Doesn’t everyone love a film where Fritz takes a jolly good pasting? Okay, so the second world war ended over sixty years ago, but every time the damn sausage eaters beat us at football, it’s a small comfort to know that we gave Hitler a swift kick in his one and only testicle.
Of course, it’s not about hating the Germans. No, not really. These days they’re our best friends. And I don’t begrudge any country that gathers at the world’s biggest booze festival to celebrate the finer things in life: big jugs of beer and, erm, big jugs.
For script writers, World War Two Germans are kind of like the microwave ready meal of villainy. Just take some shiny black boots, a grey uniform, maybe a monocle, and a few choice German phrases — “Schweinhund!”, “For you Tommy, the war is over!” and “Doctor Jones!” — then pop them in your mind’s microwave for a couple of minutes, and there you have it. Minimum effort, and a right bastard of a villain intent on cutting a swathe through the land.
And y’know, they don’t even have to be Nazis. They can just look like them. Drop a squadron of goons wearing black trench coats into any fantasy or sci-fi, and millions of people will immediately identify them as evil shits, no back story required.
However, Went the Day Well? is slightly different.
Cold war paranoia
A British propaganda film made in 1942 by Ealing Studios, it has Germans disguised as British soldiers, trained to act and speak like us in every way, descending upon the quiet English village of Bramley End. Their mission: to create an outpost for a planned Nazi invasion.
It has more in common with the cold war paranoia that came afterwards. Although with much less paranoia. This is England of the 1940s don’t forget. Everyone is much more trusting, much more polite, and positively falling over themselves to help out anyone of authority. In a way, it makes the truth, when it’s finally revealed, all the more heart breaking and bewildering for the villagers.
Being propaganda, it’s no spoiler if I tell you the Germans don’t succeed in their mission. The first scene of the film even makes this clear, an old guy in a flat cap, sucking on the stem of his pipe and talking to camera about the Battle of Bramley End, whilst waving an arm casually at the grave of the fallen enemy.
No, the main enjoyment comes not from the “if” but the “how”. How will the villagers rumble the German’s game, and when they do, how will they defeat the dirty rotten scoundrels?
The psychological cost of violence
The outcome is pretty action packed with casualties on both sides. And whilst much of it is bloodless, and typical of safer World War 2 action adventure stories, for a film designed to boost morale in the British public, it’s not afraid of darker territory. The kills that happen at close quarters are a good example of this. It’s here that the film focuses on the grim, psychological cost of violence: not the person on the receiving end, but the person pushed to acts beyond their nature, the camera zooming in on the perpetrator’s face, their eyes bulging with horror. There’s a feeling that the act will haunt them for the rest of their lives. For the villagers at any rate. The Germans are far too nasty to care.
If the film has a flaw, it’s that it seems to crash out to the credits too quickly at the end. Although I suspect it’s less of a flaw, and more to do with my brain which has been programmed with too many eighties action movie finales, where the lead bad guy goes mano-a-mano at the top of a clock tower, before plunging 300 feet to his death. Onto a big spike.
No, Went The Day Well? has made it’s point long before any of that can happen, and audiences of the day probably weren’t clamouring for such silliness, embroiled as they were in the very war depicted on-screen.