World War Two: The Rewrite

In 1956 the 18-year-old Kevin Brownlow had an idea for a film: what if Nazi Germany had successfully invaded Britain? It took him eight years to make - with a tiny budget, little equipment and a cast of amateurs - but 'It Happened Here' remains an astonishing and innovative work, using documentary techniques to investigate the subject of collaboration. Neil Norman meets its creator - and finds out why Leni Riefenstahl couldn't bear to watch it

It is one of the most striking scenes in British cinema: Nazi stormtroopers marching through Parliament Square. Clearly designed to alarm and provoke, it is an image that could have been ripped from a WWII Nazi propaganda film.

In actual fact, it is a scene from the 1964 British feature film, It Happened Here. The intervening decades have done little to diminish its worrying, subversive power. Made by debutante director Kevin Brownlow, together with his colleague Andrew Mollo, It Happened Here rewrites history to suggest what might have happened if Britain had been occupied by the Nazis. Through the story of its leading protagonist, nurse Pauline Murray, it tells of partisan resistance to the Vichy-like state, and how survival and compromise can easily slide into collaboration. Shot in black and white, in 16mm and 35mm, in the manner of a documentary, it has the jackbooted kick of authenticity.

It is hard to believe that Brownlow, now a distinguished film historian and the planet's most accomplished film restorer, was just 18 when he began making the film. "I wanted to be the next Orson Welles," he tells me over lunch. "But I never even put on the weight. And I am hopeless at raising money."

Nonetheless, in between collecting old movies and working on documentaries, Brownlow managed to finish his film after eight years. It was a triumph of the amateur will to finish what he'd started.

Quentin Tarantino may have established the idea that film geeks could make movies, but Brownlow got there first. His initiation into the world of celluloid, he recalls, goes back to 1947 and his unhappy days in a Sussex boarding school at the age of 11.

"The only good thing about it was that the headmaster used to show films every third Sunday," he says. "There was no sound so it was always silent movies. We were watching a silent version of Oliver Twist one Sunday and I had sat as close to the projector as I could get. The projector jammed and the film fell out. I picked up a discarded piece of film and later in bed shone a torch through it in the hope of projecting the image onto the wall. That's how technically adept I was."

But the feel of celluloid in his fingers was like a narcotic and Brownlow began collecting old films and showing them to his friends on the projector he eventually received for Christmas. At this stage, he says, he had no ambitions to make movies himself.

"My mother was afraid I'd end up as a projectionist," he says. "She encouraged me to be creative and bought me a camera."

At the time, the teenage Brownlow was steeped in dystopian fiction; he cites Orwell's 1984, the novels of John Wyndham, the Boulting Brothers' film, Seven Days to Noon and Orson Welles' infamous War of the Worlds radio play as possible sources of inspiration behind his debut movie.

Brownlow recalls seeing a black Citroen pull up one day, and a man getting out and running into a shop, turning at the entrance to shout back at his companion in German. The boy began to imagine what England might have been like in an alternative universe - one in which the Nazis had won the war. Drafting a one-page synopsis, he borrowed a 16mm camera and started shooting. There was no script, no money and very little equipment - aside from the borrowed camera which was then stolen on the second day of filming. There were no actors either, Brownlow believing that he could save money by simply asking people in the street and the pub to be in his movie.

It is hard to reconcile the massive chutzpah this must have taken with the endearingly diffident, quietly spoken 67 year-old man sitting opposite me. But the evidence is on film for all to see.

He began with an easy scene: a Nazi rally in Trafalgar Square. Having begged and borrowed uniforms, weapons and regalia, and dressed his "actors", he invaded the 1956 May Day Rally. Needless to say, he and his group of gun-toting, Nazi-uniformed actors were soon being moved along by the local constabulary.

Undeterred, however, Brownlow telephoned the Ministry of Works to secure permission to film in Trafalgar Square. He was, he recalls in his book, How It Happened Here (available to purchase through www. UKApress.com) somewhat economical with the truth about how many "soldiers" would be appearing in the Square.

Still unhappy with the footage, he realised that he needed a technical adviser to deliver the much-needed uniforms for the film. Enter Andrew Mollo, a 16 year-old collector of German militaria, whom Brownlow met at a stall in Portobello Road. Mollo looked at the footage and told him it was all wrong. "Andrew was the one who convinced me of the absolute need for authenticity," he says.

Working as a team, Brownlow and Mollo then spent the next eight years snatching their moments to complete their film. The odds were stacked against them: actors came and went; locations changed, money was always tight, cameras jammed, film was ruined by labs, the public were intrusive - especially when seeing Nazi uniforms in London streets.

"One civilian threw a cup of tea at an extra who was dressed as a Nazi officer," he recalls, "which was an odd thing to do." Terribly British, though.

Above all, attempting to maintain continuity was a nightmare. "The leading lady ages from 35 to 40 in one cut, I notice," says Brownlow, with a rueful smile.

On one occasion, he found himself filming a squad of Wehrmacht troops marching along a London street with speakers blaring out German marching songs to keep everyone in step.

"We were marching past John Profumo's house, who was the Minister for War at the time. This was a few months before the Keeler scandal broke. His butler came out of the house to inquire about the noise." Boy, did he get a surprise.

To make matters even more difficult for himself, Brownlow cast genuine members of the National-Socialist party as British Fascists in the film to heighten authenticity. This led directly to one of his biggest headaches after the film was completed. The fact that he allowed leading Nazi idealogue Frank Bennett, along with two other British fascists, to expound their philosophy in a lengthy discussion with the principal players, led many to believe that the film was Nazi propaganda.

The Jewish Chronicle railed against the filmmakers and the film's ultimate distributor, United Artists, insisted that the six-minute scene be taken out. Despite a petition from a distinguished group of UK critics, who had seen the film and assessed its worth, UA enforced their ruling and the scene was removed. It has subsequently been restored for the new DVD version (Film First) and one can see how crucial it is to the film's argument.

"I thought they condemned themselves out of their own mouths," says Brownlow of the scene, which was difficult to shoot. "You could have cut the tension with a knife," he recalls. "All of us were utterly appalled. Frank Bennett knew what we were doing so he felt he had a platform for his views. The other one was simply an exhibitionist."

The faux Nazi newsreel footage of the occupation and a Christmas Day incident - in the First World War when the opposing sides laid down their arms and played a game of football in the mud - are wonderful examples of DIY recreations and thoroughly convincing. So convincing was the newsreel footage, in fact, that when Leni Riefenstahl came for a visit and started to watch the roughcut she asked Brownlow to turn it off.

"She couldn't look at it," he says with genuine regret, "so I never got the reaction of someone closest to it."

After eight years and many more incidents - which are chronicled in the book - the film finally made it on to the big screen in 1966 where it performed well, though not well enough, according to the creative accounting of United Artists. Although he made one other feature, the English Civil War movie, Winstanley, which took almost half as long, Brownlow retired from the fray of feature directing to concentrate on film restoration, documentaries and his books. Even now, one senses that his directorial career was nipped in the bud.

"If we hadn't made this film it is possible I might be making feature pictures today," he says. "First, we made a film for what most filmmakers spend on their main titles. An iconoclast does not gain entry into the cathedral. Second, it made no money, apparently. Third, I got a reputation for being anti-Semitic, which didn't help. Finally, one thing I've found as an historian is that, if you are going to ask for a great deal of money on a risk, you have to give reassurance to a producer. Directors need to look like Alan Parker, Orson Welles, Victor Fleming. A scrawny, bespectacled individual does not inspire confidence."

If Brownlow is being hard on himself, it's his way of dealing with the disappointment. "I did have the desire to direct very strongly," he says. "But, after a while, you put concrete over your ideas because it's too painful."

His recognition, awards and plaudits have come as a result of his other work - as a restorer of silent movies (from Napoleon to The Phantom of the Opera) he is unsurpassed; his knowledge and historical perspective of the industry's early days have resulted in works of tremendous erudition. Yet It Happened Here occupies a unique place in British cinema history. Brownlow and Mollo's amateur epic easily holds its own with similar verite works like Cavalcanti's Went the Day Well? and Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers; it inspired Peter Watkins (who worked on IHH) to make The War Game and Culloden.

A few months ago, Brownlow, ever the curious and inquisitive film historian, was intrigued to learn of a previously unheard of Nazi propaganda film that had been discovered among the collection of Fritz Hippler, Reich Film Intendant, which was aired on Italian television station Rai 3. Entitled The Conquest of London 1941, it contained footage apparently shot by Nazis in London. Eager to see the film for himself, Brownlow recently received a tape from a friend.

One can only imagine his surprise when he stuck it in his video recorder to discover that the entire film consisted of footage looted from It Happened Here. Brownlow then made a couple of polite phone calls to ascertain whether or not they might pay him some, er, money, for the use of his film. The Italian television company refused. They didn't even apologise.

Somebody please get this man a lawyer, for God's sake.

It Happened Here is now available on DVD

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence