Their Finest Hour… and Humphrey Jennings

… is the title of the British WW2 comedy drama, directed by Danish Lone Scherfig, that I saw this morning in Grand Teatret in Copenhagen. It is a lovely picture to bring up the same term the protagonists use, when they talk about their job, which is to make good scripts for propaganda films that serve one purpose: to keep the population optimistic while Hitler’s bombs are hitting London and other bigger cities. The propaganda films were screened after a short film and before a feature. And there were many of them.

Authenticity and Optimism are – in the film – the key words given by the leaders of the Film Division of the Ministry of Information during the years of 1940-1945. But I suppose that these words were also important for the documentarians, who worked at that time. While watching the film by Scherfig I was thinking about the true auteur of that time, Humphrey Jennings, whose films I saw when I got the job at Statens Filmcentral (National Film Board of Denmark) way back in 1975. Thanks to Werner Pedersen who loved his works as did another mentor of mine, Niels Jensen. They imported and promoted several British war time propaganda films.

Derek Malcolm wrote in the Guardian about Jennings and his ”Fires Were Started” (check Youtube) from 1943, 65 mins. – a quote: ”… Jennings had founded the Mass Observation movement which collected information on the British way of life much as Malinowski had documented the behaviour of the South Sea islanders. He put this to good effect in Fires Were Started and other films, notably the equally famous Listen To Britain and Diary For Timothy. But, though ineffably patrician, he transcended the class clichés of the time by recognising the way war can unite disparate people and by making us think about what would have been lost if the conflict had gone the other way…”

Yes, ”Listen to Britain” from 1942 (it is on Youtube) is THE masterpiece of British wartime propaganda documentaries… written together with Stewart McAllister. 19 minutes of superb seducing montage and use of sound (including songs), reconstruction of authenticity (!). It is still a very modern film in its playfulness.

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Tue Steen Müller
Tue Steen Müller

Müller, Tue Steen
Documentary Consultant and Critic, DENMARK

Worked with documentary films for more than 20 years at the Danish Film Board, as press officer, festival representative and film consultant/commissioner. Co-founder of Balticum Film and TV Festival, Filmkontakt Nord, Documentary of the EU and EDN (European Documentary Network).
Awards: 2004 the Danish Roos Prize for his contribution to the Danish and European documentary culture. 2006 an award for promoting Portuguese documentaries. 2014 he received the EDN Award “for an outstanding contribution to the development of the European documentary culture”. 2016 The Cross of the Knight of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. 2019 a Big Stamp at the 15th edition of ZagrebDox. 2021 receipt of the highest state decoration, Order of the Three Stars, Fourth Class, for the significant contribution to the development and promotion of Latvian documentary cinema outside Latvia. In 2022 he received an honorary award at DocsBarcelona’s 25th edition having served as organizer and programmer since the start of the festival.
From 1996 until 2005 he was the first director of EDN (European Documentary Network). From 2006 a freelance consultant and teacher in workshops like Ex Oriente, DocsBarcelona, Archidoc, Documentary Campus, Storydoc, Baltic Sea Forum, Black Sea DocStories, Caucadoc, CinéDOC Tbilisi, Docudays Kiev, Dealing With the Past Sarajevo FF as well as programme consultant for the festivals Magnificent7 in Belgrade, DOCSBarcelona, Verzio Budapest, Message2Man in St. Petersburg and DOKLeipzig. Teaches at the Zelig Documentary School in Bolzano Italy.

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