It Happened Here

I just came across this photo of the Edmonton Swastikas at MeFi. Looking at it gave me a real dose of the uncannies; I tried to place exactly where I’d had the feeling before, and I remembered: it was watching It Happened Here a few years ago.

It’s one of the most extraordinary films I’ve seen; it’s also been on my mind a little lately because of a new release on DVD. If you don’t know it, it’s a black-and-white, documentary-seeming feature that follows a nurse trying to find work in Britain after the Allies’ defeat in the Second World War. There’s a ton of deep creepiness: the scenes everyone comes back to are of Nazi officers on leave, doing touristy things in London, but it’s all the stuff that doesn’t make a fuss that gets me, the way it goes along in a plain manner: we see this polite fascist state that for a lot of the film doesn’t impinge on day-to-day life, and you keep hearing those English accents saying please and thank you in nice RP while the whole background is just slightly off. It’s alittle stilted and clipped, too, since the majority of the cast aren’t actors (which only helps the naturalism). There’s the landscape too: sections are sunlight-and-elms Englishness of A Canterbury Tale but again with this dim sense of dread hanging behind it.

(The effects are almost like those peculiar moments when you’re in central London, for whatever reason, and the Household Cavalry rides by the ICA, or you see a brougham heading roughly in the direction of the palace, or catch sight of a horse being fed and stabled behind a half-open door on Whitehall. You’re suddenly aware of living in this slightly ridiculous Monarchy that just sits there on top of everything that you do, and goes about this pompous, expensive game that involves chunks of the armed forces and swathes of Westminster and which crosses your path from time to time even though you can’t imagine it having anything to do with anything.)

The genre of counterfactual historical fiction (my, there’s a tangle) isn’t so interesting to me generally; I just have this bad feeling that writers are going to feed me research about which ship, exactly, McArthur needed to lose for Myanmar to be speaking Japanese right now. Roth, you’d imagine, can do it as well as anyone: I was sort of enjoying The Plot Against America, but then put it down about halfway through. I guess I’ll finish it eventually. It was well-formed, everything was right and three-dimensional and good, but it left me a little flat (it’s usually the way with me and Roth, for all that friends I trust insistently recommend him). I just sort of want to clap at most of the scenes, and say ‘well done. That did everything it should, and did it really really well. You are a top-notch writer. You are not putting a foot wrong.’ That’s not sarcasm – he’s evidently an amazing writer – but it’s not really a good response either.

The Man in the High Castle is the counterfactual I like: but, really, once you’ve got characters writing counterfactuals (or rather the I’Ching writing it for them) within the counterfactual, you’re on the royal road to Crazy PKD fun, and how could it go wrong?

That was a divagation leading to this point: what gets me about It Happened Here is that it’s so calm and plain about the whole set up. It doesn’t make a fuss, keeps lulling you into thinking you’re watching a slightly dull bit of Free Cinema about nurses. It doesn’t push the LOOK! NAZIS! angle, which is why it has power.

I’ll guess it’s a big influence on 28 Days Later. That has a lot of the same elements recombined; I think it’s one of the main reasons I had a lot of time for that film. That and the zombies.

Links: Bronlow’s book on the making of the film; Winstanley, which I have never seen, but one of these days…; interview with Brownlow at the BFI; this post is very good, and reminded me that Brownlow and Mollo were teenagers when they started making the film.