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December 09, 2011

Brendan Simms asks, is it always right to resist? Is it always wrong to collaborate? Resistance - Amit Gupta

Posted by Brendan Simms

Directed by Amit Gupta
certificate PG, 2011

Britain has long been preoccupied with the question of what would have happened if Hitler had succeeded in invading the island in the Second World War. The counterfactuals divide into two categories. On the one hand, there are the "alternative histories" of the invasion such as Kenneth Mackesy's excellent Invasion (1980), which posits that Hitler would have won if he had launched an early invasion in May or June of 1940. There are the thrillers such as Len Deighton's famous SS-GB, and children's novels such as Michael Cronin's Against The Day (1998).

A curiosity is John Bowen's No Retreat (1994) which deals with "Free British" infiltrators returning to the island in 1990, nearly fifty years after it had fallen to the Nazis, finding its inhabitants not all desirous of being "liberated".

Then there are the faux documentaries such as the film It Happened Here (1964) and Adrian Gilbert's illustrated volume Britain Invaded: Hitler's Plans for Britain - A Documentary Reconstruction (1990), which takes the reader from the successful landing on the south coast, through a bruising occupation, to ultimate liberation thanks to the American atomic bomb. Gilbert's account drew extensively on real German preparations for the invasion, including the lists of Britons to be interned and possibly liquidated. Noel Coward (who was on the list) quipped

My dear, the people we would have been dead with.
Resistance which premiered at the Cambridge Film Festival in September and is now on general release - is an unusual contribution to the genre, in that it is based on the premise that an allied failure on D-Day had been followed by a successful German invasion of Britain in 1944. From the purely trainspotterish point of view, this is an unlikely scenario, since by then Hitler was deeply mired in the post-Stalingrad Russian campaign and so assailed by the Anglo-American bomber campaign that an cross-channel descent would have been impossible. That, however, is beside the point, because Resistance is interested in something quite different: the relationship between occupier and occupied at the human level and the difficult choices that resistance and collaboration impose on ordinary people.

The film begins with a line of men trudging into the Black Mountains in bleak North Wales, trying to escape the clutches of the advancing Germans. They leave their womenfolk in the isolated Olchon Valley to face the small German advance detachment under Eastern Front veteran Captain Albrecht Wolfram (an excellent Tom Wlaschiha) alone. They are unaware of his real mission, which is to find the medieval Mappa Mundi, which the British have hidden nearby and the Reichsfuehrer SS Heinrich Himmler covets in order to prove some abstruse racial-historical point or other.

At first, relations between the two are very strained, but the arrival of snow marks not only the shift of the seasons but also forces occupier and occupied to work together. What results is more of a cooperation than a collaboration, as the Germans help with the farmyard tasks, and the women in turn provide them with civilian clothes. This is because Captain Wolfram - who locates and conceals the map early on in the film - is in no hurry to complete his task, partly because he wishes to sit out the rest of the war and partly to frustrate Himmler.

As one might expect, a romantic interest of sorts develops between Wolfram and local girl Sarah Lewis (Andrea Riseborough), and it comes as no surprise that local "stay behind" units become active against the Germans, but the film is never predictable. Despite its title, the only active resistance is the futile shooting of a horse belonging to a woman mistakenly identified as a collaborator. There is no showdown, either triumphant or tragic, between the partisans and the occupiers. We never see most of the men again after the first frames, and it is possible they got away, but a casual conversation also suggests that at least some of them may have been shot by the Germans. There is no certainty either way, reflecting the agony of occupation the world over.

Resistance was shot on a budget of about 1.2 million, which is very little for a period film, particularly one with some special effects (mainly Wolfram's flashback battle scenes). It is a remarkable debut for Director Gupta. The author of the original novel of the same name (2007), Owen Sheers, who also co-wrote the screenplay, describes the film as a "bold adaptation" of the original. Unlike the book, which operates in the third person, and provides insights into the minds of all the major characters, the screen version is centred around Sarah Lewis. We are captivated by her dilemma: an intense loyalty to her beloved husband in the hills, the need to get by in the valley and a troubling attraction to Wolfram. As her idyll collapses around her with the imminent arrival of the Gestapo, and the "real" occupation, Sarah declines to join the captain on his escape to Ireland, but takes to the hills instead, after burning the map. We observe this with ambivalence, because her gesture of resistance is also an act of vandalism against the past.

The most striking scene in the film, however, is the exchange between the partisan leader Tommy Atkins (Michael Sheen) and his young , taciturn and possibly slow-witted recruit George Iwan Rheon). It is not actually in the novel. It has been added to sharpen the central theme of the film, which is choice and the costs it imposes. We know, of course, that Sheen is right: the resistance he advocates is the only possible one both politically and morally. We are disturbed, however, by the consequences of George's actions: dead horse and distraught owner.

Likewise, Wolfram does the right thing in hiding the map from Himmler, and keeping the war out of the Valley, but his determination to do so means that he is compelled to shoot the injured British partisan Michael Sheen in cold blood rather than risk blowing the gaff by handing him over to a POW camp.

Sarah too, effectively commits suicide at the end - she enters her death into the family bible - and we are left wondering whom her "right" choice has actually benefitted, not her probably dead husband and certainly not herself. In its quiet, poetic way, therefore, Resistance reminds us that under a brutal occupation there is always a choice, but that none of the options are good and that even the best can be lethal.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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In the novel, Stalin abandoned Moscow and both it and Stalingrad fell to the Germans. The Americans seem to be much more half-hearted and in November 1944 (after the novel's counter-invasion of Britain post D-Day) the Republicans win the Presidential election on an isolationist programme. Most importantly Operation Double Cross (the diversion of German attention to a possible invasion via Calais) was revealed to the Nazis by a sleeper agent.

All this is somewhat beside the point of the novel, which is far more about the emotional and everyday aspects of occupation rather than militaria.

Posted by: Seamus Sweeney at August 10, 2012 02:54 PM
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