Battle for Britain is a beautiful and penetrating example of how a short film can achieve so much in so little time. The 13-minute short, elegantly crafted by husband-and-wife filmmakers Jorg Tittel and Alex Helfrecht (writer and director respectively), is a poignant paean to a sorely-undervalued and often-unrecognised element of British history: the contribution of Polish nationals to our struggles in World War II.
More than 200, 000 Poles aided the Allies in the European theatres of war, while on the home front, a further 20, 000 worked with the Royal Air Force in the defence of the UK, not least in that most legendary moment of aerial warfare, “The Battle of Britain” in 1940. However, at the end of the conflict, the installation of a Soviet-led Communist government – agreed upon by the Allies – led to many Poles feeling betrayed by their compatriots, not unreasonably given how they subsequently suffered under said regime. To add insult to injury, come the victory parades in London in 1946, the Poles who aided us in our Finest Hour were not allowed to march alongside the British troops.
Battle for Britain offers a engaging microcosm of that sad dismissal and historical disservice in the very-convivial climes of modern-day Oxford, where elderly widow Mr.Rogulski (played by Julian Glover with winning charm) lives a quite and invisible life, the silence punctuated by a ticking clock. Every day he observes the ritual of feeding the pigeons amidst the gorgeous architecture of Oxford’s Oriel Square.
On this day, it serves as a minor celebration of his 101st birthday and is the scene of a chance meeting with teenager Steven (Max Fowler), with whom he takes a scooter ride and which resurrects decades old memories of high-drama, adventure and danger in the war. Invited back to Rogulski’s home, Steven opportunistically takes advantage of the old man as he dozes off, although he quickly realises that (very) old age has not completely relieved Mr.Rogulski of his spark or wiliness.
Directed with a keen eye for nuance and detail by Helfrecht gives the narrative an elegant flow, from the whimsy of the early scooter sequence, graced with the beguiling visual contrast of gleaming white spires against an impossibly-blue summer sky, to the seriousness of later scenes, where Rogluski firmly imparts the sheer harshness of his wartime experiences to Steven, who cannot possibly understand. With the latter, she is aided by Tittel’s engaging script: when Steven enthusiastically asks Rogulski who was the worse enemy, the Nazis or the Soviets, the old man wryly responds, “Different enemy – same shit…”.
It goes without saying that the presence of the hugely-accomplished Glover lends proceedings an air of gravitas and, sure enough, he imbues the role of the frail Rogulski with a mix of charm and strength, aided as ever by his vividly expressive eyes. Yet, Fowler holds his own and has a winning chemistry with Glover, their character’s relationship showcasing a nice expression of the contrasts and the surprising connections between the youthful and elderly.
While Battle for Britain certainly achieves its noble goal of providing a quiet and potent reminder of Poland’s vital contribution to Britain’s wartime experience and our ongoing socio-political connection, it achieves something else just as important: how the memories and experiences of older generations provide us with the best perspective of history and how easily that can be lost thanks to our society’s often-wilful ignorance of them.