Alberto Cavalcanti: hero of the war

0

Comments

Add +

A new BFI season celebrating filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti opened at BFI Southbank last week. Tom Huddleston celebrates his greatest achievement, Nazi invasion thriller ‘Went the Day Well?’

By 1941, British backs were to the wall, as the false quiet of the phoney war gave way to the onslaught of the Blitz. All UK cinemas had been closed at the outset of WWII, but one look at Joseph Goebbels’s frighteningly effective Nazi propaganda machine was all it took to convince Churchill that a similar technique could work at home. Though born in Brazil, Alberto Cavalcanti had been working as a documentarian and occasional avant-gardist in Europe for much of the ’20s and ’30s, directing, among other things, cinematic portraits of Paris and Berlin and working with leading French formal innovator Marcel L’Herbier. He arrived in Britain in 1933 to take up a post with John Grierson’s GPO Film Unit, the branch of the Post Office tasked with raising public morale during the Depression. But with the advent of war, and with many British filmmakers shipped off to fight or co-opted into the Ministry of Information, he moved to Ealing Studios to work for the first time as a director of fiction.

All of these creative experiences fed into Cavalcanti’s debut film for Ealing, ‘Went the Day Well???’, the tale of a dozy British hamlet invaded by Nazi shock troops. His GPO experiences had provided the director with a unique insight into the realities of British life, in all its class-based complexity, but also with the mythic national character we create for ourselves. His documentary work provided him with a willingness to explore the life of a community: its hopes, its fears, its darkest secrets, along with a propensity for depicting even the most extreme events in blunt, unsentimental terms. And his work as an experimental filmmaker enabled him to fuse contradictory elements into a seamless whole: ‘Went the Day Well???’ is a film which simultaneously lionises, satirises and coldly questions the concept of Britishness, even nationality itself, while never diverting from its central, government-approved message of eternal vigilance. Love your neighbour, the film seems to say, but keep an eye on him too.

By the time ‘Went the Day Well???’ was released in 1942, the battle of Stalingrad was underway and all plans for a German invasion of Britain had been indefinitely shelved – not that the average moviegoer would have known it. And after the war, it slipped quietly out of the public consciousness: too worrying for the post-war wave of Ealing comedies, too nationalistic for the New Wavers, too cosy for the neo-realists, though the film still pops up in the BBC2 schedules to scare grandma out of her afternoon nap. Cavalcanti’s career seemed to follow a similar path but on the strength of this movie alone, never mind extraordinary pieces like exuberant comedy ‘Champagne Charlie’ and breathlessly intense crime drama ‘They Made Me a Fugitive’, he deserves to be remembered as one of the leading lights of our national cinema. Let’s hope the new BFI season goes some way towards redressing the balance.

Read our review of ‘Went the Day Well???’.

Author: Tom Huddleston



Users say



Top Stories

Meet the dream team: a preview of ‘Les Misérables’

Meet the dream team: a preview of ‘Les Misérables’

Director Tom Hooper and his cast tell us how they turned the super-musical into movie blockbuster.

Oscar predictions

Oscar predictions

The Time Out film team weighs in on the nominees for the 2013 Academy Awards

January film highlights 2013

January film highlights 2013

Get ready for the big guns… Spielberg, Tarantino and Bigelow

October film highlights

October film highlights

Daniel Craig’s 007 comeback, a genius indie romcom and all the mysteries behind ‘The Shining’ unravelled.

The Time Out film debate 2012 highlights

The Time Out film debate 2012 highlights

The results of our study on the state of films and filmgoing in 2012.

Read 'Time Out film debate 2012 highlights'

Martin Freeman interview

Martin Freeman interview

'The Hobbit' actor tells us why he wouldn't have a pint with Bilbo Baggins.

Sam Mendes interview

Sam Mendes interview

Dave Calhoun speaks to the director of 'Skyfall' about the latest film in the Bond franchise.

Ang Lee interview

Ang Lee interview

The genre-hopping director tells us how he invented a new genre with 'Life of Pi'

Michael Haneke interview

Michael Haneke interview

The twice Palme d'Or-winning director discusses 'Amour'.

Read our interview with Michael Haneke

Thomas Vinterberg interview

Thomas Vinterberg interview

The Danish director talks about his powerful new drama 'The Hunt'.

Read our interview with Thomas Vinterberg'

Ten things the 'Twilight' movies did for us

Ten things the 'Twilight' movies did for us

Time Out looks back at the impact of the 'Twilight' saga.

Discover what 'Twilight' has done for us

On the set of 'Sightseers'

On the set of 'Sightseers'

Time Out heads to the Lake District to visit director Ben Wheatley on set.

Read about our visit to the 'Sightseers' set

Tim Burton interview

Tim Burton interview

The director talks about 'Frankenweenie', which he describes as 'the ultimate memory piece'.

Read our interview with Tim burton

The top ten Christmas films of 2012

The top ten Christmas films of 2012

Our pick of the best films showing over the festive period.

Read 'The top ten Christmas films of 2012'

What's your film guilty pleasure?

What's your film guilty pleasure?

Mean Girls? Dirty Dancing? Tell us your favourite film guilty pleasure.

Read 'Film guilty pleasures'

When teen stars turn serious

When teen stars turn serious

Ten young actors come of age on the silver screen.

Read 'When teen stars turn serious'

50 years of James Bond

50 years of James Bond

From Connery to Craig, we revisit all 22 Bond films.

Read '50 years of James Bond'

Paul Thomas Anderson interview

Paul Thomas Anderson interview

The director talks Scientology and working with Joaquin Phoenix.

Read the interview

Hilarious horror films

Hilarious horror films


Ten funny horror movies which went spectacularly off the rails.

Read 'Hilarious horror films'

Martin McDonagh interview

Martin McDonagh interview

The director talks psychopaths and theatre – 'my least favourite artform'.

Read the interview

Autumn horror films

Autumn horror films

We round-up the five best horror movies of Autumn 2012.

Read about this Autumn's best horror movies

On the set of Skyfall

On the set of Skyfall

Time Out visits Istanbul to see the latest Bond movie being made.

Read 'On the set of Skyfall'

Bond: then and now

Bond: then and now

Does Skyfall refresh or rehash the James Bond franchise?

Sally Potter interview

Sally Potter interview

The British director explains why 'Ginger and Rosa' is her most mainstream film yet.

Daniel Craig interview

Daniel Craig interview

'I’m almost as in demand as Brad Pitt’