#183 (tie) – Listen to Britain (1942), dir. Humphrey Jennings & Stewart McAllister

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This ain’t no party. A British soldier keeps watch in Listen to Britain, a documentary of daily life in Britain after the Blitz that eschews traditional narrative structure to let the juxtaposition of images and overlapping sounds produce a larger, unscripted portrait of a nation in the grip of war.

There’s more than one way to fight a war. With World War II raging across Europe and Britain having been bombed on a daily basis, it wasn’t enough to fight the enemy, you had to boost the morale of the masses and connect with and encourage your allies. To this end, propaganda films were made in great numbers by every side in the conflict, and one of the most prolific British propaganda filmmakers of the Second World War was Humphrey Jennings. Jennings realized that overt propaganda often went down poorly with British viewers, as the people rejected transparent manipulation. So for Listen to Britain (1942) he and co-director Stewart McAllister tried a different tack — no narration, no dialogue — just the sights and sounds of Britain at war. The documentary format of the short film juxtaposes a number of musical performances (dance halls, church recitals, a pair of crooners, etc.) around domestic, industrial, and military scenes from everyday life in Britain. Classical music might give way to the sounds of a tank factory, and the images generally suggest a thriving nation bearing the deadly inconvenience of an armed conflict. The film’s experimental construction and lack of an overt message drew concern from powers that be that the theatergoers of Allied nations just wouldn’t get it, but Listen to Britain proved a rousing success at home and overseas. (19 min.)

J. – Hmmmm… This one perplexes me a bit. But I will save the bulk of my confusion for later in this yammer, S., and begin someplace else. Even though this film is called Listen to Britain, I think I’d rather kick off with the sights before getting to the sounds. The film is largely one big montage of images that, I suppose, are meant to represent a single day in Britain. It has no narrative to speak of, no actors, and no plot. For those who have checked out the Sight & Sound Top 10, this probably sounds terribly familiar, as it is basically the same idea as Dziga Vertov’s 1929 silent documentary Man With a Movie Camera. And Hennings and McAllister do put together a few sensational images and create some evocative juxtapositions of imagery in how they switch back and forth from entertainment to industry; agriculture to air raid wardens. But it’s all pretty stodgy and uninspired compared to the exhilarating rush of Man With a Movie Camera, which is just explosively creative and stridently experimental. I bet I would have enjoyed this short so much more if I’d never seen Vertov’s work, but I have, and Listen to Britain suffered as a result.

S. – Some of the visuals are quite lovely but I would agree they are missing the spark that comes from being brazenly experimental such as we have seen from Vertov. There are a few different camera angles and movements used, yet the montage feels very careful and calm. I could hardly believe the 19 minute run-time because it felt at least twice as long. Wholesome scenes of people living happily and simply are spliced into sanitised industrial images of hard workers applying themselves to the task at hand.  Given that the impetus for the film was morale boosting during what was the constant presence of deadly conflict, the lack of drama was surprising. Somehow it is all very restrained, for me to the point of being dull, almost propaganda by stealth. I suppose it is impressive to diligently carry on maintaining a ‘business as usual’ demeanour in the face of the disruption of war, but perhaps you do have to be British to experience the satisfaction of appearing utterly unflustered by the enemy.

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The short does manage to conjure up some compelling images, but it isn’t exactly over-brimming with excellent compositions. This is from a performance by a woman playing the piano and singing in an ambulance station.

J. – It certainly is rather strange to my American eyes, and it reminds me of that furious tirade against the British by Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai — “You endure but you have no courage!” So, while the film was a rather dull exploration of wartime living, once it was established that the intent was to present a picture of endurance and perseverance, rather than struggle and glory, there were a few visual elements that I really liked. This is particularly true of the subtle depictions of the toll taken by the war, like the quick cuts during the classical music performance showing that the hall had been damaged by bombing and that windows were sandbagged for protection. There was another shot following a man as he comes out of his house and strolls down the sidewalk to work. When he reaches the corner you notice that the house behind him has been bombed out, but the man just rounds the bend and continues on. And those little touches did add up in compelling ways, but I think it was all rather undercut but how generally listless the film was. The musical performances weren’t the most exciting, and while I appreciate the honesty of the filmmakers in showing audience members who were either bored or distracted, I fail to see what that is meant to convey. If these people are bored by what they are experiencing, how can we not be? Were there any standout visuals or scenes that have stuck with you, S.?

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Listen to Britain frequently transitions between musical performances and industrial settings, but in this sequence it combines the two as workers sing along with songs piped in over the factory’s loud speakers.

S. – I have been desperately trying to recall some compelling image from this film and I keep coming up blank. From a visual perspective I found it to be remarkably forgettable. Perhaps in wartime painting a picture that is reassuring and familiar is far more powerful than the unexpected or shocking. At the time it seems the film was successful in galvanising a sense of what Britain was fighting for, but viewing it today as a part of the Sight & Sound list I felt unmoved by the cinematography. An aspect that did capture my interest though was the sound. Given that the piece is called Listen to Britain I guess this was no accident. Instead of narration, everyday noises are superimposed into a montage that accompanies the visuals. The effect is striking, and while not always handled with finesse, the switching sounds, such as children in a playground and armoured vehicles rolling down the street, felt innovative and intriguing.

J. – Not being able to bring a single visual to mind is a pretty damning indictment of a film, S., and one that is not unmerited in this case. I agree that the sound design was much more interesting, and I presume that much of the film’s reputation lies in the audio work — I mean, the film isn’t called Look at Britain for a reason. I particularly liked the montage of radio broadcasts from around the world, which utilized a number of pieces of audio piled atop each other to create a collage of sound that worked quite well with the images of electronics and the like. And some of the transitions from music to nature, or music to industry were quite seamless and interesting. Others were jarring in a good way, as the film would have the loud noises of mechanized military machines suddenly burst on the scene. But still other transitions I found to be quite clunky and off-putting, although I’m uncertain whether this was the fault of the filmmakers or simply a feature of the rather dodgy print of the film that we watched.

Regardless, it all brings me back to my initial confusion. Why in heavens is Listen to Britain on the Sight & Sound list? I honestly can’t give a satisfactory answer to that question. Surely there must be an experimental aspect of the film that made it influential; that’s the only thing I can figure. But it can’t be the style of the visuals or the narrative-less story as the same kind of thing was done much earlier and with much more success in not just Man With a Movie Camera, but also Jean Vigo’s excellent 1930 short documentary À propos de Nice (which didn’t make the Top 250). But those are both silent films, so perhaps it’s the use of sound that is the short’s great legacy. But if that is the case, Listen to Britain no longer has the same power to compel as it once did. What sound design innovations it may have introduced are now so heavily incorporated into the art of cinema that they no longer speak out as something special. And that’s my overall view of the film, it’s not bad, but it’s just not special — and I’ve come to expect special from this list, even from the films I don’t connect with.

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The music meets wartime thread that runs through the film eventually lands on a classical performance by an orchestra filled with uniformed soldiers. The performance fits well with the more lyric nature of the documentary, letting the combination of warriors wielding woodwinds say more than any narration would. But we question whether it all adds up to much when you take the film outside the days of conflict and fear.

S. – Sitting down to watch a list movie always brings a sense of anticipation. I was quite uncertain what to expect from a short documentary that was ranked alongside one of my absolute favorites so far (I Was Born, But…) and it was a complete anti-climax. The understated propaganda piece may have been in tune with the hearts and minds of the British populace back in 1942 but it feels very tepid compared with other films from the era. The examples you have mentioned, J., have shown me just how absorbing this style of cinema can be, but perhaps without the backdrop of WWII the mastery within Listen to Britain is difficult to appreciate.

Related yammers:

#8 – Man With a Movie Camera (1929), dir. Dziga Vertov

#117 – A Canterbury Tale (1944), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
#93 – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
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