A Diary for Timothy (1945)

It is 1945. The tide of war has finally turned in Great Britain’s favour. The Germans are retreating on all fronts, and victory is now more than just a vague dream. But many cities in southern England are in ruins, and the V2 rockets are still a very real threat. It is into this world that Timothy is born. As a tribute to him, director Humphrey Jennings tells the story of A Diary for Timothy.

A Diary for Timothy (1945)

I am not sure if Timothy actually existed, but whether he did or not is of minor importance. In this film, the infant baby is a storytelling device, and an effective one. Though the film is not really about Timothy, or his mother, the film repeatedly returns to them and their home in Oxfordshire.

But the stories told in this film are about other people. About the Air Force pilot recovering from his wounds. About the coal miner doing his best to produce as much coal as possible for the war effort.

This is pure propaganda, and well made. It stresses how both military and civilian personnel must work together to take Britain through the war. As a factual documentary, A Diary for Timothy has very little to offer, even though many factual events are doubtlessly recorded.

This film is best enjoyed for its effectively woven image of a strong and resilient country. A country that will not give in, no matter what. Additionally, it is interesting because of its narration, written by famous author E. M. Forster.

A Diary for Timothy (1945)

A Diary for Timothy
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Year: 1945
Running time: 37 min
Director: Humphrey Jennings
Stars: Michael Redgrave (narrator)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (768×576)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.4 G)

Three Songs About Lenin (1934)

Vladimir Lenin was the leader of the Soviet Union for only six years before he died. Ten years after his death, the Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov made a spectacular propaganda film, celebrating the great leader: Three Songs About Lenin (Три песни о Ленине or Tri pesni o Lenine in Russian).

Three Songs 
About Lenin / Three Songs of Lenin / Tri pesni o Lenine / Три песни о Ленине (1934)

As the title implies, the film is based upon three songs. Those songs were, so we are told, written and sung by anonymous Russians in their great love for their lost leader. I have no idea if this is true, but considering the naivete of the lyrics, it just may be. Unfortunately, we hear very little (perhaps nothing) of the original music of those lyrics. The lyrics themselves are presented as intertitles, to the background of a musical score that mostly consists of classical music by Russian composers. In my mind, this produces a somewhat jarring discord. I would much rather have listened to a score based on Russian folk music, which would have made the images come to life in a much more powerful way.

Each song expresses its own theme and its own message about Lenin, but today those messages are subservient to the means of expression. Vertov skillfully achieves a mixture of sentimentality and pride by interweaving images of nature, cities, factories, Lenin himself (from archive footage) and not least fascinating images of people.

This is the second film I have seen by Dziga Vertov, after (Man with a Movie Camera (1929)), and I guess comparison is inevitable. The older film is a playful avant-garde experiment, full of surprises and amusing banalities. Three Songs About Lenin, in contrast, attempts to be much more serious, but because of the heavy propaganda, it has aged much more rapidly, even though it was made five years later. Also, even though it was made well into the sound era, Vertov seems unable to let go of the silent era conventions. He does include a handful of monologues, but instead of using voice-over narration, he sticks to intertitles, which break the flow of the narrative.

The film was apparently re-edited in the 1960s. I suspect that the version available at the Internet Archive is that edited version.

Three Songs About Lenin certainly has its share of weaknesses. If you want to start exploring Soviet cinema, there are better places to go. But it has strengths, too.

This film is best enjoyed for its cleverly woven tapestry, partly made of archive footage, partly of scenes shot especially for this film. The propagandistic themes and symbolism are effective and powerful, and I am sure one could spend a lot of time exploring the depths of Vertov’s artistry in its better moments.

Vladimir Lenin double exposure in Three Songs 
About Lenin / Three Songs of Lenin / Tri pesni o Lenine / Три песни о Ленине (1934)

Three Songs About Lenin
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Year: 1934
Running time: 58 min
Language: English/Russian (English subtitles)
Director: Dziga Vertov
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (549×412)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (700 M)

Nanook of the North (1922)

The documentary is an interesting genre. In a sense, it may be said to be the first film genre. Some of the very earliest surviving films, such as Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (1888), were just brief snatches of reality, but already with Blacksmith Scene (1893) we see actors performing what may best be described as a forty-second drama documentary, and Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894) is an early example of the filmmaker tampering with reality rather than just recording it, as the “actor” Fred Ott is apparently putting snuff in his nose for the purpose of producing an effect on film.

Compared with the 19th Century efforts, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North plays in a completely different league. It has been described as the first feature-length documentary, and as such it has had a tremendous impact on the entire genre of documentary film produced ever since. But in essence, it is just a very much more polished and sophisticated variant of what had already been done ever since the dawn of film.

Inuit eskimo in Nanook of the North (1922)

In Nanook of the North we are provided with some samples from the life of Nanook, an eskimo living in northern Canada. We get to see life in the igloo, walrus hunting, and various other activities in the life of Nanook and his family. All of it appears very genuine, but when you start to think about the lighting equipment that would be necessary to film inside an igloo, or the realism of bringing cameras along on a strenous and dangerous hunting expedition, you realize that many scenes must have been staged to a greater or lesser extent.

As a factual description of an eskimo’s life, Nanook of the North is about as flawed as any later documentary. Whether a wartime propaganda, such as The Fighting Lady (1944), or a modern political statement, such as The Corporation (2003), you can be sure that the film-maker has his own purpose, his own vision and his own ideological background, leading every step in the creative process. While few documentaries actually lie about factual matters, they are selective in what they show, and how they present their message.

Nanook of the North was the first “modern” documentary, and like any good documentary, it tries to impress upon the viewer its creator’s vision. But regardless of what shortcuts and stagings were made between takes, it succeeds in bringing the humans in front of the camera to life. The film begins and ends with closeups of Nanook’s face, and in between, Flaherty makes me feel that I get a glimpse of the soul behind that face. And perhaps, to some small measure, I do get such a glimpse, nearly 100 years later. Such is the power of good cinema.

This film is best enjoyed for its considerable artistic merits. Regardless of whether the film reflects any kind of truth or not, it is in its best moments breathtakingly beautiful. If you are interested in the history of documentary film, or if you are just looking for an fascinating cinematic experience, this is one you will definitely not want to miss.

Inuit eskimo paddling a kayak in Nanook of the North (1922)

Nanook of the North
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Year: 1922
Running time: 1 h 18 min
Director: Robert Flaherty
Image quality: Good
Resolution: High (960×738)
Soundtrack: Good; classical music synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (3.4 G)

The Battle of Russia (1943)

2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the October revolution in Russia, which led to the forming of the Soviet Union and 70 years of communist domination in Eastern Europe. During most of 2017, I will commemorate this by writing about several films with a Soviet connection. I started two weeks ago with Eisenstein’s Strike (1925). This week, I present to you The Battle of Russia, the fifth part of Frank Capra’s World War II series of propaganda documentaries Why We Fight.

A Soviet army marching in Frank Capra's The Battle of Russia (1943)

Last week, I wrote about The Battle of Britain, and I have also written previously about The Nazis Strike. These, along with the rest of the films in the series, are both very similar and very different from one another. Walter Huston’s excellent narration help to make them similar, as does the style of cutting and the similar looking animated maps and other graphics. Yet, each is uniquely woven around its fact content. In the case of The Battle of Russia, that fact content tells the dramatic, and often tragic, story of Hitler’s idiotic attack on the Soviet Union.

One reason why The Battle of Russia is interesting is that it was seemingly made with respect for the Russian nation and its people. Anatole Litvak, who was the main director (together with series director Frank Capra) was himself Russian. Thus, while the film is certainly propaganda to a large extent, it also shows a deep understanding of Russia and its struggle. It is probably significant that the title contains the word “Russia” rather than “Soviet”. I know next to nothing about Litvak’s background, but I am guessing, based on the film’s contents, that he was not a communist nor, for that matter, a believer in the idea of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Soviet is only mentioned in passing in the film and communism not at all. Mostly, it talks about Russia and the Russians.

Like other parts in the series, The Battle of Russia is propaganda, and it must be used with caution for historical facts. I am guessing that most facts presented in the film are basically true, but on the other hand many things are left out.

This film is best enjoyed for its excellent use of a variety of film material. Everything from old Russian silent historical dramas to captured Nazi propaganda films are used to produce a living picture of how the Soviet Union and the United States became allies in World War II. This is doubly interesting when you consider the bitter enmity that was to replace this alliance only a few years later with the coming of the Cold War.

Soviet soldier with machine gun in Frank Capra's The Battle of Russia (1943)

The Battle of Russia
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Year: 1943
Running time: 1 h 23 min
Directors: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak
Stars: Walter Huston (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (3.8 G)

The Battle of Britain (1943)

Frank Capra’s famous World War II propaganda series Why We Fight has been justly praised for its high drama and impact. I have previously written about The Nazis Strike, the second part, and the turn has now come to part four, The Battle of Britain. I have seen most of the series, and in my humble opinion, this part is perhaps the best of the lot.

The Nazi whale about to devour Great Britain in Why We Fight: The Battle of Britain (1943)

There are several reasons why I like this film. One is the large amount of genuine aerial footage, both from British sources and from captured Nazi propaganda films. Another is the exciting story it tells. Not the least important reason is the excellent narration by Walter Huston, with brilliant lines like this one: “The Nazi plan called for the RAF to be knocked out of the air, but the men of the RAF hadn’t read the Nazi plan.”

Sure, this is propaganda. It cannot be trusted for historical facts. But it will give you at least a partial glimpse of the reality behind the facts and figures of World War II.

If you are interested in some more facts about the series as a whole, do check my post on The Nazis Strike.

This film is best enjoyed if you are interested in old combat aircraft. The pictures do not lie about these magnificent machines and their performance in the air.

Spitfires in Why We Fight: The Battle of Britain (1943)

The Battle of Britain
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Year: 1943
Running time: 53 min
Directors: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak
Stars: Walter Huston (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)

Duck and Cover (1952)

“This is Tony, going to his Cub Scout meeting. Tony knows the Bomb can explode anytime, day or night, any time of year. He’s ready for it. Duck and cover!”

Oh, yeah. Those American kids of the 1950s were ready, all right. Thanks to governmental terror propaganda, every kid knew what to do when the Communists dropped the Bomb. After all, they were told what to do in the film Duck and Cover, part of our October Short Film Month spotlight.

Bert the Turtle and a monkey in Duck and Cover (1951)

Duck and Cover is part animation, part live action. It begins and ends with Bert the Turtle giving some sound advice about what to do when faced with an atomic bomb, or a monkey with a stick of dynamite. In between, a soothing voice tells us that everything will be allright if you take cover underneath your school bench, or behind a low wall, or just anyplace you can find.

Today, Duck and Cover may look silly and ridiculous, but it must be remembered that in the 1950s, the danger of nuclear war seemed very real, and probably was. Even though Russia and Communism are not mentioned, even indirectly, the film was nevertheless a tool for strengthening patriotic awareness.

The advice given, to duck and cover, may not be as inane as it seems at first glance. Even an atomic bomb will not kill every living thing within the blast radius, and the more cover you have, the better your chances of survival. The film only becomes ridiculous because it nowhere gives any hint of exactly how dangerous and terrible a nuclear explosion actually is. It gives the impression that if you just cover yourself with a picnic blanket, you might be perfectly safe.

Duck and Cover is not a great film by any standards. The animations in particular are cheap, and the rest is nothing special. So you do not watch this film on any cinematographic merits.

This film is best enjoyed for providing some amusing perspective on a world that was still a reality only thirty years ago. But if you think about it, the film can also be seen as a powerful allegory to some politicians’ solutions to today’s problems like climate change, migration or foreign wars. Just duck and cover, and everything will be all right. (And don’t forget to cover your head with that newspaper.)

Man hiding under newspaper when the Atomic Bomb strikes, from Duck and Cover (1951)

Duck and Cover
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Year: 1952
Running time: 9 min
Director: Anthony Rizzo
Stars: Robert Middleton (voice)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (322 M)

Der Fuehrer’s Face (1942)

Normally, I do not do short film on this blog, but because of the rich treasure of classic short films available at the Internet Archive, I have decided that October is Short Film Month. First out is the classic cartoon Der Fuehrer’s Face.

Hideki Tōjō on sousaphone, Hermann Göring on piccolo, Benito Mussolini on bass drum, Heinrich Himmler on snare drum, Joseph Goebbels on trombone and Donald Duck in Der Fuehrer's Face (1943)

The beginning of the film cannot really be described any better than Wikipedia does it: “A German oom-pah band—composed of Axis leaders Joseph Goebbels on trombone, Heinrich Himmler on snare drum, Hideki Tōjō on sousaphone, Hermann Göring on piccolo and Benito Mussolini on bass drum—marches noisily at four o’clock in the morning through a small German town where everything, even the clouds and trees, are shaped as swastikas, singing the virtues of the Nazi doctrine.” There, the tone is set, and the rest of the film continues in the same crazy, satiric and nationalistic spirit.

Due to its propagandistic content, the film has not been released on DVD and Bluray as many times as most other Donald Duck films from the 30s and 40s, especially not in Europe. Still, some say it is one of the best. At any rate, there are many brilliant gags, and it is a film well worth watching.

The film has many neat little details. For example, in the image below, note how even the telephone poles (barely visible) are shaped like swastikas. Another detail, for anyone interested in how Disney cut corners in the war year animations, is when the band marches back across the screen just after the titles. The swastikas on the uniforms are mirrored, because the entire section is just mirrored from the first time they marched past.

Der Fuehrer’s Face received an Academy Award for best animated short. At least two other nominees from the same year can be found at the Internet Archive: the Tex Avery cartoon Blitz Wolf and George Pal’s Puppetoon Tulips Shall Grow. Both are excellent, and highly recommended.

This film is best enjoyed if you like the Disney shorts from the classic period. This is one you may have missed if you relied on the official collections from Disney.

A factory with swastikas in the Donald Duck film Der Fuehrer's Face (1943)

Der Fuehrer’s Face
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Year: 1942
Running time: 8 min
Directors: Jack Kinney
Stars: Clarence Nash (voice)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (76 M)