Dylan Thomas. Heil! Heil!
By DAVID COLLARD
Dylan Thomas loved film and, as the roster of recent adaptations of his work (and life) suggests, film continues to love Dylan Thomas. As Michael Caines says in the current TLS, had the poet not died young (“too young”), he might have gone on to make a biopic of Charles Dickens – and who knows what else?
In fact Thomas had a brief and productive career in film, writing scripts for wartime propaganda shorts. These Are the Men, made in 1943, suggests his Dickens biopic would have been less than chocolate-box viewing . . .
In a scene from the film Adolf Hitler speaks, but his words are supplied by Thomas:
“I am a normal man. I do not like meat, drink or women. (Heil! Heil!) Neurosis, charlatanism, bombast, anti-socialism, hate of the Jews, treachery, murder, race insanity I am the leader of the German people!”
This brilliantly subversive short was scripted by the poet in collaboration with Alan Osbiston, a young Australian film editor. They were both employed by Strand Films, an independent outfit in Soho producing home front propaganda for the Ministry of Information. Thomas, excused military service, joined the company in the autumn of 1940, on £8 a week.
In the summer of 1942 he wrote to an actress girlfriend called Ruth Wynn-Owen describing his workplace as “a ringing, clinging office with repressed women all around punishing typewriters, and queers in striped suits talking about ‘cinema’ and, just at this moment, a man with a bloodhound's voice and his cheeks, I'm sure, full of Mars bars, rehearsing out loud a radio talk on ‘India and the Documentary Movement’”.
The idea for These Are the Men came from the exiled Viennese writer Robert Neumann (1897–1975), the author of An den Wassern von Babylon (1939; By the Waters of Babylon). As Lea Stöckli recounts in her thesis, Robert Neumanns Roma ‘Children of Vienna’, Neumann had arrived in England in 1938 and been interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man early in the war. He was now struggling to earn a living in London as a BBC broadcaster and writer. He was admired by E. M. Forster and his novel The Inquest (1944) was reviewed for Horizon by Anna Kavan. In the early 1940s he drafted a script for an anti-Nazi propaganda short, was unable to interest producers in his approach, and eventually passed the idea on to Thomas, recalling in a journal entry:
Der Film wurde sehr verbessert dadurch, daß ich Dylan Thomas bat, den Text zu schreiben. Für ein zusammenhängendes Gespräch war er, wann ich ihn traf, schon zu betrunken, aber den Text für den Film lieferte er – nicht einen wirklichen “Text”, sondern ein langes Gedicht, das ich quer durch das Ganze unter die Bilder legte.
(The film was greatly improved by the fact that I asked Dylan Thomas to write the text. When I met him he was too drunk for a proper conversation but he delivered the text for the film – not a true script, but, rather, a long poem that I could use to accompany the images.)
You can see most of These Are the Men on YouTube.
As the opening credits appear we hear the drone of the Horst Wessel song accompanying shots of the Nuremberg Rally lifted from Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary Triumph des Willens (1935). Then we cut to stock footage of bakers and foundry workers and fishermen and farmers accompanied by simple lyrical verses by Thomas:
Who are we?
We are the makers, the workers the bakers
Making and baking bread
all over the earth
in every town and village
in country quiet,
in the ruins and wounds of a bombed street
with the wounded crying outside for the mercy of death in the city.
Thomas, a documentary pro, knew the rule of thumb when working with a shot list (a brief summary of each scene, describing the subject matter and action, and giving its length, usually in feet and frames). With practice (and a stop watch), a writer could get used to an established standard of three syllables to the foot on 35mm film and seven syllables to the foot on 16mm.
The tone darkens as we see images from battle zones from “the streets of never-lost Stalingrad” to “the tank-churned black slime of Tunisia”, accompanied by another list:
We are the makers, the workers, the wounded,
The dying, the dead,
The blind, the frostbitten,
The burned, the legless, the mad.
The speaker’s voice becomes increasingly stern and sepulchral until an unexpected moment when Neumann's brilliant idea suddenly takes shape before our eyes. The commentary directs our attention to those responsible for “the battle yard of spilt blood and split bones” and we cut to hands raised in a Hitlerian salute and crowds chanting. More footage from Riefenstahl’s Triumph isaccompanied by a long, tension-building drum roll culminating in shots of Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, Martin Bormann and Rudolf Hess, followed by silence for a few seconds before Hitler takes the stand and begins to speak. But it’s an English voice we hear as the leader begins to deliver a rambling confession of his failings,
“I was born of poor parents. I grew into a discontented and neurotic child. My lungs were bad. My mother spoilt me and secured my exemption from military service. Consider my triumphant path to power . . .”
The rest of the Nazi high command gets the same treatment as they line up to proclaim their criminal inadequacy, cruelty, anti-Semitism and moral corruption. Bormann (who gets off rather lightly) describes his incarceration in mental institutions for drug addiction, adding:
“I am a normal man. Twice married; twice mad. Gangsterism! Brute force! Wealth for the few! Cocaine . . . and murder!”
This is both funny and unsettling – a witty deflation of Riefenstahl’s overblown film and the crass, inflationary rhetoric of Nazism. It anticipates by seventy years an enduring internet meme, adapting Neumann’s approach, in which facetious English subtitles are added to a scene in Der Untergang (Downfall), the film directed in 2004 by Oliver Hirschbiegel featuring a remarkable performance by Bruno Ganz as Hitler. There are now over a thousand of these, this being a favourite.
These Are the Men is included in its entirety on Dylan Thomas – The War Films Anthology, a DVD collection of eight Thomas-scripted propaganda shorts issued in 2007 by the Imperial War Museum in London.