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"It Happened Here" is an independent British film that was made on a shoestring by an 18-year-old and 16-year-old, has a cast featuring many amateurs, was originally released in 1964, and except for a brief period five years ago, has only very rarely been screened since then. Yet it is unquestionably one of the finest films ever made. Thankfully, it's available on video.

Powerful. Chilling. Complex. Profoundly thought-provoking. Technically brilliant. Startlingly realistic. Superbly acted, directed and filmed. Believe me, "It Happened Here" is all that. In five decades as a voracious movie-goer, I've seen few films that were as effective, as moving or as cinematic or creative. I know that sounds like exaggeration, but it's not.

It undoubtedly seems as unlikely that such a film was written, directed and produced by a pair of teenagers -- Andrew Mollo and Kevin Brownlow, who since then has become probably the world's greatest film historian, a great documentary maker and restorer of the greatest of all silent films, Abel Gance's "Napoleon."

"It Happened Here" shows what might have happened had Germany won World War II and occupied Great Britain. In doing so, it explores the nature of fascism by way of a compelling, suspenseful story. It makes all too clear the attraction of fascism and that of any other authoritarian movement for even the citizens of a democratic nation such as Britain then, as now, there or anywhere else in the world.

Their desire for law and order even at the expense of their freedom, their willingness to follow political leaders who divide society into "them" and "us" for the leaders' advantage, their willingness to find scapegoats to blame for societal problems leads many of the film's Britons to join well-organized legions of collaborators who help the German invaders control their country. We see this, and the actions of partisans who oppose the invaders and collaborators, primarily through the main character, a British nurse. Her compassion for all people but lack of political ideology leads her to fully examine, without prejudice, the pros and cons of the situation. We thus are shown, most tellingly, how the victims of terrible, seemingly inhuman treatment are often only too willing to do the same to their oppressors when given the chance. The desire for vengeance and retribution as well as that to conquer and control others is sadly as common now as it was then, as witness the many conflicts being waged in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere in the world.

That's a heavy message, but "It Happened Here" does not convey it by preaching or heavy-handed hype. We see it, in action, and hear it, in exceptionally enlightening dialogue, all presented in a decidedly low-key manner.

It's a black and white film, of course -- the perfect medium for its stark message. And like another great film made before the advent of color, "Citizen Kane," it effectively uses the devices of documentary filmmaking and newsreels to bring an eerie realism to the story. If you suspend your knowledge of history, you could believe it is a true-to-life documentary of what actually happened, so realistic are the made-up newsreels and, in fact, the entire film. It makes clear, in any case, that what it depicts certainly could have happened -- and why, and how, such things have happened elsewhere and are likely to happen again.

Copyright (c) Dick Meister