Flicks and This Fleeting Life

Source: Tony Harrison, ‘Flicks and This Fleeting Life’, in Edith Hall (ed.), Tony Harrison: The Inky Digit of Defiance – Selected Prose 1966-2016 (London: Faber & Faber, 2017), pp. 430-431, orig. pub. as introduction to Tony Harrison, Collected Film Poetry (London: Faber & Faber, 2007)

Text: A tram ride into town took me to the big cinemas: the Odeon and the Majestic, where the blockbuster Hollywood films were shown. There was also a small cinema, the News Theatre, now the Bondi Beach Bar, next to the city station and the Queen’s Hotel in City Square. It was there, just after the Second World War ended, that I saw the newsreel footage of the Nazi concentration camps. I don’t remember who took me – I think maybe my grandfather, the retired Hunslet signalman who lived with us – but there was something overwhelming in seeing such terrible images on a large screen, much bigger than life-size. I think my reaction was almost on the sale of those early viewers of the Lumière brothers’ film of the train arriving in a station in 1895. It wasn’t that I tried to escape from the heaped corpses moving towards me, but I felt that jumbling cascade of bulldozed, emaciated Belsen bodies were being dumped onto the art deco carpet of the cinema and into my consciousness for ever. It almost blighted my life, it had such a powerful effect on me, and made me draw a line between what I knew in my heart was ‘pretend’, the films that entertained me and made me laugh, and what was news: real dead bodies bulldozed into pits at Bergen-Belsen. I have never forgotten that introduction to the filming of real life, or in this case, real and terrifying death. Nor how jarring the voice-over narrations were! What narrator could find the right tone for such terror? This newsreel changed my attitude to life and film for ever.

Comments: Tony Harrison (1937 – ) is a British poet and playwright, known for his film and television verse collaborations. His childhood was spent in Leeds. Newsreels of the liberation of Belsen were shown in British cinemas from 30 April 1945. There was much controversy at the time as to whether children should be prevented from seeing the Belsen newsreels.

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3 Responses to Flicks and This Fleeting Life

  1. David Rayner says:

    That would have been a terrible, terrible thing for an eight years old boy to have seen in 1945, made all the more shocking by its unexpectedness. As far as I can remember, the weekly newsreels were exempt from certification by the British Board of Film Censors and so could be seen by anyone of any age. I’m sure I read somewhere that Winston Churchill ordered these terrifying scenes to be shown in every cinema in the land, to show everyone just what the Nazis had done in Europe during the war.

  2. Luke McKernan says:

    Newsreels were exempt from the attention of the BBFC, though they did come under official censorship for the war period. So there was no age rating. For an alternative response to seeing the Belsen films there’s this post from a 19-year-old George Melly (19, so ten years older than Harrison): http://picturegoing.com/?p=3984

  3. David Rayner says:

    Thanks, Luke. Obviously, a difference of reactions there.

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