Directed By: Humphrey Jennings & Stewart McAllister.
We’ve all seen at least snippets of those American WWII shorts – like Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series – that played in movie theaters during WWII to help win over the home front during the war. These are basically propaganda films, despite what Capra claims. But not all propaganda films are a bad thing – they can be, when they are made by Leni Riefenstahl for the Nazis, and try to disguise the horrible evil being perpetrated by Germany, but they are not necessarily so.
Listen to Britain, made by Humphrey Jennings (along with his longtime editor Stewart McAllister) though is a completely different type of “propaganda” film for the WWII years. Apparently Jennings felt the harder you pushed the message, the more people tuned it out, so in Listen to Britain, he doesn’t really push it at all. This is a documentary with no narration, and no dialogue, but is simply about the day in Britain during that time. The government department in charge of these things felt the need to add an unnecessary prologue, with a stuffy professor describing the movie, and reading poetry. It wasn’t needed, and is best ignored.
Because there is no narration, Jennings let his images and the sounds he captures speak for themselves. What Jennings is “selling” though is national unity. His camera moves throughout Britain, showing the working class men, mothers and children, concerts and high culture. Of course, Jennings avoids any of the bad things happening in Britain at the time – there are no bombed houses on display, no signs of rationing anywhere, just a portrait of normal Brits going about their lives – working hard for King and country. The film’s message is clear – we’re all in this together, and this is what we are fighting for. But Jennings knew better than to try and shove this down the audience’s throats. He has shots of plane flying overhead (and the sound of those planes is a recurring motif in the film’s masterful sound design – alongside singing workers, and Myra Hess performing Mozart). It takes almost 10 minutes before you even glimpse a soldier – and then through the loving eyes of a mother who watches her children playing, before glancing at a photograph of a soldier, presumably her husband and father of her children.
This is probably why Listen to Britain still ranks among the best films of all time on some polls (the Sight & Sound Critics Poll of 2012 has it in a tie for 183rd of all time – among the films it tied with or John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, Steven Spielberg’s E.T., Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past). Jennings isn’t trying to whip the audience up into an angry, righteous fury to go out there and crush the Germans. He is quietly selling an idyllic homelife – and his film reaches more for the heart than for the head. The film is masterfully assembled, and must rank among the most influential documentaries of all time, even if it isn’t very widely seen (certainly not on this side of Atlantic anyway). Everyone remembers Riefenstahl, and not many remember Jennings. That’s a shame, because as evidenced in Listen to Britain, Jennings was a much more subtle director – a visual poet, and master at editing and sound design. If, as Roger Ebert said about Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, that the film wouldn’t win you over if you weren’t already a Nazi, than it can be said about Jennings film that even now, 71 years later, the film can still move you – even if we’re more aware now of just how much we are being manipulated.