I do not remember if I have mentioned it before, but I am something of a sucker for documentaries. It is part of what I like about old movies or actually films in general. Even the most fictional piece is still a document of its time and place. Even heavily edited pictures still tell a story of the people who made them, their agenda and their perspective. No matter your political inclination Eisenstein did show a reality, even if it only existed in ideologists of the Soviet Union and a period piece often tells more about the time in which it is made than the time it portraits.
However the historical element becomes far more condensed when we talk actual documentaries. I have mentioned before how early documentaries hardly deserve that label by today’s standard, but there are many sorts of documentaries. They are always made with an agenda and there is no such thing as pure objectivity except for math. Reconstructed documentaries are also a necessary shortcut used today, so I do not reject that either. “I Was a Fireman” is both, but it still feels very real and that realism as far above anything I have seen from the period. In fact in many ways it mimics or more correctly anticipates the style of documentaries of a much later age.
Let me say right away that I sucked in every bit of it.
“I Was a Fireman” was released in 1943 at the height of WWII and at a time when England in general and London in particular had been bombed indiscriminately for two years. It tells the story of the real heroes of the time. Not perpetrators of war, but those who have to clean up the mess. Those people who at the risk of their own life have to save others when the bombs are falling and fires spread: The Firemen.
The way it does that is by telling the story of regular blokes who does what has to be done. These are not your iron men, those are probably out at the front somewhere, but people who raise themselves above themselves to perform and notably not by taking insane risks in some one-man army heroic stunt, but simply by doing their job. We see them wash their fire engines, eat their meals, regular camaraderie and the usual complaints. It is all very relaxed and you can even forget there is a war on. Until hell breaks loose in another night of German raiding and the entire team shifts into gear and becomes very professional.
Does this sound familiar? I think that is the recipe for a modern documentary indeed, but hardly what I would expect from 1943.
What strikes me is the machinery efficiency of the entire thing. It is all so well organized. The chaos of the infernal blazes is met by an organized effort that knows exactly what it is doing and orchestrates the firefighting units as chess pieces, except that no pawn is to be sacrificed, but it is the organization itself which is going to see to it that all hazards are met as well prepared and backed up as possible.
And everybody is so cool. Phone operators taking messages precisely, but politely. The officers are sending units this and that way. The firefighters themselves are setting up equipment and station at the hit structures and although improvising do that with a coolness that shows that they know what they are doing and are up to the task. You may call it propaganda (and it probably was) or the fabled British stoicism, but the understatement and coolness with which this is all played out is very impressive. At some point it takes ridiculous proportions as when a bomb explodes close to one of the watch rooms and the phone operator simply sits up with a wound on her head and continues the messaging with no comment or even a hint to her predicament. Or the fireman who secures a wounded colleague to a lift at the cost of his own life. I choose to disregard these instances as artificial, though effective, but it does not detract from the general impression of realism supported by the fact that the cast were not actors but real life professionals.
All this professionalism takes its toll when the job is done. You hear no hurrahs or smiles at jobs well done. Just exhaustion. Deflated ruin from smoldering buildings to lost lives or limbs. These people are not victorious heroes. They are just men and women doing their jobs night after night and there is no glory in that, just hard, dangerous work.
This is the impressions I get from this film and I am pretty sure this was also Humphrey Jennings objective. The DVD I got includes a number of his war time documentaries like “Listen to Britain” and “Diary for Timothy” and they all convey the same message. They are portrays of a nation and a people at war. Not their soldiers, but the people at home, those who do not win medals at the front but still live with the reality of war. Not as a chance at glory, but as a hardship that takes its toll but also brings out unknown strengths in regular people who set up a normality in the midst of this very not normal reality.
As such I believe a war time audience would be able to recognize themselves in these films in a way they would not in blatantly nationalistic and feisty propaganda. These people are heroes not out of want but out of need and I think that is how most people like to think of themselves. I am sure a lot of contemporaries would be able to relate to the firefighters and the entire organization and be impressed with them and thankful for their effort, especially because their heroism is as downplayed as it is. I know I would go over to the local fire station and say thank you for what they are doing and buy them a beer.
Beside the story itself this film also shows amazing footage of war time England. From vehicles to fashion, jargon and food, this is a window into a world long gone, but even so not so far away. I drink in all of this and enjoy every moment.
I would not hesitate to call this one of the best war time documentaries I have seen. A must see for anyone interested in the subject.