Despite winning the Bronze Golden Bear at the 1953 Berlin Film Festival and being a Grand Prix nominee at the Cannes Festival of the same year, the UK/Swiss co-production, The Village has attracted little attention since its first showings. To say it has over been overlooked would be an understatement: you would struggle to find a single reference to the film, let alone a review, in any published history of British, European and World cinema. The only available online review is a negative one from Bosley Crowther in the New York Times at the time of the film’s US opening.1
This neglect is surprising, bordering on the inexplicable. After all, its technical credentials are impressive; and without mentioning The Village explicitly, one of the earliest of film historians, Paul Rotha, reckoned the team of producer, director and writer who were primarily responsible for it were “an underestimated European team that deserve more attention”.2 Moreover its basic theme – about the treatment and resettlement of displaced persons whose lives and homes have been devastated by war – was a continuation of the team’s earlier work.
The Pestalozzi Project
The film is dedicated to the teachers and children of Pestalozzi village in the Swiss Alps. Although it points out in the opening prologue that this is a story and not a history, it is clearly intended as a tribute to the values of international understanding that the village espoused. It was named after a Swiss humanitarian and social reformer, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827), who had dedicated most of his adult life in endeavouring to secure educational provision for the poor, the underprivileged, and those without any family support. He believed in “learning by hand, head, and heart”, which became a sort of mantra; and his subsequent influence on educational content and reform was huge. In 1947 the Swiss philosopher, Dr Walter Corti, had created a children’s village named after him and as a memorial to his ideals, and which accommodated around 200 children from across Europe who had been orphaned during World War Two. They were housed in small national groups where they could be taught in their own languages and cultures. (It was, incidentally, a humanitarian initiative that was to expand globally over the next decade, and beyond.) The film’s task was to encapsulate the spirit of the Pestalozzi enterprise in dramatic form.
A Swiss trilogy
In fact, no team of cinematic collaborators would have seemed better equipped for the task, because, in its context, The Village was not a one-off project, but the third part of a trilogy made by essentially the same creative personnel and all three about the plight of orphans and refugees in post-war Europe. The first two films of this unofficial trilogy were extremely successful. which makes the subsequent critical neglect of The Village the more perplexing.
The first of them was The Last Chance, made in 1945, with the same producer (Lazar Wechsler), director (Leopold Lindtberg), cameraman (Emil Berna) and composer (Robert Blum) as were subsequently to work together on The Village. It was to become arguably the most famous Swiss film ever made. The plot concerned two Allied prisoners in Italy – one English, one American – who escape from a train carrying them and slave workers to a labour camp, and who then encounter and aid a group of refugees of various nationalities in a perilous journey across the mountains before reaching safety in Switzerland. It was shown triumphantly at the Empire Leicester Square in London in 1946 and was championed by esteemed critics such as Richard Winnington, who thought it a parable of internationalism and described it as a “brave and good film […] moving and tragic”.3 Earlier it had been an even bigger success in America, where the legendary film critic, James Agee, had extolled the film’s “desperate courage, humanness, intensity and overall eloquence.”4 Such prestigious support persuaded MGM to give it major feature circulation.
The film’s popularity made it possible for producer Lazar Wechsler to negotiate a co-production deal with MGM for his next film, which resulted in The Search (1948), which was to surpass The Last Chance in terms of American and international acclaim. It was to be nominated for four Hollywood Oscars; introduce cinema audiences to Montgomery Clift, whose performance was so convincing that some thought he was an actual American soldier; and transform the fortunes of its director Fred Zinnemann, whose career had languished since being put under contract by MGM. His name was still so unfamiliar that, in his autobiography, he grumbled that “people were under the impression that I was a Swiss director who had just been imported by MGM from Europe – a full 19 years after I had first arrived in America.”5 As a documentarian by training (he had been an assistant to Robert Flaherty) and as a European by birth (he was born in Vienna of Jewish parents), he was an ideal choice to direct a project inspired by Lazar Wechsler’s admiration for Therese Bonney’s book, Europe’s Children, and his desire to alert American audiences to the depth of human suffering in postwar Europe, particularly that of starving children, many of whom had come out of concretion camps and lost contact with their families. These ‘unaccompanied children’, as they were known, had been taken under the wing of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).
Zinnemann and his team spent months visiting the children in displaced persons’ camps and hearing the harrowing accounts of their experience. How to forge an absorbing narrative out of these appalling case histories? Unable to participate in the first-hand research because he was ill with pneumonia in Zurich, the writer Richard Schweizer (who had scripted The Last Chance) came up with a solution: ‘Why don’t we make a story about a mother who has lost track of her little boy and is looking for him all over Germany; and the child has forgotten his name and lost his speech and is picked up by a soldier?’6 Schweizer was to win an Oscar for his motion picture story in collaboration with David Wechsler (Lazar’s son), and they were also to be nominated for best screenplay. In what seemed like a logical continuance of this experience, David Wechsler was later assigned to write the story for The Village. One imagines he saw the challenge as akin to that of The Search: how to come up with a narrative which arose naturally from its post-war background; would engage an audience’s interest; and, in this case, one that did justice to the Pestalozzi project, but without sentimentalizing or simplifying some of the difficulties and disappointments it had to face and endure.
A trio of talents
Lazar Wechsler succeeded in assembling a formidable team of screenwriters – Kurt Fruh, Elizabeth Montagu and Peter Viertel – for the film. All of them had worked on previous Wechsler productions. An assistant director on Leopold Lindtberg’s Four Men in A Jeep (1951) and on The Village, Kurt Fruh was a theatre and film director, writer and actor of great renown who is widely credited as being Switzerland’s most popular film director. Peter Viertel was a novelist and screenwriter well known to cineastes for his work on such films as Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942), John Huston’s We Were Strangers (1949) and later, John Sturges’ The Old Man and the Sea (1958), and most particularly for his novel, White Hunter, Black Heart (1953), inspired by the making of John Huston’s film of The African Queen (1951). Viertel’s Wechsler connection came with the making of The Search, for he had been involved in the early preparatory research and, according to Fred Zinnemann, was responsible for recommending the then unknown Montgomery Clift for the leading role of the American soldier. As for Elizabeth Montagu, it would be virtually impossible to summarize the life and career of this extraordinary woman in a few sentences.7 Among other things her life encompassed training at RADA; working for the stage and film; being personal assistant to Arturo Toscanini on his conducting assignments in London, an ambulance driver in France during World War Two before fleeing to Switzerland, an operative for the American Secret Service, and a story editor and business administrator for Alexander Korda, during which time she became Graham Greene’s escort in Vienna when he was collecting research for The Third Man (she is credited as being an Austrian adviser on that film). Prior to that, her most fulfilling film experience, according to Timmermann, was working on The Last Chance; and before The Village, she was to co-direct, with Leopold Lindtberg, Four Men in a Jeep, which, like The Third Man, takes place against the background of a post-war Vienna divided into four separate zones and tells the story of four soldiers of different nationalities – American, Russian, British and French – who come together in an attempt to help a woman in the search for her husband missing after the war. It won the Golden Bear at the 1951 Berlin Film Festival. Overall, then, it would be hard to imagine a team of writers better qualified, in terms of empathy and experience, for a project like The Village.
The opening of the film: a sense of belonging
“I only know it is where I belong.” The off-screen narrator of these lines at the start of the film is an English teacher, Alan Manning (John Justin), who is speaking of Pestalozzi village. Ironically it is a conclusion rather than a beginning, for the story is about to be told in flashback; and one could see Manning’s words as a belated self-realization. Although the film begins in an atmosphere of festivity, this will be offset somewhat by the sight of Manning, accompanied by a young girl, Anya (Krystyna Bragiel), placing a simple wreath beside a gravestone. It sets a tone of melancholy that anticipates what is to follow. In this respect, it makes an interesting comparison with The Search. Although Zinnemann’s film is more harrowing in its imagery and arguably a more powerful emotional experience than The Village, it ends happily and on a note of hope for the future, whereas the ending of The Village is more uncertain and equivocal, its idealism clouded and subdued by occurrences both personal and political.
The first crisis is an internal one. Should German children be allowed to join the village community? Manning, who at that stage is shortly due to take up another post, is all for it, at least as an experiment to see what will happen. However, he is vigorously opposed by another member of the team, Wanda (Eva Dahlberg), who is fearful of the effect on the other children, believes it is too soon for them to accept this integration, and is scathing of Manning’s advocacy when, as she says, he will be leaving in a few weeks anyway and will not have to live with the consequences. Rather taken aback by her hostility, Manning asks Wanda afterwards what was behind it. In reply she takes him to observe a silent Polish boy, Andrzej (Voytek Delinski), who is still deeply traumatized by his experience of escaping from the Warsaw ghetto and just stares obsessively out of the window in mortal fear of the Germans’ return. His drawings are a visual representation of what he remembers and a kind of diagrammatic evocation of his internal torment. Manning is duly shocked; and the moment will be a portent of events which will bring back those horrors to the forefront of the boy’s memory.
In the event, the decision will be made by the children, for, when called into a meeting, they are unanimous in not wanting the German children in their midst: German brutality, after all, is responsible for where they are. Yet the situation is not resolved, and will flare up again when Anya, comforted by Manning at the station when separated from her foster parents, has followed him to Pestalozzi. Under the mistaken impression that she is German, the children band together in their determination to drive her out of the village. It is one of the film’s most powerful sequences. As Bosley Crowther described it, “the latent resentment of the children against the German girl bursts into flame and almost leads to disaster”, with a chase that, as he wrote, “bristles with terror and irony”.8 She will be discovered in a barn by Manning, who will severely upbraid the children for their unthinking cruelty. Before that, however, she is protected and sheltered by Andrzej, whom we surmise has empathized with her terror at the pursuing mob and rushed to her rescue. A bond is established between them, which will form the basis of the film’s exciting and tragic finale.
A doomed love
Although Bosley Crowther had admired the first twenty minutes of the film, he felt that after Anya had been absorbed into the community, the drama, as he put it, “flattens out into a listless undulation of romantic conflicts and concerns” and he found the “grown-up romance” between Manning and Wanda “drab”.9 The casting is somewhat unusual. Eva Dahlbeck would have been unknown to many film viewers at the time, but she was to become an arthouse favourite through her performances in several films of Ingmar Bergman, who was to describe her as “incomparable”; and it might be that modern viewers would be tempted to reassess her performance in that light. Fresh from what was to prove his finest hour on film as the test pilot in David Lean’s The Sound Barrier (1952), John Justin as Manning now looks like almost an archetypal 1950s English gentleman, well-spoken, decent, sincere, perhaps a little pompous, but whose judgment is sometimes fallible (which might explain the retrospective melancholy). It seems to me a little simplistic to describe the upcoming “conflicts and concerns” as “romantic”. What will develop between the two is a conflict of priorities and their relationship will be tested (and finally destroyed) by a conflict between the personal and the political, between romance and realism, and perhaps also between selfishness and selflessness.
During a field trip with the children, in which they have come across a wedding taking place inside a castle, their feelings for each other have come to the surface and have been quickened perhaps by twin anxieties: by Manning’s possible departure from the village; and by Wanda’s return to Poland for an indefinite period on an education course. Will they see each other again? In Wanda’s absence, Manning completes the rehearsals for a concert she has been preparing and is initially overjoyed that her return is earlier than expected so he can tell her of his decision to stay. However, the joy will rapidly turn to dismay when he sees that she is accompanied by a government official carrying an order from the Polish government that the Polish children must be returned to their native country. Wanda has been put in charge of a children’s house in Warsaw and must return with them. In an ensuing argument with Manning when Wanda is insisting that she cannot desert the children, he responds: “They’ll forget you in a few weeks: I won’t.” Is that just the petulant outburst of a disappointed lover or does he really believe that? It was not Fred Zinnemann’s experience when he was returning to the camps to continue his research on The Search. “The children were still enormously disturbed and in need of personal affection,” he wrote. “They desperately longed for someone who belonged only to them, who they could call their own.”10 It appears that Manning still has some leaning to do. As if to reinforce the point, in his haste to speak to Wanda after the concert, he brushes heedlessly past Anya who is clearly distressed at the prospect of being separated from Andrzej and is anxious to speak to him. The consequence of his momentary callousness (putting his own feelings before those of the children in his charge) will be severe, for, in his absence, Anya and Andrzej will escape together into the woods and into a nightmare.
Finale: “They didn’t shoot Anya, did they?”
Unlike Bosley Crowther, I find the final part of the film just as involving as the opening. The editing is particularly good, cutting nimbly between foreground and background: the actual concert performance whose surface high spirits are being undercut by urgent phone calls behind the scenes and whispered rumours circulating in the audience; the village carnival, whose raucous gaiety and firework explosions are crosscut with the growing anguish of Andrzej as he hides in the castle cellar with Anya. As the carnival fireworks start exploding like gunshots, a stunning superimposition of Andrzej’s drawings across a large close-up of his terror-stricken face seems to take us inside the boy’s consciousness, with the cacophony of noise summoning up memories too awful to control and contain: it will precipitate his fatal fall. Before his death, he will ask: “They didn’t shoot Anya, did they?”
The film’s coda is noticeably subdued, as if the community is still in shock from Andrzej’s death. It adds an extra weight of sadness to the imminent departure of the Polish children from the security of Pestalozzi to an uncertain future. The camerawork is commendably discreet here, as if disinclined to underline the palpable sense of sorrow in the air with any hint of sentimentality or melodrama. So the farewell kiss of Manning and Wanda (for it is unlikely they will meet again) is seen not in close-up but in long shot from her room window by Anya, and is all the more effective from that perspective because the departure is overlaid by Anya’s lingering grief for Andrzej. The camera is similarly positioned for the film’s last shot, as Manning sees through the window a lone boy standing in the square, as if in search of the sanctuary the village provides. He goes down to greet him; the work goes on.
Thinking back about Richard Winnington’s rave review of the Lazar Wechsler and Leopold Lundtbeg production, The Last Chance, I was struck by his observation that “it is the first time in any film made about this war that compassion is all-important.”11 “Compassion” is a difficult word and sometimes inappropriately used, but it is applicable to The Village, which could be seen as exemplifying what the great Victorian novelist George Eliot saw as the moral purpose of any work of art: that is, to enlarge human sympathies. For all his cavils about what he saw as the film’s inadequacies, Bosley Crowther did acknowledge that the film’s intentions “were fine and generous”. In today’s world, that might go a long way. The Village is a still-relevant film about children in need and about the hope for a kinder world where nations can reach out a helping hand to the helpless and the homeless. It might not represent an advance in cinematics, but it should hopefully stir a few consciences.
The UK equivalent of a Pestalozzi community was launched in 1959 and located on a 170-acre property in East Sussex. For more information, consult the following website: www.earlypestalozzichildren.org.uk .
James Agee, Agee on Film, Peter Owen, 1967.
Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern, Hamish Hamilton, 1988.
Bosley Crowther, ‘Review: The Village’, New York Times, 23 September, 1953.
Paul Rotha, The Film Till Now: A Survey of World Cinema, revised edition, Spring Books, 1967.
Brigitte Timmermann, The Third Man’s Vienna: Celebrating a Film Classic, Shippen Rock Publishing Ltd, 2005.
Richard Winnington, Film Criticism and Caricatures, Elek, 1975.
Fred Zinnemann, An Autobiography, Bloomsbury, 1992.
This is one of five pieces on British film posted on this site as a tribute to Network. Return to the introduction here: Tribute to Network.
Bosley Crowther, New York Times, 23 September 1953. ↩
Paul Rotha, The Film Till Now: A Survey of World Cinema , revised edition, Spring Books 1967, p. 752. ↩
Richard Winnington, Film Criticism and Caricatures, Elek, 1975, p. 167. ↩
The Nation, 4 November 1945. James Agee, Agee on Film, Peter Owen, 1967. ↩
Fred Zinnemann, An Autobiography, Bloomsbury, 1992, p. 73. ↩
Ibid., p.61. ↩
For a valuable brief biography, see Brigitte Timmermann, The Third Man’s Vienna: Celebrating a Film Classic, Shippen Rock Publishing Ltd, 2005, p. 105. ↩
Zinnemann, p. 59. ↩
Winnington, p. 167. ↩