In 1940, with the Second World War barely a year old, the British forces were defeated by the Nazis at the Battle of Dunkirk, and as Britain tried to rescue the survivors, the Germans seized their chance and invaded in their wake, leaving the island nation at the mercy of The Third Reich. Naturally, there was a Resistance movement which did their best to fend off the invaders, but their efforts were largely futile when the war machine from the Continent became entrenched there, and the Occupation became a way of life for much of England. One citizen was Pauline (Pauline Murray), a district nurse who was faced with the choice: collaborate or starve.
The story behind It Happened Here was almost as remarkable as what ended up on the screen in the finished article. It was started in 1956 by two English teenagers with a great interest in military history, future crusading silent film preserver Kevin Brownlow and future historian and military advisor on films Andrew Mollo, but by the time it was completed and released it was eight years later and they were young men with some bitter experience of the movie industry. Notoriously, though the film quickly amassed a strong following wherever it was shown, they never saw any profit from it, the costs of distribution and publicity eating up any money that might have put it in the black.
Even that far after the end of the war, it proved controversial nonetheless, mostly thanks to its perceived antisemitism. This was tribute to its disturbing authenticity, and one scene in particular where the directors interviewed actual British fascists and edited them into a sequence positing the much-beleaguered Pauline trying to get some sense out of her new masters, and the British collaborators who had not resisted the invasion, but embraced it. That there were still people with those views that far after the fact who must have been aware of the devastation that the conflict brought was unforgivable: that it remains relevant to this day sustains its discomfort in watching.
That was just one part, lasting a couple of minutes, of a work that applied itself to its task with the enthusiasm of a weekend battle re-enactor, with a special interest in creating realistic images through the simple trick of having many of the cast (among them, countless volunteers who were paid nothing) wear uniforms from the forties, and newly-created variations that occupied citizens would be forced to put on for their jobs under the Nazis. Pauline, who flees a massacre in her village to go to London, signs up to be a nurse and has a black uniform of her own, but we are never sure precisely how far she is committing to the ideals of the totalitarian government and how far she wishes to resist herself, with the stark conclusion that it didn't matter either way for she had no say in the matter.
Although as a plot, following Pauline through the mid-forties (Murray was a doctor's wife who dabbled in acting, and since she was available became the de facto star, never appearing in anything else), It Happened Here was episodic and suffered from a stop-start construction, where it truly scored was in illustrating what would have happened to the United Kingdom had the tide of the war gone the other way. Other alternate history pieces, from the original Went the Day Well through to The Man in the High Castle with stops along the way for Star Trek and Doctor Who among many others, prove there is a fascination with the concept that the country was so close to being crushed, and perhaps appeals to a sense of victimhood that the politically engaged only do so when feeling oppressed, despite that not being accurate. But nothing in those glossier productions ever captured the bleakness of this, which if it were more than a cult movie would put off other filmmakers ever entertaining the idea: it's that disquieting, and in places, harrowing.
[Those extensive BFI Blu-ray/DVD features in full:
Presented in High Definition and Standard Definition
Mirror on the World (1962, 10 mins): full version of fake German newsreel
It Happened Here: Behind the Scenes (1956-66, 22 mins): previously unseen footage with new commentary by Kevin Brownlow
Original UK and US trailers (1966)
It Happened Here Again (1976, 7 mins): excerpt from a documentary on Winstanley
Interview excerpt with the directors (2009, 2 mins)
The Conquest of London (1964/2005, 4 mins): Italian TV item
On Set With Brownlow and Mollo (2018, 12 mins): interview with Production Assistant Johanna Roeber
Kevin Brownlow Remembers It Happened Here (2018, 65 mins)
Introduction to How It Happened Here: text of David Robinson's foreword to the book (Downloadable PDF DVD only)
Illustrated booklet with writing by Kevon Brownlow and new essays by Dr Josephine Botting, DoP Peter Suschitzky and military historian E W W Fowler.]