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Short Film Wednesday - Sight and Sound - Listen to Britain

For the month of May, I will be watching the shortest films on the Sight & Sound list.


During the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the USA, one of the lesser known battle fronts was the world of art. In a very broad sense, the Soviets favored realistic art that emphasized the common people and their unity and solidarity. As a response, the US government actively pushed artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, Abstract Expressionists with a very recognizable personal style, so as to emphasize individuality, creativity and freedom. While the circumstances were considerably different during World War II, Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain seems to bear many similarities to this conflict.

Perhaps the most prominent propaganda film of this era was on the German side with Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. I have not seen the film in its entirety, but what I have seen is an important lesson in how cinema can be used to reinforce any ideology, however extreme, and make it appealing. Apparently, Jennings and other British creators wanted to shun overt propaganda, and I could not imagine a piece that is more the ideological and artistic opposite of Triumph of the Will than Listen to Britain.

It is best to think of Listen as a tone poem - images of everyday life juxtaposed with many types of music, from classical to vaudeville. It is a sophisticated film that is ahead of its time. The choice to focus on everyday aspects of British life at the height of WWII is a brave choice in and of itself, especially since the film becomes oblique and meditative as a result. The filmmakers had to tack on an introduction that was supposed to clarify the nature on the film. In retrospect, it was a smart decision to make this film this way, as it makes the audience aware of what could be lost if Britain were to be defeated. Even images that could be seen as more traditional propaganda are toned down, such as a military parade through a small town. For the filmmaker, a shot of a field of wheat with Hail Britannia over the soundtrack was a more powerful note to end on than a display of military might.

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