Although the initial response to the outbreak of war in Britain in 1939 was to close all cinemas, they soon reopened and film attendance grew steadily throughout the war years. In spite of shortages, the reduction of studio space available for feature film production, and increased taxation and the consequent increases in ticket prices, World War II was a prosperous time for British cinema.
General trends in film attendance were recorded in a survey undertaken for the Ministry of Information called The Cinema Audience, which showed that film outstripped newspapers and books in its ability to reach large segments of the population. Thus, the ministry's Films Division organized a program of both theatrical and nontheatrical exhibition, utilizing commercial cinema circuits as well as such other venues as churches, canteens, and even railway stations.
Given that the ministry's purpose was propaganda and information, most of the films commissioned by the Films Division were documentaries, and its "five minute films'' were designed to fit easily into a program of featurefilm viewing. Their content varied from news to practical information, as in When the Pie Was Opened (1941), which used a variety of animation techniques to illustrate a recipe for making vegetable pie. But the Films Division also produced longer documentaries, such as what many consider the definitive document of the blitz, the Crown Film Unit's Fires Were Started (1943), directed by Humphrey Jennings. In some cases, it even funded commercial projects, such as Michael Powell's 49th Parallel (1941), a film that explained "why we fight.'' Scripted by Emeric Pressburger, it also explained—by bringing the war to America's doorstep—why Americans, too, should fight: a small band of Nazis stranded in Canada have a series of ideologically charged encounters with a French-Canadian trapper, an ethnically-German religious community, and an English intellectual who studies Native American cultures. In each encounter the opposition between democracy and Nazi ideology is made clear. Featuring two bankable British stars, Leslie Howard and Laurence Olivier, as well as a strong dose of adventure, it made top box office in Britain and abroad.
Following the bombing of British cities in 1940 and 1941, filmmakers called for fewer war films because they believed that an exhausted public needed escape from battle. In 1942 the Films Division issued a statement regarding its willingness to balance production between war films and other types of propaganda, provided that the films produced were of a high quality and positively represented the British identity and the democratic way of life. Depictions of a popular war ensued, a war fought on a variety of fronts by a variety of ordinary British people. For example, The Foreman Went to France (1942) and Millions Like Us (1943) depicted the wartime experiences and contributions of factory workers.
The successes of wartime British cinema would carry over into the early 1950s. After Powell and Pressburger's success with 49th Parallel, they continued to work together; one of their most popular wartime films was the portrait of military heroism, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (The Adventures of Colonel Blimp, 1943). Still making films together in the 1950s, they constituted one of the most important creative collaborations in British cinema.
France was invaded by Germany in June 1940. The Nazis occupied Paris while a right-wing French government was established in Vichy. At the beginning of the Occupation, all films screened for French audiences were German productions. Some proved popular, including the anti-Semitic Jud Süß, but French audiences preferred French films, so domestic production was resumed in 1941. The Germans invested heavily in France's film industry, considering it both good diplomacy—to demonstrate the benefits of cooperation—and an investment in the future of a German-controlled European film industry. In the absence of films from its main competitor, Hollywood, French film enjoyed greater profits in the Occupation era than it had garnered before the invasion. Meanwhile, in the unoccupied zone, the Vichy government formed the Comité d'Organisation
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