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
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Go figure: Matt Parker, wearing the binary code scarf knitted by his mother
comedy Mathematician is using comedy nights to teach and preach sums
Arts and Entertainment
Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'
filmReview: Ryan Gosling is still there, but it's a very different film
Arts and Entertainment
Urban explorer: Rose Rouse has documented her walks around Harlesden, and the people that she’s encountered along the way
books Rouse's new book discusses her four-year tour of Harlesden
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Franco Zeffirelli's production of 'Aida' at Milan's famed La Scala opera house
operaLegendary opera director in battle with theatre over sale of one of his 'greatest' productions
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
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.

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes