Thursday, 30 October 2014

Freida (1947)
David Farrar & Mai Zetterling
If British cinema struggled, usually as a result of relatively low budgets, to produce exciting war films capable of challenging  Hollywood's standard fare - ageing actor charges up a Californian hill and defeats American army tanks painted in German colours, before making a speech about freedom - it was certainly able to compete in terms of films that looked at the aftermath of war.

British film makers had no problems with introspective views of how war had changed both individuals and the society they lived in. Even before the war was over Millions Like Us had challenged viewers to look at the breaking down of class barriers, urging them to think that this was the way ahead for a society that should never return to the hardships and inequality of the pre-war years. It was a theme taken up in Cage of Gold, whilst Ealing Studio's Dance Hall examined the challenges to society of women that had grown used to the freedom of working alongside men. War's personal impact on the lives of European families was also given sensitive treatment in The Divided Heart.

The effects of war on youth and the rise of juvenile delinquency was raised in films such as The Blue Lamp whilst the sense of displacement felt by former officers became a theme for crime dramas, such as They Made Me a Fugitive starring Trevor Howard as a former RAF pilot reduced to joining a criminal gang. Even the period's greatest romantic fantasy film, A Matter of Life and Death, sums up the changing attitudes of the time when David Niven's character Squadron Leader Peter Carter describes himself as "Conservative by nature, Labour by experience."

And, among those films, the 1947 Freida stands out as a challenging look at post-war British society and, in particular, how it should come to terms with its former enemies. It follows the story of an RAF officer Robert Dawson (David Farrar) who, having escaped from a prisoner of war camp with the help of a German nurse Frieda (Mai Zetterling), marries her as battle rages around them ...

Mai Zetterling, Gerald Heinz and David Farrar
... then brings her home even before war has ended. He is immediately faced by challenges in trying to smooth her transition into living in British society. Not least is his own reticence to open up emotionally. Farrar plays the role with such careful reserve that the audience is left wondering whether he loves her or has simply married her out of gratitude. Yet one should not simply see this as typically  aloofness and emotional restraint so often portrayed in cinema as the natural setting for the middles classes. Instead, one has to remember he is a man returning home to a world he has been cut off from for so long.

Robert returns to a childhood home, so peaceful and typically English that it must feel daunting after the confines of a PoW camp:

He is faced by a loving mother who cannot hide the discomfort in knowing her son has brought an 'enemy' to their home ...
Barbara Everest
... a situation made more difficult by the fact that war had claimed the life of another of her sons, leaving behind a widow ...
Glynis Johns & Patrick Holt
... who is herself in love with Robert ...
Glynis Johns & David Farrar
He is a schoolmaster who feels restrained by returning to the classroom and only begins to settle once he starts working outdoors:
David Farrar

David Farrar
He also has an aunt (Flora Robson) with political ambitions and faces hostility from voters due to having an 'enemy' living under the same roof. The challenge she presents to Robert and Frieda is magnified by her own personal antipathy towards the Germans.
Flora Robson
The hurdles faced by the couple are further complicated by the arrival of Frieda's brother Richard (Albert Lieven):
Albert Lieven
Perhaps the most powerful scene in the film is when Frieda and Robert go to cinema. As they about to leave a newsreel comes on screen, graphically revealing the horrors of the liberation of Belsen concentration camp. The audience is jolted back to reality as the newsreel plays on screen, something that, when the film was first released in 1947, would have been taken them back to their first memories of seeing the horrors of the holocaust. This lengthy showing of scenes from within the camp challenges the audience to rethink the sympathy they might have for Frieda and to remind them of the challenges faced by both themselves and the onscreen characters. But we also see the look of horror on Frieda's face as she forces herself to see the truth about her homeland:
Mai Zetterling

The director's bold choice to show real concentration camp scenes, in the midst of what is on surface a romantic drama, was a bold choice and one that works.

For many modern viewers the challenge of accepting Germans into British society after World War 2 might be viewed in light of the rather modern sporting rivalries that exist between the two countries. Yet this is, however it might appear, something relatively new, having only emerged in the final years of the 20th Century. Prior to that, for all the playing of British vs Germans wargames on playgrounds, in back gardens and playing fields, many Germans had easily fitted in to British society with most animosity fading as the years went by (your author can attest to this, having been brought up in a street that was home to three former members of the German Army).

A thought provoking film that remains relevant to this day when we look at how best to treat individuals from countries and societies we might consider enemies.

Here's who else appears:

Ronald Howard

Barry Jones

Garry Marsh

Ray Jackson

Stanley Escane and Gladys Henson

Currently available on DVD as part of Volume 3 of Network DVD's Ealing Rarities Collection. That it appears in the same set as Cage of Gold makes this something that should be owned by all fans of British cinema:

The following original advertising brochures are available from Greg Edwards's website 'Rare Film Posters':

Buy it, watch it, enjoy it ... think about it!

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