thriller It Happened Here, the work of director Kevin Brownlow (Brownlow was only 18 when he and Andrew Mollo – just 16 - embarked on this ambitious drama, which took eight years to complete). This dark 'what if' movie is a B&W social realist-esque look at what might have taken place if the Nazis had successfully invaded Britain in 1940. July 2018 marks the famous programmer, historian and writer Brownlow’s 80th birthday, and the BFI has remastered the film to mark the date. Following the screening at the BFI on Southbank (where Brownlow opined on the crazy shoot, which involved awkward encounters with real fascists, and last-minute help getting film stock from a certain Stanley Kubrick), it will be in stores in a new remastered BFI bluray format.

It Happened Here subverts expectations from the off by nothing down the route of a triumphant story of resistance, but instead drops us into the perspective of a 'collaborator'; a former nurse, who justifies joining the British Nazi nursing corps (called inoffensively the IAO "International Action Organisation) by arguing that saving lives during the partisan vs Nazi conflict is the best use of her time. But Nazism is like a disease; it leaks into everything. A nurse might wear a surgical mask and deliver penicillin, but you can't keep fascism out that way. Every where she turns, the regime consumes everything: locking up her friends (who themselves look on her Nazi nurse uniform in terror), forcing her to administer poison to TB patients, and refusing her desire to be a 'non political' nurse who can just tend to patients without being force fed the ideology.

It was struck by how the film's low budget helped create an eerie atmosphere. The Nazi occupation, following their successful invasion of 1940 (presumably after winning the Battle of Britain, though in reality a naval invasion would have to face the vastly superiorRoyal Navy) subsists sort of below surface of picturesque olde England. There simply wasnt the budget to design huge prison camps or giant Nazi monuments that overshadow contemporary London, but its arguably more disconcerting to see London look so...normal, with Brits still in high positions in the dull everyday bureaucracy. The indignity of occupation is you are made to police it yourself and pretend normality. Where the film gets really provocative is the open suggestion that occupation would turn the oppressed into oppressors: partisan groups fighting the Nazis for years are shown to have no hesitation killing surrendering SS troops- who are British volunteers themselves.

 

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Owen Van Spall

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