I watched again Powell and Pressburger’s classic wartime film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp a couple of weeks ago, and it sent me back to A F Kennedy’s BFI monograph about the film.Blimp was released in 1943, in the teeth of opposition from Churchill, who had not seen it but had had reports from his staff. Although Powell and Pressburger made a number of war films, I think of Blimp as part of a trilogy which connects 49th Parallel to A Matter of Life and Death. The question that links all three is a simple one: ‘why do we fight?’. In Blimp, the role of the German officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, played by Anton Walbrook, is to show British audiences the values that matter, that are worth fighting for.
Walbrook is a ‘good German’ – initially thrown unwittingly into the duel with Clive Candy as a young man, later an anti-Nazi whose children have joined the Party, who ends up in Britain as an ‘enemy alien’ just before the second world war. And without delving too deep into screenwriting theory, he is also the “centre of good”, a term developed by the screenwriter and teacher Robert McKee to describe the character (there’s almost always one) who carries the values of the film which as the audience we’re invited to empathise with. One of the benefits of this is that he has all the best speeches. His hymn to England, in the Alien Registration Office, in which he evokes the country through the memory of his dead English wife, is currently on YouTube. (There’s also a screenplay online).
It’s impossible to watch the film without feeling the autobiographical resonances. Pressburger was a Hungarian Jew who had learned German long before he spoke English, had attended a German speaking university, and had worked for the Ufa studios in Berlin before fleeing the country in 1933, during the first great purge of Jews, after a tip-off from a Nazi colleague. Walbrook, born Adolf Wohlbrück, was a half-Jewish Austrian, and also gay, who had left Germany in 1936. Both were classified as “enemy aliens” when the film was made.
According to Kennedy’s essay, Walbrook was confronted by Churchill about Blimp during the interval of a play in the West End in which Walbrook was performing. Churchill wanted to know whether Walbrook thought the film good propaganda. Walbrook’s reply?
“No people in the world other than the English would have had the courage, in the midst of war, to tell the people such unvarnished truth”.