True poet of cinema whose fire lit up Blitz

Humphrey Jennings - The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader - Humphrey Jennings Collection DVD
October 28, 2005

One of my fellow Germans, when the conversation turns to British film-makers, fields only one name: Humphrey Jennings. This causes consternation and sometimes anger in his listeners, because they either think his choice eccentric or have not seen the films, or both. It is an understandable reaction, as the films were, and to an extent still are, difficult to see. Jennings is not well known in Britain, although he is adored by those who know his work.

But this should now begin to change. In the year when Prince Charles and his lady wife unveil a memorial to all those who fought in the Battle of Britain, 60 years after the event, the man who made a film about one night during the Blitz, I Was a Fireman , is also being fondly remembered. This year sees the publication of a biography by Kevin Jackson, a collection of some of Jennings' writing and the release of his three best films on DVD.

All most welcome, but also a bit sad because so late; but then, as the British say, better late than never.

Lindsay Anderson called Jennings "the only true poet of English cinema". He was the man who, like no other, showed the English people to the English people, and this in their greatest hour of need, during the Second World War. The reason why he is relatively unknown is, I think, twofold. First, the British have no great regard for film-makers generally; they expect only comedies and thrillers from them, and, on the whole, that is what they get. Second, Jennings may have had too many facets to his talent, making it awkward to focus on his work.

What makes him a great film-maker? The choice of his subjects? To some extent, yes. Then there is his gift for transforming his subject into a poem, where image and sound - both natural and musical - are equally important. But most of all it is the way Jennings selects people and how he shows them. In my view, he has an unwavering belief in showing each person as an equal and an individual. Though not everybody agrees: the late documentary film-maker John Grierson tells Denis Forman in Jackson's biography: "Let's go see Humphrey being nice to the common people."

In the late 1920s, Jennings did well at Cambridge University, came to London, married young and could not decide what to do with himself. He drifted. The only reason he became involved with the nascent activity of documentary film-making was that it paid him the princely salary of £4 a week.

He learnt on the job, by making films. Film-making is teamwork, and Jennings was lucky with his collaborators. The most important of them was his editor, Stuart McAllister, who received a co-direction credit on Listen to Britain . Jennings cannot have been an easy collaborator. There were arguments and lots of door slamming but also total dedication to the job at hand. Sleeping on the floor of the cutting-room to meet delivery dates was not unusual, nor was preparing a shoot so meticulously that today we are astounded at the time the director was allowed to take.

What made Jennings the man and the poetic film-maker was the coming of the war. For the first time, a film-maker showed normal people on the screen not as caricatures but as intelligent thinking individuals. Jennings achieved this in a few shots. The people still live decades later. Where other film-makers got more and more shrill in their propaganda - which is what Jennings' films are - he became more tender. A Diary for Timothy was his most loving film, made in that dreadful winter of 1944-45 when things went badly for the Allies.

After the war, Jennings wanted to leave film-making. He did not consider himself a film-maker, which is strange and a little bit sad, because it is as a film-maker that we know him and would be poorer if we had not been able to see his films. But Minerva's owl was not to fly for him: on a Sunday afternoon in September 1950, he fell off a cliff on the Greek island of Poros, during the recce for a film ironically called The Good Life , and was killed. He was 43 years old.

Before Jackson wrote his biography of Jennings, he edited The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader . That was in 1993, and it has now been reprinted in paperback. It is just what it says it is, a companion piece to some of Jennings's best and better-known films, with a group of "Critical writings", "Selected broadcasts" and finally "Selected poems" - all introduced by Jackson's very readable and valuable text.

His biography of Jennings is well researched and uses an abundance of direct quotes. The chapters are headed simply by dates. Jackson gives detailed descriptions of the people Jennings met and the art movements he was involved with, such as surrealism. Because Jennings was a painter, a writer, a poet, and arguably an anthropologist (he was a founding member of Mass Observation), he met a lot of different people. From this we get a good feel for the 1930s and 1940s as seen from the angle of a brilliant intellectual and artist. Late though this book is in arriving, it is good to know that Jennings has found such a sensitive and knowledgeable biographer.

I have only one complaint: the book's meagre illustrations, the way they are laid out and the fact that they include practically none of the beautiful and atmospheric stills from Jennings's films. The one surprise is a page of Lee Miller's contact prints of Jennings from 1944.

The DVD comprises Listen to Britain , I Was a Fireman and Diary for Timothy , together with a TV documentary by Kevin MacDonald, Humphrey Jennings , The Man Who Listened to Britain , to which Jackson contributed. The prints of the Jennings films are excellent and the whole presentation is exemplary.

MacDonald does something dangerous but instructive. He puts his colour shots against images from Jennings' work and shows dramatically how good an eye Jennings had and how well he reproduced the atmosphere of a scene. The images were both improvised and yet totally controlled by Jennings, not only when they were shot but also later at the editing table. He and McAllister used to argue about a frame for hours, and the films show the brilliant outcome.

Seeing these three films - and I have seen them often - is a shock each time. I am so moved that I weep. When you hear and see the street musician playing the penny whistle at the beginning of I Was a Fireman , your mood immediately turns melancholic. After all, this is a film about the heavy bombing of a great city. I can easily understand and share the judgment of my German friend.

Andi Engel, who was born in Germany during the Second World War, is a director of the film distributor Artificial Eye.

Humphrey Jennings: The Definitive Biography of One of Britain's Most Important Film-makers

Author - Kevin Jackson
Publisher - Picador
Pages - 208
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 330 35438 8

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