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Lights Out in Europe. 1940. USA. Directed by Herbert Kline. Commentary by James Hilton. Narrated by Fredric March. 63 min.
Released in April 1940, Lights Out in Europe offers, in the words of B. R. Crisler in the New York Times, “the first panoramic picture of the world crisis in all its infinite political, economic, racial, propagandistic and brutally military ramifications which has yet reached the screen.” The work of Herbert Kline, a member of New York’s left-leaning Film and Photo League, and the Czech photographer and editor Alexandr Hackenschmied (later known as Hammid), this pulse-pounding documentary offers an image of Europe on the very brink of war, from German troops rolling into the Free City of Danzig (captured on the spot by Kline and his young cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe, here on his first professional assignment) to Londoners lining the banks of the Thames with sandbags as they look anxiously into the sky, awaiting the first wave of German bombers.
With a narration written by the British novelist James Hilton (Lost Horizon) and read by the actor Fredric March, Lights Out in Europe was addressed to an American public still uncertain of what role, if any, the United States should play in the European conflict. With its indelible images of refugees fleeing before the Nazi troops, including the heartbreaking aftermath of an aerial attack on a train carrying women and children to the Polish border, the documentary makes its case without propagandistic embellishment. For the director John Ford, quoted in newspaper advertisements, Lights Out in Europe was “the most intelligent use to which the camera has yet been put,” while the Communist review New Masses, committed to the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, sternly warned its readers, “Everybody had better stay away from this picture.”
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