IT HAPPENED HERE
Director of Programming, Austin Film Society
Our aim was to allow the Nazis to discuss their beliefs, to bring their sickness into the open, and to condemn themselves out of their own mouths. – Kevin Brownlow, co-director
Each country invaded and occupied by the German military during World War II produced collaborators, who jumped on the Nazi bandwagon either out of ideological agreement or a crass desire to join the “winners.” History would prove them to be shortsighted traitors. 18-year-old Kevin Brownlow began wondering in 1956 what England might have been like if Germany had followed the retreating British soldiers from Dunkirk across the Channel. What if “it” – German occupation and the imposition of Nazi ideology – had actually happened? Brownlow assumed that, as elsewhere, there would be those who had already espoused National Socialism – like Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists – and those apolitical opportunists who decided to work with the new fascist government. There would be a majority of “Good British,” like “Good Germans,” who went along with the political changes simply out of fear or apathy. Finally there would be those who actively struggled against the imposed, foreign regime and would fight both British fascists and German troops. These relatively few would form the resistance, which had appeared in France and Italy as well as other occupied countries.
Brownlow, who had always been interested in cinema and even had a small film collection, decided he would make a film about the invasion, occupation, and resistance. It would be an exciting thing to do, or so he thought at 18. It was nothing short of creative insanity to think it could be done. Eight years later he and his many “film collaborators” would finally get to see a completed film, IT HAPPENED HERE. Brownlow tells his story in a relatively early “Making Of” book: How It Happened Here (1968).
How did such a young man in the 1950s have the [audacity][courage][balls] to think he could make a feature film, even on 16mm celluloid? He had already made a short film, “The Capture,” based on a story by Guy de Maupassant. That one took him three years off and on. It was shot without a script and contained a cast of nearly 100, so he figured he wouldn’t need a script for his proposed alternate-history feature film.
But he did have an outline of what he thought should be in the film. The central character would be a woman, forced to evacuate her home in the country and move to London. Brownlow had no idea what would happen to her next, except that she would “surrender to the Nazi way of life.” He was more interested in putting in lots of background information for this “what if” story, in which Germany defeated Russia and began bombing America. Occupied England, heavily industrialized, was supplying the German Reich with materials to rebuild Europe and “establish the New Order even further afield.” America, realizing that Britain was no longer a viable ally, drops atom bombs on northern, industrial areas of England. Then Britain would be useless to the Germans, who retreat from the devastated island, “leaving a shattered, degraded population to live together without moral support.”
Brownlow worked as a runner (errand boy) for World Wide Pictures, a documentary film company. Celluloid seemed to run through his veins. In 1956 not all of London had been rebuilt. Some areas were still piles of rubble left by the relentless Blitzkrieg bombings. Brownlow recalled, “The war was not so much a memory as an integral part of the atmosphere. Everyone over the age of fifteen had been affected by it, and still had clear recollections.” So, with the city as his setting, he got together some uniforms that were modified to look accurate and borrowed a 16mm camera. He had already bought film out of his salary. Getting together a small cast dressed up as German SS soldiers, he infiltrated a May Day procession in Trafalgar Square and began filming real people (not in uniform) with his cast. When he saw the results, he was dissatisfied.
Needing more German uniforms, he met a collector of military memorabilia, Andrew Mollo, who looked at what Brownlow had shot and said that it was all wrong. He agreed to lend Kevin real German uniforms from his collection. Andrew said that he also knew where they could get more. Andrew was 16 years old and came onto the film project as technical advisor, even though Brownlow immediately started thinking of ways to get rid of the kid after using his uniforms. But first Brownlow discarded all the negative film he had shot and started over again.
Mollo showed Kevin a book, A Paris, Sous les Bottes des Nazis [In Paris Under the Nazi Boots, 1944], which provided insight into the look of occupied Paris. It inspired them to transfer such imagery to London. Brownlow was also impressed by the natural lighting and the backgrounds of posters, buildings, and monuments in the photos.
Through Andrew Mollo and his family, who were also artists, thinkers, and collectors, a flood of Nazi memorabilia began pouring in from other collectors in England. These items were not exactly easy to obtain because, as Brownlow writes, “The Nazi era was as forbidden a subject at that time [in England] as pornography to the Victorians.” That attitude is partly what inspired Brownlow and Mollo to take the veil off the events and attitudes of World War II. “Nazism should have repelled us with its constant reminders of brutality. But mysteries continued to cloud the era. And mystery is a powerful attraction.” Ultimately they wanted to know what about Nazi ideology swayed so many people in Germany and if there would have been a similar reaction in Britain.
For one scene involving a German transport truck and civilians, they still didn’t have someone who looked sufficiently “German” to play an officer in charge of the evacuees. Setting up their camera near St. Martin-in-the-Fields, they saw a tall, blond man who looked ideal. A bit surprised but intrigued, the man agreed to get into the Nazi uniform and bark some orders, but Brownlow and Mollo had to promise not “to tell the vicar.” Their new Nazi commander explained that he was the evangelical who had just delivered a sermon at St. Martin.
At an awards show Brownlow met Richard Jobson, a doctor living on the Welsh/English border, who also painted. He had made a lyrical documentary about the progress of one of his paintings from start to finish and was in London to be presented a film award. Kevin met both the doctor and his wife Pauline. Both Brownlow and the doctor were film collectors, so Dr. Jobson invited the young man to come visit them in Wales and look over his collection. That would be a fortuitous invitation.
After a visit to Wales, Brownlow returned to London and met Mark Dineley, a 60-year-old collector of military weaponry. He was impressed by the stills from IT HAPPENED HERE and offered one of his estates as a place to film battle scenes. He also offered one of his abandoned farmhouses for a grand demolition with explosives. The entire cast and crew left for Dineley’s land in Wiltshire on 3 October 1957.
There the cast and crew would have an entire weekend of production, as opposed to the dibs and dabs heretofore done on Sundays for a couple of hours at a time. This particular scene would involve the German army ferreting out partisans firing from farmhouses. Even with the luxury of time, there were still problems: the machine gun jammed, the convoy had fewer trucks than wished for, and the weather was bitterly awful. Even after doing some more filming on Sunday, Brownlow knew they’d need to return, but that wouldn’t be possible until the following March.
In the spring of 1958 Andrew and Kevin went to hear British fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, speak. He had moved slightly away from the fascism of the 40s and claimed not to hate Jews, “just particular people who were Jewish.” But he had added new racist thoughts about “the Africans,” whom he wanted to retain in Africa “behind a white line” along the coasts of the giant continent. His reemergence coincided with a resurgence of British neo-Nazism and made Brownlow and Mollo feel that their anti-Nazi film would prove to be timely.
The two young filmmakers went to Paris and found more uniforms to use. While there, they also visited one of Brownlow’s film heroes, Abel Gance, who had made the silent-film epic, NAPOLEON. Soon, Andrew left for Germany with his father. Both, being collectors, were able to ferret out underground, rarely disclosed stashes of German military memorabilia.
However, 1958 ended rather badly for Brownlow and Mollo. Mr. Dineley, who had helped by offering his estate for the battle scenes, couldn’t come through with the promised funding to move their project farther along. So, at this time they couldn’t buy the German uniforms. The British Film Institute Experimental Film Fund Committee showed some interest in what they had heard about IT HAPPENED HERE, but finally deemed it “insufficiently experimental” for funding. Even though they knew the youth of the filmmakers, the committee said that the film wouldn’t teach prospective filmmakers anything about making films. They hopefully would eat those words years later when the film was finally released.
In early 1959 both Andrew and Kevin traveled to Wales and suddenly saw the doctor’s wife, Pauline, in a different light. She agreed to take the central role of Pauline Murray, the nurse who gets drawn into the British Fascist world in London. That summer they took advantage of the doctor’s offer to allow them to blow up a farmhouse on his own country property. There seems to have been several people more than happy to have farmhouses blown up. They also used the nearby village of Radnor as the site of the evacuation in the early part of the film. Pauline and a handful of other villagers are left behind by the convoys moving people out of partisan territory to the well-secured London. Pauline and the others decide they will have to wait until morning to be picked up, so they return to her home. Soon, she realizes there are partisans hiding upstairs in her own home, so she and the others quickly return outside. When a German officer approaches them, he is shot by a resistance fighter and gunfire erupts with all but Pauline being gunned down. She is soon on a train headed to London, devastated by what she has seen.
To play some of these parts of villagers or simply to watch the filming, the entire population of Radnor showed up – after church that Sunday. Those selected to be in the film were costumed in period clothes and made up to look somewhat gaunt.
Once the filmmakers were ready for more London shooting, Pauline took the train from Wales to London. For the scene in which she visits a doctor-friend’s house, she had to walk through a city full of rubble. Even though there were still such areas not entirely cleared, Brownlow found a large demolition site where some new buildings were scheduled for erection. It served quite well as a victim of the Blitzkrieg. However good the look was, Brownlow had not counted on the rowdy kids of the neighborhood. They were virtually peewee gang members and they descended on the film crew, refusing to get out of the shot no matter where the camera was placed. They stole anything they could grab and even set fire to an oil dump, but Brownlow liked the look of the smoke plumes and incorporated that into his mise-en-scene. Later in the afternoon older Teddy Boys showed up and stole bayonets before the film crew could pack and get out.
Brownlow and Mollo decided to accept an invitation to a party, even though they knew it was being held by a noted British Fascist, Frank Bennett. Kevin tried to engage their host in actual conversation about concentration camps and anti-Semitism, but he soon realized the man’s logic was so convoluted that there would be no real communication.
Around this time Andrew Mollo was hired to work with director Tony Richardson, who was shooting A TASTE OF HONEY, following the success of LOOK BACK IN ANGER. That would be another connection that would eventually prove invaluable.
While shooting scenes of German Wehrmacht soldiers marching in Parliament Square, Brownlow was initially startled to realize a group of sightseeing German officers from the Castlemartin Panzer battalion was watching the filming. After visiting with the director and complimenting the accuracy of the uniforms and the marching, the German tourists stayed with the crew all the rest of the day. Hopefully none had daydreams of “what might have been.”
With Andrew slated to begin work on Tony Richardson’s TOM JONES in the summer of 1962, Brownlow and Mollo hoped to finish the film in a five-month sprint. That wouldn’t happen, but during that period an outline and script were completed to incorporate what was already shot and what remained to be done. Richardson asked to see what they had already shot. He was quite impressed and asked to see what the 16mm footage would look like blown up to 35, the necessary theatrical format. He was impressed with how it looked and gave then 3000 British pounds to complete the film in 35mm.
For the all-important scenes of Pauline as a nurse at a TB hospital, Brownlow secured the use of the former home of W.S. Gilbert (Gilbert and Sullivan). Coincidentally it was a modern-day tuberculosis sanitarium. Brownlow conceived it as having a more sinister use by the British Fascists.
Having switched to 35mm camera equipment, Brownlow and Mollo invited still photographer Peter Suschitzky to work with them. He was familiar with 35mm equipment and knew a lot about lighting. He was 22 and would eventually shoot such films as THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, NAKED LUNCH, CRASH, and EASTERN PROMISES. But while working on IT HAPPENED HERE, he had to light the set, load the magazine of film, operate the camera, and follow focus rather than simply direct the photography.
In a potentially dangerous move, Brownlow cast Frank Bennett in the role of the English Fascist officer who gives a lecture on Nazi ideology while pacing back and forth in a hotel lounge. Bennett’s responses to Pauline’s questions about Jews and euthanasia were his own beliefs, all formed by fascist ideology. It was this scene and a few others that led to some critics unjustifiably branding the film as anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi. As stated before, the two young, if sometimes naïve, filmmakers hoped that audience members would see Nazi ideology for what it was – racist, inhumane, and deadly.
For this scene in the Rembrandt Hotel, which had not changed its décor since the 1930s, Bennett was joined by two actual neo-Nazis and one Fascist. After a few drinks they had no problem spewing forth their improvised lines full of anti-Semitic vitriol. It was obvious that they firmly believed their idiotic ideas about Jews and the wisdom of “sending them to Madagascar.” More chilling was their belief that euthanasia is a simple surgical operation, “getting rid of useless matter, useless tissue.” That “useless tissue” referred to all people deemed undesirable by the fascist mind.
Brownlow and Mollo realized that the film they were now making was quite different from the one they had started years before. Rather than emphasizing the battles, skirmishes, and action, they were looking at the “psychological effects of occupation.” Finally admitting the inestimable contribution of Andrew Mollo (besides uniforms), Brownlow writes, “My wild ideas of invasion scenes and atom bombings had been sobered by Andrew’s practical view of reality.”
While filming the aftermath of a massacre on Harrow Road, the crew ran into another band of hooligans. The camera was surrounded by boys who were destroying the shot by jumping in front of the camera. Andrew Mollo asked the boys to move; they didn’t and so he shoved one of them. The boy immediately head-butted Mollo, who then hit the boy in the nose. Both were bleeding, but the boy took off his bicycle chain belt and began threatening Andrew with it. Somehow they got the boy to leave, but he was back shortly with an entire gang of teenage boys. When the older ones realized it wasn’t a rival gang threatening their “territory,” they left the younger ones to attack. Police finally arrived and the film crew could leave in peace.
Another fortuitous meeting brought Stanley Kubrick into the production. His World War I drama, PATHS OF GLORY, had greatly impressed Kevin Brownlow. In turn, Kubrick was impressed with what they were doing and offered them “short ends” of unexposed film stock from his current movie, DR STRANGELOVE. They used this bounty on the big surrender scene that would conclude their film.
Setting up in the village of Eashing in Surrey, they didn’t get as many extras as they had hoped for. So, they went to a nearby Borstal (juvenile prison) and secured fifty 17-18-year-old boys who doubtlessly enjoyed being Nazi soldiers, even when surrendering. Some also played English Fascist collaborators, who were shot down by the resistance fighters who were now sweeping across England and ridding the country of Germans and sellouts. True to their status as juvenile delinquents, the Borstal boys ripped and cut off the badges from all their uniforms.
Editing and post-production sound took quite a while, but on 26 May 1964 Mollo and Brownlow considered the film done. It had taken exactly eight years and several weeks to reach that point. Now the storm of outcries would begin as the film was exhibited.
Kevin Brownlow, How It Happened Here: The Making of a Film (Doubleday & Company Inc, 1968)
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