Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Licking Hitler, BFI

As part of its current season focusing on David Hare's work for TV, the BFI last week showed the first two films that he both wrote and directed for the Play for Today strand.

Licking Hitler, which won the 1978 Bafta for Best Television Play, is set during World War II in a country house that has been requisitioned by the military to house a 'black propaganda' unit that is sending subversive messages into Germany.

The drama centres on the uneasy and ultimately brutal relationship between Archie Maclean (Bill Paterson), an alcoholic and raspingly sardonic working-class journo from Glasgow, and Anna Seaton (Kate Nelligan), a naïve and sheltered upper-class girl who joins the unit as a translator.

The film is populated by fairly unsympathetic characters whose motivations remain opaque, but Hare never offers judgement on them until the closing voiceover. It's also a very spare piece of work, with long periods of silence and languid camerawork giving the house a haunted, isolated and oppressive atmosphere. The only music is a slow piano concerto that occasionally echoes through the empty spaces.

Hare doesn't labour the point, but the house and its inhabitants act as a graphic metaphor for the fissures of class, gender, sexuality and nationality that run through society. However, their conflicts stem from purely personal concerns; they're always complex characters rather than representative mouthpieces.

Debates in the house also raise ethical questions over the use of propaganda as a deadly weapon of war, with the profession of lying eventually spilling into the characters' tense personal relationships, with destructive consequences.

Unexpectedly for such an insular and stylised film, it concludes with a 'where are they now' epilogue, tracing the post-War careers of the characters. Although this seems like a disruptive shift in tone, it works well in extending the theme of deceit in public life.

The liars-in-chief go on to prosper through 'the steady impoverishment of people's ideals, their loss of faith… the 30-year-old, deep, corrosive national habit of lying'. It's one of the script's strengths that such a specific period piece still has contemporary relevance thirty years later.

(I'll have a look next at Dreams of Leaving and the on-stage interview with David Hare that followed the two films).

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