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
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

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.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us