Just over halfway through Herbert Kline’s documentary Lights Out in Europe (1940) there is an image that might shock modern audiences, let alone the film’s contemporary viewers of the 1940s. The shot, taken within a few days (or even hours) after the breakout of the Second World War, is a close-up of a young Polish woman who, dying, lays in an empty refugee train carriage after the train was fired upon by German aircraft. It’s a brief moment in the documentary and yet it lingers in the viewer’s mind.
But this particular shot gives you a good insight into what Herbert Kline (1909 – 1999) was planning when putting Lights Out in Europe together. Kline, who described himself as ‘a foreign correspondent of the screen’, had just completed his latest title which made up a series of documentaries which Kline later named his ‘front films’. Crisis: A Film of the Nazi Way (1939), a film that covered the oppressive Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia (co-directed with Czech cameraman and editor Alexandr Hackenschmied (1907 – 2004)); Heart of Spain (1937) and Return to Life (1938), both of which covered the Spanish Civil War, were not the standard newsreel titles cinema audiences were used to. They couldn’t even be classed as documentaries. Even the National Board of Review Magazine declined to name Kline’s ‘front films’ as documentaries, classing them as ‘letter[s] home from someone in a far country with a gift for picturing what he [Kline] has been seeing’. They were very much observational films, before the terminology for the sub-genre of observational filmmaking had popularly come about.
The essence of observation is one of the key qualities of Kline’s work and an important aspect to bare in mind when it comes to watching Lights Out in Europe. But Kline’s objective for Lights Out was not to observe or make a propaganda film from what he saw in Britain or Poland; it most certainly isn’t a film that flies the flag for either side in the conflict, nor is it a general newsreel film to be shown to the masses between features; rather, Kline’s intention was to showcase ‘the people’ involved in such a war and the horrors they would soon face. To quote Henry Wilcoxon’s Vicar in William’s Wyler’s later feature film Mrs. Miniver (1942) “This is the people’s war!” and, due to Kline’s experiences in Spain beforehand, he knew that the people were the first to suffer and that Europe could well be left in ruins.
If anything, Lights Out in Europe is an anti-war documentary, a documentary showcasing the preparation for war in Britain and Poland against the Nazis. And yet, the film is almost stating that all sides are wrong to go to war, whilst still knowing that such a war was unavoidable by the Summer of 1939. So while the message of the film is futile (for its British audience anyway), even as the film was being edited, Kline knew he had something special in front of him: a visual record of the people and countries that would change forever. It was an incredible visual record, perfectly shot by Alexandr Hackenschmied and, of course, the future celebrated cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (1913 – 2016).
As the National Board of Review Magazine concludes, ‘Lights Out in Europe is one of those films that like diaries and personal memories furnish the background for the vents that get into history books, the daily living marking the pathway to a crisis which is usually un-recorded and therefore unavailable for the historian when he is looking for illumination on his head-line events. For what it is, for the way it is done, for future reference, it is a fine and valuable film.’
Written by Co-curator and Co-director of South West Silents, James Harrison, for Cinema Rediscovered.