Culture, contradictions, complexities: The Complete Humphrey Jennings Volume Three

18 July 2013

The BFI's latest release in its now-complete Humphrey Jennings series demonstrates an artist's care for both culture whatever its national origin and for the contradictions of Britain's historical development.

Part of what makes Humphrey Jennings so appealing to film historians is that his output is the product of someone for whom the cinema wasn't necessarily the go-to means of expression. One of the founding members of the Mass Observation organisation, Jennings is commonly thought to have been drawn to filmmaking - under John Grierson at the GPO Film Unit - through financial need. A would-be academic, he was also a writer, with a lasting interest in economics, sociology and what can perhaps be seen as the juncture at which the two come together - trade, and industrialisation in particular. At the time of his death in 1950 - aged just 43 - he was researching and writing a work called Pandaemonium, an exhaustive history of Britain and the industrial revolution between 1660 and 1886. Eventually published in 1985, the book exemplifies Jennings' passion for the contradictions and complexities that have defined his native country's industrial development - which is, after all, a history of working relations from its economic base upward.

Jennings' output as a filmmaker, however, remains valuable to historians and cinephiles alike because of the history he managed to cover - and often with a careful lyricism - in such a short career. In this, the third and final release in the BFI's Complete Humphrey Jennings series, the focus is those films Jennings made for the Crown Film Unit during the latter part of the Second World War and for others in the years immediately following its end. Consequently, these works provide invaluable snapshots of not only a highly contradictory period of British history, but one that is still comparatively understudied. By 1944, the tide had significantly shifted into the Allies' favour: victory was more or less secured but the war was in a prolonged endgame, and the Nazis' death agony made such elongation all the more unfavourable at home.

Each of the ten films included in this release is examined and introduced in a short essay in the accompanying booklet. Many of these begin defensively, as if to acknowledge what was essentially the propagandistic purpose of Crown's output under the sponsorship of the Ministry of Information; they situate and argue for Jennings' individual agency within such tensions and context. Some of the films offer enough in the way of cinematic flourishes to speak for themselves, however. A Diary for Timothy (1946), after which this volume is named, subtly juxtaposes the imperialist foundations of the war against fascism with social inequality at home. Formal limitations may have prevented Jennings from being more explicit in linking them, but in the film's final passages a hint for something resembling socialism - that which can smash fascism and pose alternatives to capitalism - is more than evident, even if it is presented in a rather utopian way. Taking what we see today as a Gumpian trick - to narrate a protagonist's life (in second person, no less) as it coincides with world-significant events, the film is also an audacious attempt to evaluate history as it was still happening, and it does so in a conceptually interesting and dramatically engaging way.

The dialectical realities that inform ideas of Britishness are also foregrounded in at least two of the few shorts Jennings completed after the war. In The Dim Little Island (1948) and Family Portrait (1950), the good mixes with the bad. As narrator Michael Goodliffe states in the latter film, we must treat these social contradictions scientifically - to accept history's anomalies not as errors to be corrected, but as truths to be understood. The British Empire cannot simply be dismissed and retroactively wronged (or indeed corrected). Its imperialism must be understood as part of a wider economic expansion - a technological, scientific, artistic and social advancement. These are not to be taken lightly, and Jennings does well to capture his inherently conservative concept of Britain as an allegorical family with some superb imagery.

Elsewhere, The Cumberland Story (1947) is a drier than dry dramatisation of the experiments carried out within the coal industry during the war, and A Defeated People (1946) compensates for its unproblematic view of Britishness ("a sane and Christian people") by implicating the Krupps and other German industrial families with whom fascism found such favour in the 1930s - indeed, Hitler's regime had concrete economic foundations, and the film doubles today as a warning against the common threads of fascism and big business. The release also includes V.1. (1944), a re-edit of a previous film, and the completed version of The Good Life (1953), on which Jennings was working when he accidentally fell to his death on the Greek island of Poros. Completing the disc are documentaries on how a German song sent to troops at the front was reappropriated by the British (The True Story of Lili Marlene, 1944), a short on Britain's defence measures against the V1, Germany's lethal guided missile (The Eighty Days, 1944) and a perfectly and quietly observed performance, given by pianist Myra Hess, of the 1st Movement of Beethoven's F Minor Opus - which perfectly encapsulates Jennings' infectiously celebratory approach to culture as a whole.