The Silver Fleet (1943)
Here’s and interesting little film. Produced by ‘The Archers’ (Powell & Pressburger), The Silver Fleet is a wartime story of resistance in the occupied Netherlands. It is a thought provoking story of an engineer and shipyard manager Jaap van Leyden (played by Ralph Richardson) who is asked by the occupying Nazis to reopen the shipyard to produce submarines. Cornered, he agrees to their request, and reopens the yard only to find many of his staff refuse to work for the Germans. However they are forced back to work when their rations are stopped. As a mirror to this Van Leyden’s wife (Googie Withers) finds herself ostracised by the local shopkeepers who refuse to sell her food on the grounds that her husband is a traitor.
The film then follows Van Leyden’s struggle with his conscience as he balances the needs of his family with the needs of his country. The latter wins, leading him to use his position to surreptitiously form a resistance group who aim to sabotage the production of the submarines.
Where the film is most interesting is its presentation of his crisis of conscience, something that is not normally found in films of the period. In the early scenes the audience is left in doubt that the Nazis are evil but allows them to consider whether it is right to collaborate with evil for one’s own safety. That said, the film isn’t squeamish in confronting the issue of how collaborators might expect to be dealt with.
The film offers us a two fold interpretation of the Nazis:
Firstly we have Esmond Knight’s portrayal of a revolting, fairly camp, officer with an over-the-top accent who is a figure of ridicule. I imagine Knight was having fun with his role and it makes one wonder what he thought about playing a Nazi officer having been blinded in action against the German Navy whilst serving on HMS Prince of Wales just two years earlier. As a balance to the Nazi the audience can laugh at, we are also presented with Valentine Dyall’s portrayal of a more sinister, malevolent German officer:
A comparison might be to see Knight as a representation of Goering and Dyall as a version of Heydrich.
The film also has moments of mischievous humour, such as when a Nazi officer enters a shop and shouts out ‘Heil Hitler’. If you look closely, as the men in the shop heart-heatedly reply, one of them responds with a good old fashioned two-fingered salute. And I don’t mean Churchill’s ‘V for Victory’ sign:
Who else appears?
Kathleen Byron in her first credited role as a schoolteacher whose words inspire Van Leyden to resist the occupying forces:
Charles Victor and John Longden:
P.S. The film is also notable for a rather nice, belt-back, leisure jacket that John Longden wears: