Apertúra Film-Vizualitás-Elmélet
Zsolt Győri: Churchill as "Film Critic" - The Politics of British War-Cinema | Nyomtatás |

Zsolt Győri (1974) was born in Debrecen. This is where he earned his university degree. His PhD dissertation (2007) focuses on Stanley Kubrick, analyzing the "antihumanist" portrait of the director. At present he is lecturer at the Department of English Studies of Esterházy Károly College in Eger. His publications include articles in Hungarian journals as well as studies in Hungarian and English anthologies. E-mail: Ez az e-mail cím védett a spamkeresőktől, engedélyezni kell a Javascript használatát a megtekintéshez

  • Aldgate, Tony and Jeffrey Richards. (1986) Britain Can Take It: British Cinema in the Second World War. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Arendt, H. (1985) The Totalitarian Movement In uő: The Origins of Totalitarianism. Orlando: Harcourt, 341-388.
  • Bazin, A. (1997) The Myth of Stalin in the Soviet Cinema. In uő: Major Essays and Reviews From the Forties and Fifties. London: Routeledge, 23-40.
  • Dig for Victory (1942, Ministry of Information and Ministry of Agriculture Production)
  • Hitler Assumes Command (1941, Movietone News)
  • Kracauer, S. (2004) Propaganda and the Nazi War Film. In uő: From Caligary to Hitler. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 275-306.
  • More Eggs from Your Hens (1941, Ministry of Information for Ministry of Agriculture Production)

The aim of this paper is to address the interrelated fields of politics, nation and cinema in the period of the Second World War, in short to reflect upon the uses and abuses of political cinema. The study of British propaganda cinema is by no means a groundbreaking topic, it has been discussed to varying degrees and depths by several monographs, most notably Britain Can Take It by Tony Aldgate and Jeffrey Richards. The Cinema and Society series (I.B Tauris Press) edited by Richards has revealed a treasure-chest of essential material on the topic, but has yet failed to come up with a volume that examines theoretical issues and offers a theoretical framework that would contextualize the archival material compiled by the film historian and historian. The following sections are to be read as notes towards such a line on inquiry.

The aim of this paper is to address the interrelated fields of politics, nation and cinema in the period of the Second World War, in short to reflect upon the uses and abuses of political cinema. The study of British propaganda cinema is by no means a groundbreaking topic, it has been discussed to varying degrees and depths by several monographs, most notably Britain Can Take It by Tony Aldgate and Jeffrey Richards. The Cinema and Society series (I.B Tauris Press) edited by Richards has revealed a treasure-chest of essential material on the topic, but has yet failed to come up with a volume that examines theoretical issues and offers a theoretical framework that would contextualize the archival material compiled by the film historian and historian. The following sections are to be read as notes towards such a line on inquiry. I must state at the very beginning that I am rather interested in the underlying mental structures and logic of propaganda than in the systematic overview of material associated with details of production and reception. The real predecessor of the type of research I wish to undertake here is Siegfried Kracauer, who in his From Caligari to Hitler sets up a truly interdisciplinary theoretical framework that is capable of analysing the complex - sociological, political and aesthetic - forces at work in the period studied. An other essential source for such research would have to be Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, especially chapter eleven entitled "The Totalitarian Movement" in which she describes the logic underlying ideological indoctrination. Her accounts on the organization of a classless, uprooted and de-individualised mob which is no longer capable of creating consensus regarding the priorities of survival for the group and likewise cannot distinguish between real and fictitious ambitions are well applicable to the field of cinema and the study of propaganda films (both newsreels and feature films).

In fact, to determine the full scope of my comparative reading into the nature of propaganda I could have continued the titles as follows: "Churchill as film critic and Hitler as filmmaker". These figureheads of mid-20th century European historical scene embody distinct ways of politicising art, using a complex institutional apparatus to influence, persuade and organise masses. The vocabularies Churchill and the totalitarians (Stalin, Goebbels or Hitler) imposed on cinema signify different degrees of intervention into public life, in other words the framework of empowering the public - despite its surface similarities - are different. Instead of emphasizing characteristics inherent to various propaganda practices I outline a divergent history of public persuasion and political cinema. Consequently I will, on the one hand, use the term indoctrination to describe the ideologically formulated propaganda in totalitarian regimes and, on the other hand, use the term invisible conformity to refer to the propaganda of so called liberal democracies such as Britain where ideology is probably less obtrusive. According to a historical reading wartime propaganda in the totalitarian block to a large extent inherited the principles and practices of agitprop introduced in the Soviet Union at the end of the 20s (possibly in 1929 as far as cinema is concerned) and in Germany after the Nazis rose to power in 1933, so well before the outbreak of the Second World War. In Britain, on the other hand, there were no pre-war developments of this kind, the policy of appeasement heralded by Neville Chamberlain had no interest in political propaganda of any sort. The socially conscious cinema of the GPO Film Unit and the documentary movement spearheaded by John Grierson is an important stylistic and thematic precursor to propaganda films (both shorts and features), however, I will not discuss them in detail. I could say that the comparative reading I undertake is less a historical than a geographical-structural one. More important for me is analysing the differences in the logic of cinematic propaganda, the dissimilarities between organizing masses through ideological indoctrination on the one hand and invisible conformity on the other.

Cinema came into full possession of its power in the period when different political dictators and assemblages of totalitarian practices rose to dominate European history. The technical maturation of cinema took place parallel with the coming into age of strategies and techniques of organizing and controlling masses, that is, a new and lively representation of reality in a factually precise manner occurred simultaneously with the barbaric counterfeiting of the world, the debasement of reality. This was a period when figures like Stalin, Hitler and Goebbels proclaimed themselves self-made filmmakers, and through agitation, censorship and liquidation they silenced trained cinema personnel or, for the worst, brought them in possession of their fascist or communist instincts. What these dictators saw as the necessary transformation of cinema to become a vehicle of ideological indoctrination was possibly the strangling of the natural development of cinematic form. They could not care less, their aim was not to advance, but exploit film art. For a moment it seemed as if cinema became a tool of manipulation in the hands of the despot in a more powerful manner than a vehicle of democratic values. One aim of my research is to argue against this assumption.


A certain paradox characterises cinema being used as an instrument of propaganda, especially ideological indoctrination. Exploiting cinema's ability to represent everyday life in an authentic manner, to become a mirror of reality which the spectators accept without criticism, totalitarian cinema forges realism and empowers the myths, lies and fictions. The mode of address characterising indoctrination uses the cinematic image in order (1) to intensify ideological loyalty by celebrating the collective powers of a community, (2) to concentrate on heroic existence and (3) to historicise the present. These characteristics underline the instructive tone and authoritative mode of address. Ideological loyalty is achieved by making everyone understand the basic necessity to develop the new consciousness of the fascist/communist man, an identity formed to show total obedience to party principles. An authoritative tone is always intrusive. As practised by totalitarian institutes it annuls the private sphere of the individual, and introduces an artificially constructed, false self-image: that of the heroic superman. Social/real identity is replaced by a myth. As André Bazin points out in his essay entitled "The Myth of Stalin in the Soviet Cinema" the source of the authoritative tone appeared in Soviet cinema at the same time when realism gave over to a mythic view of the world and the leaders of the country. According to Bazin under Stalin the cinematographic image rose to a transcendental, godlike position: inscribed in it was historical materialism in person. As the leaders rose to the position of idols, their beliefs lost all personal traits and became transcendental dogma. In a Foucauldian manner we could say that the mythic knowledge possessed and articulated about the world by the dictator becomes the only framework through which earthly matters can be addressed. Since this archive of knowledge - which, by the way, determines what can be said and seen, thought and remembered - is the essence of history, reality must be shaped accordingly. As idolatry and continuous forgery is converted into "new realism", existence itself receives a fairy-tale quality, people no longer believe their own eyes and ears, and consequently alienation takes one step further. As Arendt argues, they are dazzled by their own historical importance and made totally dependent on a distant future, that should one day see the rise of an Empire based either on birth/race (Germany) or on class (Soviet Union).


The logic of ideological propaganda - as described by film theoretician Sigfried Kracauer - took a very similar shape in Nazi Germany. Written about the propaganda of the early war years "Propaganda and the Nazi War Film" studies the dynamic frame as a central stylistic pattern of Nazi cinema. In a general sense we can say that the mobile frame is a method associated with realism, yet Kracauer makes it clear that in Germany it came to achieve just the opposite. The speed of editing - argues Kracauer - makes intellectual understanding and contextual interpretation impossible. What remains are vague and mythic impressions, an image with all surface and no depth. With the intellectual layer eliminated the visual saturation of the image (through swift editing and the use of the moving camera) accompanied by the non-informative voice-over commentaries create the illusion of an unstoppable and robust force on the screen. With the monumentalism of the image completed, every trifle will be portrayed as having a historical gravity. Kracauer notes that in case this dynamism of Nazi cinema had halted for a single second, the intellectual emptiness of the image would have revealed and the whole system collapsed. What he means is that to demystify the cinema of illusions one has to look behind the surface, crack the image open. Possibly the greatest challenge of cinematic indoctrination is not the transformation of myth into reality through the involvement of a phoney historical transcendence, but to keep the image from cracking up. To do this one really needs to be a superman (Übermensch).

Hitler Assumes Command

A 1941 British short film entitled Hitler Assumes Command debunks the superman in a grand manner. It borrows archive footage of marches from Nazi party-films and via motion manipulation and the inclusion of humorous popular music (played in a music-hall and later used in animation movies) it gives rise to satire. The comic effects are deadly serious, they reveal that the transcendental image of the historic greatness is nothing but a constructed image, an artificial reality. The banality of the music elegantly wastes the almost religious trance of the original material. The filmmaker cracks the image up by undermining the sanctity of mobility and dynamism, which can no longer be identified as an allegorical representation of the glorious Third Reich. The true meaning of repetition is also uncovered and is identified as a form of spoon-feeding, of utter schematism. As the subvertive tone annuls the underlying principles of indoctrination, the spectator snaps out of the hypnotic trance and regains the possibility of an intellectually independent comprehension. Hitler Assumes Command is a critique of (1) Hitler, the person, his maniac gestures and pompous grimaces, (2) Hitlerism and the ceremonious tone and imagery of national socialism and (3) and the distortive-vicious ideology underlying ideological indoctrination.

The emptiness I analysed above as the main component of totalitarian indoctrination is first and foremost a communicative one. In order to analyse it I need to turn over to the western practices of propaganda and its distinct differences from ideological indoctrination.

The use of cinema in the organization and strengthening of masses in Britain was not accompanied by the establishment of an alternative reality which people were subdued to and forced to recognize as authentic against their own better judgement. British wartime cinema did not differ much from its totalitarian equal as far as schematism was concerned, yet it did not possess, on the contrary opposed the three-fold nature of the image outlined above. Although very few British productions failed to value the national unity based on the collectivist idea, individualism and the freedom of opinion was never suppressed as something utterly redundant and rotten.

British propaganda was characterised by the dismissal of antirational and mythic thinking and the celebration of individual values. The presence of these values prevented the emergence of personality cult symptomatic of totalitarian regimes. Churchill was not a cinema star, his image was shaped by radio broadcasts, a cool and therefore less efficient medium of propaganda. Nevertheless his extraordinary oratorical skills gave strong competition to the vast resources of the ministry of propaganda in Berlin. I do not mean to suggest that Churchill never distorted facts, restrained himself from the vulgar and oversimplistic "us-them" type of rhetoric, or altogether condemned the authoritative and emotionally saturated tone. Surely both him and the political ideology (that of the so called liberal democracy) he helped to maintain is based on strong demagogism, but in an entirely different way and to a completely different degree compared totalitarian societies. Being one of the first politicians to realise the importance of mass communication, he surely understood the power of propaganda. He also understood that given the right impetus people will organize themselves and embrace the idea of patriotism more effectively than by party-led and state-authorized terror. The term invisible conformity alludes to conformity achieved by people who besides sharing the utilitarian idea, deny inhumane social practices. The kind of conformity I am talking about is not a received uniformity, but an actively produced one. It is invisible because it follows from a tactful ideology which is fully absorbed by everyday life by people living in the present. The idea of self-organisation can be a democratic principle because it describes an activity of people who have not lost touch with everyday reality. It consequently opposes the monumental ideologies designed for heroic supermen living for the future. I define it as an activity of people who can value unheroic existence, accept living in the shadow of history, and establish national unity in order to fight a war that will leave everyone involved in total despair.


More Eggs From Your Hens

I mean various things by the "right impetus", first and foremost humour. In the 1941 newsreel More Eggs from Your Hens we see a very simple message - save kitchen scraps for more eggs - expanded into a narrative of a self-aware and assertive chicken asking questions at higher and higher offices about the low rations. Animal existence defined in human terms is itself a source of amusement, yet the image of a chicken "scaling the ranks" with her enquiry, being called My Dear by the farmer, Madam by the corn merchant and finally Mrs White by the Minister of Agriculture is openly comic, yet in its representation of bureaucratic administration of affairs is also lifelike. Beside its light-hearted tone the film also touches upon serious matters. It portrays Britain as a place where anyone can ask questions, even unpleasant ones (since the authorities themselves are addressing these problems) and hopefully the community will be able to answer them. In this country the straightforward little chicken will not be regarded as a saboteur, a kulak, but the living conscience of the group that enquires, argues and generates solutions. In short her journey will be recognized as the triumph of the spirit of political activism (as opposed to ideological activism).

Likewise important is the question of informativeness in British propaganda. In this regard we can identify yet another crucial difference between ideological indoctrination and invisible conformity. The former values fiction over fact, the latter relegates the process of information to facts. Even the hard-line propaganda pieces financed by the Ministry of Information can be praised for their informativeness, and their aim to offer practical information to people who have lost their accustomed points of reference. Information linked the gap between the old and the new and had the positive message that people could survive this war without having to significantly alter their basic beliefs. More importantly it suggests that peace could be achieved through the sacrifice of people, but not through the total alienation from their customary lives.

Dig For Victory

A good example is the film Dig for Victory, a kind of illustrated manual on how to grow fruit and vegetables around the house. The underlying message is that Britain - known to be a nation of gardeners - does not have to give up, just alter its love of nature and use the land in a more rational way. In fact most propaganda shorts focus on practical information - like advice on how to ride a bicycle during black-out, how to evacuate children in danger and how to use the scarce food and cloths resources. Parallel to this they extracted the image of Britishness from the deep concern of people towards everyday life. These details are of enormous importance. On the one hand they certify that the whole system of communication (and also propaganda) relied on public involvement. Real social communication occurs only when everyday life generates the topics addressed by propaganda. One cornerstone of such a system is the equality of access to information, an essential democratic principle. The democratization of information using all the chanells of mass media was probably one of the most important developments of the wartime years and a real catalist to future establishment of an equalitarian welfare society.


Still, the greatest achievement was understanding the real importance of giving attention to the everyday, ordinary and trivial existence and not repeating the mistake of the Weimar Republic. Then the dissillusionment and anguish of the people lead to their embracing political extremism. Political art did neither offer assistance to the people nor did it strengthen their belief in a community addressing problems in a rational way. With the rise of fascism a form of mass comunication came into being that never intended to eliminate despair. On the contrary they used it to make people totally disinterested in the real present. For the Nazi leaders the present was an obstacle to reaching the glorious future. Unlike in the cinema of indoctrination, which offers a blueprint for action that bares a fruit in the distant future, liberal propaganda wants people to survive and themselves shape the future. The sharp distinction between men who were born for victory (totalitarian man) and the men who are born after defeats (democratic subject) is made evident by the difference of the former's affection towards heroic existence in the mythic future and the latter's preference for a non-heroic survival in the present. The alternate mental compositions are well reflected in the sharp contrast between being informed and being swallowed up by quasi transcendental rituals and ceremonies: those who regard information valuable are programmed to self-care, whereas those who are programmed for deceptive ceremonies, self-deprivation and self-sacrifice are the chief values.

The last and possibly most important difference between democratic propaganda and ideological indoctrination is the conflict of history and politics. Whereas totalitarian dictators never cease to emphasize that history is on their side, politics is never devalued and ceases to loose legitimacy in liberal democracies. In fact I believe that the democratic institutions of politics including the public contest between interest groups of different aims and behaviour were altogether lacking in totalitarian regimes. In the latter the public was not fighting for anything, the ideological elite fought in the name of the people, unlike in countries where basic human rights were not fully ignored. In totalitarian regimes political battles did not clash interests through public debates: in declaring public involvement in debates as something degenerate, or empty theatricality, such regimes altogether repressed the social demand for open discussion. Ideological indoctrination in general eliminates all these elements, and although the party elite argues that all aspects are life are politicised, that people are fighting a permanent revolution, this is empty rhetoric. In reality people are robbed of the common sense to form alliances of different interests and debate towards a consensus. Political consciousness is simply lacking in these countries.

Britain underwent major social changes during the Second World War, it was practically transformed from a class society to a nation thirsty for radical political reforms on all areas of life. Propaganda served as catalyst in this process, the image of a nation unified under pressure left such a strong mark on popular memory that the idea of collectivism shaped pos- war political developments. Wartime films prepared grounds for the transformation in a sense that they foregrounded the idea of collectivism in the sense that the formation of national unity weakens the traditional boundaries of class and gender. Turning the concept of self-care into a national project was part of the scheme.

So what kind of a "film critic" was Churchill? How were the wartime strategies to mobilize Britain both in body and spirit put through by the political elite? Additionally: how could cinema be involved in creating patriotism and strengthening group identity? The genuine insight, surely not invented, but actively practiced by the government and Churchill himself is that in order to resist Nazi expansion militarily one has to resist the rhetoric and mentality that drives this expansion forward.

In my presentation I tried to outline the main components of resistance. Resistance clearly took many forms, sometimes it took the shape of open criticism, like in my example of Hitler Assumes Command, a caricature of the whole context of personality cult. On another level the informative emptiness of the totalitarian image is a critique of cinema as a certain kind of mass communication.

I intended to talk about yet another form of resistance and this is the level I am really interested in. This is cinema as an allegory of the nation, Britishness. This is resistance at the level of politics (and the beliefs, values and principles it relies on) and a critique of the ideology of indoctrination. This is the level on which structural differences are manifested between totalitarianism and liberalism. Right after the Second World War history made these differences apparent. In June 1945 the unimaginable happened, Churchill lost the general elections. His defeat at the polls is yet one of his greatest victories. Why? Rather than answering that question I have one to ask from you. Could similar events have ever taken place in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia? The answer to that question makes all the difference.