Smiley 1937 films to make us cry

By Marcus Dysch, August 8, 2008

The Thirties in Colour
BBC4, Wednesday, August 6

Harley Street
ITV1, Thursday, July 31

Two home movies, shot in then-revolutionary colour, both featuring families enjoying summer holidays.

But the contrast between the first, showing a Jewish family from the US visiting relatives in pre-war Europe, and the second, in which Eva Braun records a smiling Adolf Hitler, was mesmerising.

Jacob Hertz, his wife and two daughters travelled to Poland from their home in Brooklyn in June 1937 on the trip of a lifetime.

Their joy while playing deck tennis during the lengthy boat journey soon turned to horror as they entered Germany to be met by the growing threat of Nazism. Soldiers marched past Jacob's lens as flags emblazoned with swastikas hung from every lamppost.

Despite his wife's concern, Jacob pushed on east, eventually arriving at his father's house, 20 miles from Auschwitz. The Americans celebrated the reunion by filming their relatives milking cows, chasing chickens and smiling aimlessly, at peace with their lives.

As Jacob set off on the return trip to America, he filmed his father waving what turned out to be a poignant goodbye, the modern-day viewer knowing what the Hertz family could never have predicted. Within months Jacob's father would be shot outside his home, unable to climb into the lorry that would take the rest of his family to the concentration camp.

Eva Braun's film, meanwhile, showed anonymous young Germans fooling around in the sea and playing in gardens. But soon they were standing to attention as Adolf Hitler arrived at his Berghof retreat in the Austrian mountains. Historian David Cesarani reflected on the "banality of evil" as the dictator strolled through his gardens in silent conversation with Nazi officers. While guests chattered around him, Hitler plotted and schemed.

The daughter of Benjamin Gasul, a prominent physician who filmed "ordinary, everyday scenes" in Warsaw's Jewish quarter, similarly commented on the sense of impending doom that his pictures now prompt.

The young men pictured by his camera appeared exhilarated by the previously unseen technology, but were totally oblivious to the fact they were "on the precipice of extinction".

Such footage has admittedly been shown before. But the haunting film of the Hertz family, blindly unaware of the dark cloud creeping across the continent, was remarkable precisely because it was in colour - bringing it out of the realm of history (and the grainy black-and-white newsreel footage we are usually exposed to) and into the here and now. Suddenly the horrors, focused on one family, all seemed so much more real.

Far less impressive was last week's episode of Harley Street, ITV's clinic-based drama about the lives and loves of a group of GPs.

Mixed in with the tales of a Premier League footballer on steroids and a new mother reacting to her daughter's cancer was the story of middle-aged Tom, who was converting to Judaism in order to marry his Jewish partner.

But with a plot and script that could have been produced by an A-Level drama class, the programme appeared to be little more than a poor imitation of Holby City or ER.

The comical depiction of Tom's conversion got under way with him explaining that his decision to follow a different path was not just down to his engagement; he became enamoured with Judaism when he "heard that the Jewish people bury their books".

After describing that ritual as "beautiful", Tom - who was wearing an over-sized pair of tzitzit over his clothes -went on to make an inaudible blessing over a non-kosher glass of wine. Not the best of starts.

His eventual appearance in the clinic itself came as he prepared to undergo one of the final procedures of his conversion - circumcision.

Unfortunately, as the doctor prepared Tom for his anaesthetic, his fiancée appeared and declared that although attempting to become Jewish had made him "a lot nicer and more thoughtful", she could no longer go through with the wedding.

Undeterred, Tom cheerily went through with his brit, because "it just feels right". Presumably it did not feel quite so comfortable a short while later.

On this evidence, it is the programme which should have been for the chop.

Last updated: 10:49pm, August 7 2008