The most impressive thing about Pastor Hall, an obscure British film directed by Roy Boulting and first released in 1940, is its explicitness in depicting Nazi brutality and its specificity in presenting Jews as the prime target.
In the years prior to the war, movies tended to treat the subject of Hitler’s Third Reich rather gingerly. Rarely were the Nazis named and usually the focus was on spy activity – so much so that the script for Pastor Hall, based on a play by Ernst Toller, was originally rejected by the British Board of Film Censors. It was not seen fit for production until late 1939, when the Brits were irretrievably in the soup.
So Pastor Hall is a seminal work in that problematic genre, the wartime propaganda film (subgenre: WWII), carefully calibrated to stoke home front outrage while at the same time bringing to light important realities.
The story is basically true. Pastor Hall (Wilfred Lawson) is a Protestant minister in the small German village of Altdorf, a pious but generous type whose growing resistance to the Nazis’ ascendancy and their cruelty to the local Jewish population leads to his inevitable martyrdom (his real life counterpoint, Martin Niemoller, narrowly escaped a similar fate and lived until 1984). Hall’s chief nemesis is storm trooper Gerte (Marius Goring) who has designs on the pastor’s daughter Christine (Nova Pilbeam). In another bit of early frankness, the Nazi makes it clear that if she has sex with him, he’ll go easy on Dad.
Anyone familiar with British films from the ‘30s and ‘40s will recognize that these are very, very English Germans. Lawson’s most famous role was as Eliza Doolittle’s father in the film version of Shaw’s Pygmalion (1938); Pilbeam had been a Hitchcock ingenue and Goring is best remembered as the composer in Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes (1948). But it’s just this sense we get of the village of Altdorf being a cozy suburb of London that emphasizes the crudity of the anti-Semitic cant and the disruptive horror of the sadistic violence.
This isn’t a lost masterpiece – Boulting is too pedestrian a director and the script is too creakily melodramatic – but it is a cogent reminder of how much was known about the Nazi persecution of the Jews at this early point in the war and, subsequently, how little was done about it.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].