Thursday, October 20, 2011

Propaganda with a touch of art: 49th Parallel

There is often a natural conflict of interest between explicitly message-based “propaganda” films and dynamic, imaginative cinema. Movies made with the chief aim of educating or rousing an audience will understandably emphasise content at the expense of form. When the priority is to feed ideas to viewers (rather than create a nuanced work that is open to interpretation), a script can easily become clunky and over-expository, and the camerawork might be no more than functional – there isn’t much sense using techniques that might distract or be lost on viewers.

Working on such films can be drudgery for those with creative aspirations. Writer-director Kundan Shah once told me about being commissioned by the Films Division to make a documentary titled Visions of the Blind, meant to show what blind people could achieve if given the opportunities. Noble though the cause was, there were many constraints and it wasn’t an artistically exciting assignment for someone who had studied at the FTII and dreamt of following in the footsteps of leadingavant-garde moviemakers. “It was a staid film,” Shah said, his eyes glazing over, “but I needed the work.”

This is not to say that good cinema and propaganda have to be mutually exclusive – film history has many examples to the contrary. Consider Leni Riefenstahl’s famous Third Reich-commissioned documentary Triumph of the Will (about which I wrote here), which used powerful and distinctive visual grammar to portray Hitler as a nation-rescuing deity.

However, I find it particularly interesting when directors with a real sense of cinematic style are reined in by the need to be solemn and didactic, and you can sense that tension in the work itself. One example is the British duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (jointly known as the Archers), who made a series of magnificent films in the 1940s. Their best work was assured and daring, often segueing effortlessly from the real world to a fantasy landscape: take A Matter of Life and Death (about an airman who stands trial in Heaven) or the ballet film The Red Shoes (with a stunning, highly stylised 15-minute dance performance at its centre) or Black Narcissus (about a group of nuns becoming increasingly paranoid in a beautifully recreated Himalayan setting).

During World War II, Powell also worked on more straightforward, morale-boosting films, including a poignant five-minute short titled An Airman’s Letter to His Mother. Among the best of his full-length features in this category is 49th Parallel, about a small band of Nazis coming ashore in Canada and being confronted with more courage than they had expected to find. It’s an honourable, solidly crafted movie with big-name actors such as Laurence Olivier (fresh from his first Hollywood successes in Wuthering Heights and Rebecca, and cast here in one of his most atypical movie roles as a garrulous French-Canadian trapper) and Leslie Howard (who himself directed a couple of WWII propaganda films such as The Gentle Sex), working at half-salary for the wartime cause. But as a contemporary viewer, distanced from the urgency of those dark days and the realness of the German threat, one is aware of how it tries to hammer home its points. In one extended scene, where the Nazi leader makes a speech extolling his ideology and is then answered by a speech by an anti-fascist, the film becomes deferentially inert, the camera staying trained on the faces of the two men as if they were talking directly to us.

And yet, this movie, which could have been an assembly-line production in other hands, has verve and moments of subtle beauty; it
takes an episodic narrative structure (the dwindling group of Nazis travel across the country, encountering different sets of individuals) and forges from it an adventure tale and a travelogue while also sharply observing the many different responses to wartime; and it has a feel for characterisation, giving us a conscientious German (remember, this was 1941!) and portraying even the bad Nazis as resourceful and dedicated to their cause. It represents one of those happy moments where a top creative talent, working within limitations and on a commissioned project, managed not to completely lose his own identity. The Archers would certainly make better films in the next few years (included subtler message-oriented works), but no one can accuse 49th Parallel of being “just” a dry piece of propaganda.

[From my Business Standard film column]


  1. Yeah you have point in making movies made to be a "propaganda movie." This is always a challenge to directors who are used in mainstream media or production. But when the director just dare to go out of his comfort zones, I believe they can make a good film even if it is very direct

  2. I am definitely a fangirl of Jabberwock. I am always awed by how much you know about how many things!

  3. Urmilla: is this sarcasm?! If you're being semi-serious, let me assure you that most of the people I know in my professional sphere are much more polymathic(?) than I can ever hope to be. It's most demoralising.

  4. It's great that you wrote about a Powell-Pressburger film. Guess it is a first for you! (Though you did once write on Peeping Tom, which is a Michael Powell film, with no Emeric involved)

    The reason is these guys are almost unheard of among Indian movie lovers. Atleast nowhere near as popular as say David Lean. So anything which increases their popularity is welcome.

    My favourite Archers film is The Canterbury Tale. Don't know if you've seen it. I don't think I've ever seen or will ever see its like again! A remarkable and novel defence of tradition and custom at a time of War when it was most unfashionable to do so.

  5. shrikanth: I saw A Canterbury Tale for the first time just a few weeks ago, and was absolutely blown away. Still trying to process my responses to it. I've started writing a long piece about it, but no idea when I'll finish it or when I'll be okay with putting it up on the blog. As of now, I think it's among my top 20 films (even though I don't usually like making such lists, at least not those that try to place films in order of preference!).

    As you know, I don't think defending tradition and custom is an unequivocally good thing - and this is also, on the surface at least, a film that believes in miracles in a way that I personally don't. But I was still very affected by it. Would be interested to hear your thoughts on it sometime.

  6. Jai: Same here. Guess I need to rewatch it to understand for myself why I liked it so much.

    The other great film in their ouevre is ofcourse The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Another unique cinema experience. A film that touches on subjects as diverse and disconnected as Nazism, women's emancipation, codes of honour, love and friendship among other things. Not once does it seem turgid and heavy despite being such a thematically rich film.

    Their most popular film, A Matter of Life and Death, is ofcourse out-of-this-world in every sense of the word. A cute romance that transcends its material to become a cogitation on Anglo-American relations

  7. Sadly, the only two P & P movies I have seen are The Red Shoes and A Canterbury Tale
    ACT is thematically a very rich movie and subtexts abound. Apart from that,its technically dazzling.I have a lot to say about that film, will wait for your post.

  8. shrikanth: I saw Blimp nearly 20 years ago, liked it very much then (probably helped that I had a small crush on Deborah Kerr), but remember very little of it now. Time for a rewatch. Ditto One of our Aircraft is Missing.

    Apart from that,its technically dazzling.

    Rahul: oh yes - I love the film's use of light (obviously in shots like the one of the "halo" around Dennis Price's head but also in the more naturalistic and unobtrusive scenes). I also love the way light (or its absence thereof) is used as a running motif in the story.

  9. Sarcasm??? no! I'm not being sarcastic at all.(I'm REALLY not polymathic - had to look that up, for which thanks!) I am usually full of sarcasm, but not this time, not at all. It's not just knowing stuff, you seem to be able to access it when it's needed, and write about it interestingly and readably - and that's why I love reading your blog. Even if I have never heard of the things and people you write about. If you ever need an injection of fan love, you know where to find it!

  10. And I must add, I recognize in you the same suspicion I feel when anyone gushes. Which is why your review of my book was very special to me. There was no gushing, one way or the other. I'm your fan because I trust you. Yea, I'm gushing :)

  11. Urmilla: deeply embarrassed, but thanks. Am at something of a crossroads in my writing life just now, so it's enouraging to get such nice comments!

  12. What kind of crossroads? You are a source of inspiration. Why on earth should you be embarrassed? you put a lot of effort and thought into what you do, obviously.

    Hope you meet the devil there, if that's what you want.

    (Your review of my book told me I didn't entirely suck at what I was trying to do. It helped me at my own crossroads. You have no idea.)