Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Directed by Harry Watt and Basil Wright, England, 1936, 25 mins.
Night Mail is an unusual piece of filmmaking. Made in 1936, it’s a documentary following the life and times of a mail train that runs between England and Scotland. In many ways, it seems entirely unremarkable: the film is interspersed with scenes of the train on its route while the employees of both railway stations perform their daily tasks. In fact, I was bored out of my mind until the last 5 minutes of the film, when its relevance finally becomes clear. As it turns out, poet W.H. Auden wrote a poem specifically for the documentary, and renowned composer Benjamin Britten composed the score. Neither of these elements comes into play until the end of the film, but talk about a crescendo. As the train picks up speed, so does the narrator’s recitation of Auden’s poem, as does Britten’s music. In fact, I found Auden’s poem, or at least the way it was delivered, to be a bit creepy; in a weird, sing-song voice, we hear lines like “In the farm she passes/ no one wakes/ but a jug in the bedroom/ gently shakes."
The film is a rare glimpse into the daily lives of the 1930s working class. Today, nearly all of the screen representations of people from this era are from the glitzy films of Hollywood’s golden age, few of which portrayed everyday people. In one particularly poignant scene, we see the workers at a London station chatting with the barmaids at a local pub after a long day of work.
After watching Night Mail, I wondered whether or not a similar documentary could be made today. Though there is certainly a market for “slice of life” shorts and features, a freight train is a difficult subject to examine; I doubt many filmmakers would be willing to study the daily trials and tribulations of a Red Line train. Then again, modern technology is absent of the human element that makes a film like Night Mail so compelling. But stylistically, it represents one of the earliest efforts to blend artistic content with the documentary format, which we almost expect in modern docs, from exercise in anthropomorphis March of the Penguins to the animated sequences of Bowling for Columbine.