Director: Humphrey Jennings
Screenplay: Humphrey Jennings, E.M. Forster
Starring: Edward R. Murrow, Myra Hess, Michael Redgrave, John Gielgud, Ralph Vaughan Williams
Running Time: 218 min (combined total)
One of my favourite discoveries of last year was the work of Humphrey Jennings. I was sent a copy of The Complete Humphrey Jennings Volume 2: Fires Were Started to review back in April 2012, knowing little of the director who rose to fame in the Second World War for his groundbreaking and beautifully crafted documentaries made for the war effort. The five films in that set blew me away, showing Jennings’ ability to turn reality into poetry. A couple of them had their dated aspects, but there was such craftsmanship and artistry present that their quality was unmistakable. Fast forward a year and a bit and the BFI have finally followed up Volume 2 with The Complete Humphrey Jennings Volume 3: A Diary for Timothy. This picks up where the previous set left off, containing Jennings’ final eight films. These are The True Story of Lili Marlene, The Eighty Days, Myra Hess, A Diary for Timothy, A Defeated People, The Cumberland Story, The Dim Little Island and Family Portrait. The final film he worked on, The Good Life, which was completed by Graham Wallace, is included as an extra feature (see bottom of the page).
The True Story of Lili Marlene is a dramatisation of the curious journey of a song called ‘Lili Marlene’ during the war. Performed by a little known artist (at the time) Lale Andersen, the song didn’t do much on release in 1939, but due to a lack of choice at Soldier’s Radio Belgrade (a station run the Germans in Belgrade) it received a huge amount of playtime and became a huge hit all around Germany. On top of that, the song became popular with Allied soldiers too who would listen to German radio whilst behind enemy lines. There are more twists in the tale too, with the song eventually being adapted into English with clunkily patriotic and anti-Nazi lyrics.
The story is a bit less imaginatively told than in some of Jennings’ earlier films, with a bland voiceover leading us through stylised reconstructions. It’s rather interesting though, offering a unique through-line on World War 2. The cinematography by one of Jennings’ regulars H.E. Fowle is gorgeous as ever too.
The Eighty Days is a short, simple piece which follows an air attack over British soil and the efforts to stop it, leading to the prevention of a new bomb being sent to France. Bringing back a similar quiet, audio-collage style of presentation which impressed me in Listen to Britain, this is hauntingly powerful despite it’s simplicity. It took me a couple of minutes to really feel it though, as it comes across as basic and uninspired to being with. The minimal use of sound and carefully chosen shots of those on the ground come together to make a striking short film by the end though.
Myra Hess is an odd addition to the collection, being simply a performance by Hess of the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor (known as the “Appassionata”). This is shot from only a couple of angles, but classily so. It’s pleasant enough and is a great performance, but it’s not a particularly noteworthy film.
A Diary for Timothy is the most well known film in the set and for good reason. It’s an ambitious yet touching look at Britain at the end of the war, framed as a personal message to a baby who has been born in 1944 as the fighting on the home front was dying down. Looking at the lives of four men – a farmer, an engine driver, a miner and a wounded but healing pilot, the narrator guides us as we see what people are doing to make the country and the world a better place for the future generations.
I found it particularly interesting to observe this period and setting as most films tend to focus on the beginning or height of the conflict on the home front or stick to the soldiers fighting elsewhere in Europe. Watching the mines being removed that lined British beaches as well as the barbed wire fences brought home how much of a relief the end of such a long and terrifying war must have been to those back in the UK.
In terms of craftsmanship this is top notch as is to be expected, with great use of music and some poetic imagery and editing. It’s more of a ‘grower’ than an instantly satisfying film though. It starts a little blandly, but becomes quietly beautiful and poignant as it goes on.
A Defeated People took another interesting period and location for me, looking at the work being done in the British occupied zone of Germany after the war. Jennings’ strikingly well composed shots highlight the devastation of the country after years of fighting and bombing. It’s a horrifying sight, with cities reduced to rubble. However, being a British film from the period, the film doesn’t take a particularly sensitive view of the Germans. The narration discusses how the Brits are ridding the country from the ‘disease’ of Nazism and scenes of ex-soldiers being screened and tested for Nazi sympathies have a dark edge. It’s all understandable for the period I guess, but it’s not very PC by today’s standards. As a film, there isn’t much of the cinematic poetry Jennings is famous for either, but it still looks good and is fascinating to watch due to its stance and setting.
The Cumberland Story is the only real dud in the set. The longest addition at 45 minutes, it’s a real slog to get through. The film tells the story of a man sent to re-organise a coalfield in Cumberland. He takes on new and unpopular ideas attempting to dig for coal under the sea, which had resulted in a large number of deaths when it was attempted several years previously.
Lacking any of the grace and poetry of Jennings’ finest work, this is a painfully dull reconstruction affair, driven by ropey non-professional performances and far too much technical mining dialogue. There are a couple of nice touches here and there, but not enough to hold your interest. Arthur Benjamin provides a rousing score, but this seems to give up and go home a third of the way through. I’d advise most viewers do the same.
Luckily Jennings got back to business with The Dim Little Island, another rousing look at Britain through documentary montage, using the literal and metaphorical idea of Britain’s ‘music’ being under-appreciated but ready to rise again. It’s not Jennings’ best, feeling a little rushed and messy at times, but it still contains the qualities he’s known for. Given the musical inspiration behind the film and Jennings’ obvious love for the art-form it contains some fantastic music from Ralph Vaughn Williams (who also narrates the film). Without wanting to sound like a broken record, the film looks stunning too, with some wildly varied locations around Britain getting the Humphrey Jennings treatment.
The final true Jennings film in the collection, Family Portrait, is a film made for the Festival of Britain in 1951, which was a national exhibition designed to give a feeling of recovery after the war. The film describes the people of Britain as a family, opening with a photo album, then moving on to describe all of the wonderful technical achievements made in the country around the time. It’s more straightforward than some of Jennings’ other work with the voiceover dominating proceedings, but visually it’s still very strong. It’s rather long too, becoming quite dull as it goes on, but I found it interesting to see what technical breakthroughs were made in that period.
So all in all it’s not as consistent a collection as Volume 2 and never quite reaches the heights of Listen to Britain or The Silent Village, but with films like A Diary for Timothy and The Eighty Days, it’s definitely still worth a watch, especially in this beautiful high definition remastered form.
The Complete Humphrey Jennings Volume 3: A Diary for Timothy is out now in the UK, released as a Dual Format Blu-Ray & DVD by the BFI. The picture and sound quality is strong, although some of the films faring slightly better than others.
Added to the collection is an alternative version of The Eighty Days, renamed V.1., and The Good Life, the film Jennings was working on before he died. In the latter you can feel Jennings’ input with regards to the script, but it lacks the poetry and striking visuals so is rather forgettable.
You also get the BFI’s customary booklet, full of information about all of the films as well as essays and biographies about Jennings himself.