The propaganda film has had a long, fruitful life, about as long as the cinema itself. True, most bits of agitprop are dry, single-minded lectures that use images and voiceovers to scare, anger, and shame their audiences into acting (or reacting) certain ways, but some such films, sometimes despite themselves, manage to go beyond their inherent designs and become more than the sum of their parts. Films like Birth of a Nation, Battleship Potemkin, Triumph of the Will, and its American counterpoint, the mostly Frank Capra directed Why We Fight, transcend their missions and are later declared cinematic touchstones. Still, when viewed today, it’s mostly to admire their craft, the ingenuity of the mise-en-scène, of the camera’s movement, the blocking, the sheer boldness of composition. Maybe we now and again chuckle or shake our heads at the transparent agendas or outdated philosophies, the clunky dialogue, or shudder at the blatant racism and other forms of hatred they propound, but rarely do we suspend our disbelief and let the narrative take us for the sort of ride we cherish with other films. Mostly because these films, even when viewed in their heyday, lack the narrative fluidity and naturalness to cast such a spell on the viewer—they can rile a viewer up, bring him to action, but it’s a different effect than submerging an audience into a new world. But also because, knowing to what ends these films aspired originally, we are aware of the danger.
Then there’s a film like Went the Day Well?, an outlier in the agitprop genre. The film opens with an affable Briton standing in a cemetery addressing us like we're yet another lot of tourists stopping over for a few minutes in the post-WW II English village to take in some history before they finish gasing-up our bus and we move on. He points to a grave etched with several German names and says, “This is all the land they ever got.” We’re then transported to the village years before, when the war was still being fought, just in time to watch the arrival of a cadre of Germans masquerading as English soldiers. They request billeting, which is gladly provided by the curious and excited denizens of the sleepy little village. But then soon after, with the discovery, amongst others, of some enemy confectionaries and a scorecard bearing continental numerals, the fifth column is forced to drop its ruse, and a shitstorm ensues.
Now by today’s standards, this plot sounds familiar enough. After all, films reminiscing about and even fictionalizing and embellishing on the travails of that bloody war are common fare. Thing is, Went the Day Well? was released in ’42, some three years before the war ended, during a time when its outcome was far from a given. The film was made to bolster English morale, remind its countrymen to stay vigilant, and while not to blindly trust anybody completely, to drop class distinctions and work together to fight the common enemy.
But despite its first and foremost being propaganda, watching the film is a pleasure, and I’m surprised to not have come across it sooner. Its mood jumps from somber and didactic to farcical and darkly comedic to murderous and back again without the usual transitional devices. In one scene, two women with rifles hold down the manor. One kills her first German and then feels faint when the full import of her action hits her, while the other hollers, “Good shot, dearie!” between her own salvos. “We should keep score.” In others, what starts off as a bit of calm dialogue between captive and oppressor turns unflinchingly violent without any warning or crescendo, all in the span of a cough.
It’s oscillations in tone like these that make the film engaging, possessing a touch of what will come to be one of Quentin Tarantino’s trademarks. Also like his films, Went Well quickly makes clear that the film is either ignoring or does not know (or knows all to well) “the rules.” Things, good but also bad if not sadistic, are going to happen, so away with the Hollywood playbooks. They won’t help you place any bets here. Nobody will be spared because the test audience wanted so much for him or her to live. All the chaps you thought were introduced to be red-shirted members of Captain Kirk’s away-team don’t even get another cameo, while the main players mercilessly slash and get slashed, if not popped at point blank, without preamble or epilogue. Bang, splat, arms raised (which is classic film argot for, “Oh, they got me, laddie”), half a groan. Moving on….
All you can do is watch. And, yes, you’ve already been told how this ends for the Germans, but nobody said it’d be a halcyon lorry ride for the rest of the village. Which is just another reason why we gotta stick together and prepare for the day the jerries come a-knockin’.