Dystopian film points a finger at viewers

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Axis Victory. It’s a common alternate history setting for dystopian worlds, a world run by Nazi Germany and their allies. From “The Man in the High Castle” to the new Wolfenstein trilogy, many have thought of the scenario of a world run by the Third Reich, but none come close to the gray-scape that “It Happened Here” achieves. 

“It Happened Here” is an amateur film produced by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, both of whom were in their late teens when they started the ambitious project of depicting an alternate past where Germany’s Operation Sealion was successfully launched and completed, seeing most of England taken under occupation. The premise is already intriguing, but it chooses not to look at the events from a generic grand historical scale, instead focusing on an apolitical Irish nurse, Pauline Murray (who is played by Pauline Murray). Pauline is the average Jane, not really focused on the grand events exploding around her and more interested in taking care of those immediately close to her. The only signs she really knows of the war are passing German columns and some dispossessed friends of hers who she takes in. Eventually, the little peace she has is shattered as partisans choose to attack a column passing near her home. In the fighting, all her friends are killed, and she finds herself rescued by German soldiers in the confusion.  

She soon ends up in London, where she reluctantly signs on to a paramedic branch of the Fascist-collaborators, who are dressed in the style of the British Union of Fascists (BUF). This is where the main conflict ensues. Pauline works to regain some semblance of her life while her skills are readjusted from those of a general nurse to those befitting a more paramilitary organization, with the usual indoctrination and mass-mobilizing it seeks to instill.  

Despite her attempts to remain strictly non-political, Pauline finds that she must face the uncomfortable truth that the organization she works for is practically despised by all others and that its policies are contributing to a far darker future. German occupation plays out rather smoothly, but it’s clear it’s a tenuous one: brawls break out between angry citizens and collaborators, German soldiers hold ceremonial marches throughout the day and crowd into the subways as a convenient way to move equipment. It’s orderly but also violent and chaotic, despite what the propaganda films produced by the Reich claim. 

A quite infamous seven-minute segment plays where Pauline and some other recruits find themselves talking with two group leaders of the fascists (who, for authenticity purposes, were played by actual former members of the BUF), where they ask the two men about the logic behind their push for national socialism, antisemitic persecution and euthanasia. It’s a very casual conversation about such topics without raised voices, topics about deporting whole ethnic groups to some faraway land or simply euthanizing them, in the tone of colleagues talking about tax reform. 

Eventually, Pauline has to really confront her own moral principles when she visits some friends, both clearly resistance-leaning. They are secretly hiding a wounded partisan and are shocked to see Pauline in the uniform of the enemy. She has a discussion with Sebastian Shaw’s character about keeping one’s morality in such dark times. Pauline argues that having her friends killed and nearly being killed herself has given her a view of the partisans nearly as cynical as her view of the fascist collaborators she’s currently working under. Shaw’s character himself is in a rather similar position; he hates that what the partisans do — and what will be done if liberation is achieved — is similar in methods to the fascists themselves, but he remains far more steadfast in his support of the resistance. Again, this is one of the best scenes in the film; two people on supposedly opposing sides trying to make sense of how badly things have spiraled around and what the future holds, if there will even be a future. 

Pauline eventually decides to help treat the wounded partisan, vowing to stay silent about her friends’ assistance to the resistance. The effort is futile, as eventually they are outed by an anonymous source, and Pauline herself is held guilty by association. She is transferred over to the countryside to a tuberculosis house with many patients, and she gets no uniform this time. Pauline simply gets to do what she was good at — being a nurse. This temporary dream is set back as space is made up for Polish prisoners. She’s told they need injections after the hard conditions they’ve been through. Pauline happily obliges, only to be horrified when she finds a hasty grave dug in the back garden, realizing she has just euthanized those prisoners, not treated them. 

She’s transferred again, this time to detainment, as her reaction was deemed too “deviant” for the fascists. The train she’s on, however, is derailed by saboteurs, and Pauline finds herself this time in the hands of the resistance, ever growing, ever strengthening. Despite her re-donned uniform, they take her in to watch over their wounded comrades. By this time, the occupation is reportedly over, as Allied forces have joined together to clear the Germans from the U.K. entirely. Just as Pauline’s resistance-sheltering friend said earlier, the problem of fighting fascism was that one would usually have to resort to extreme methods to deal with them, as a sequence occurs where rounded-up SS English volunteers are summarily massacred by partisans. Pauline hears the gunfire in the distance and wonders if her time has come, but she continues to work on the patients entrusted to her, both an agent and a passenger to history trying to make it out the best she could. 

“It Happened Here” was quite the ambitious project, its cast made up mostly of amateur actors whose full-time jobs were the same ones they portrayed in the film, ordinary and problematic alike — the aforementioned fascist leaders were former members of the BUF, and most of the German soldiers in the film were German veterans. The film follows Pauline’s life in occupied England with a very matter-of-fact tone, depicting German soldiers both as happy tourists wandering through London looking for local treats and as tyrants massacring innocent civilians, partisans as both valiant fighters and as killers of traitorous countrymen, collaborators as people trying to make things right and as genuinely reprehensible fanatics, and in the middle of it all, the average civilian, both pissed at the situation yet trying their hardest to make daily life less miserable as much as possible. It’s a gray film of gray morality shot in black and white, where it depicts people of great good, great evil and in-between, all in the moment of a dark period of human history, fictional as the occupation of the U.K. was in this “alternate past.” 

At the end of it all, the film leaves on its ambiguous fate for Pauline with the unspoken question: would you have been like her? Would you have been like her friends? What would you have done in that time?