It was in 1956 that 18-year-old film-historian-to-be Kevin Brownlow first got the idea of making a movie about an imagined Nazi occupation of England during World War II. He first envisioned it as a sort of horror film, but after meeting Andrew Mollo, an expert on the war – though he was even younger than Brownlow – he began to conceive of a more complicated political parable. It wasn’t until 1964 that Brownlow and Mollo completed their labor of love: It Happened Here, a remarkably effective blend of fantasy and historical re-creation made on a shoestring budget of $21,000.
Filmed in gritty black and white, and with a largely nonprofessional cast, the film is a triumph of cunning camera work, of faked stock footage and selective shots of London simulating a wholly convincing 1944. There is an inevitable roughness, especially in the early portions of the film – exterior shoots are badly post-dubbed and editing used to disguise the meagerness of an action sequence draws attention to itself – but once the narrative kicks in, the occasional awkward shot no longer distracts.
The story is told from the point of view of a politically naive woman (Pauline Murray) who goes to work as a nurse in occupied London, something which requires her to join the National Socialist Party, as the Nazis euphemistically called themselves. Her decision is pragmatic – she needs a job and was trained in nursing before the war – and she seems surprised when people begin to view her as a collaborator.
As a new party member, Pauline is regaled by propaganda. But the indoctrination doesn’t quite take and she gets into trouble for not turning in some old friends who are harboring a wounded resistance fighter. Her punishment is to be sent to work at a seemingly idyllic nursing home in the country, a sequence where Brownlow’s initial desire to make a horror film comes to fruition.
The film ends in chaos, an acting out of one character’s observation that "the most appalling thing about Fascism is that it takes Fascist methods to get rid of it." Hardly a profound thought, and not even necessarily true, but in Brownlow and Mollo’s cleverly crafted little nightmare, all too believable.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.