The War Game

Police blindfold looters before shooting them in The War Game


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



21 November



Einstein publishes his mass/energy equation, 1905

On this day in 1905, his annus mirabilis, Albert Einstein published a paper in the Annalen Der Physik (Annals of Physics). Together with his earlier three papers that year, on Photoelectric Effect, Brownian motion and Special Relativity, his 1905 papers laid the foundation of modern physics. The November paper’s title was Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content? In it Einstein suggested that mass and energy were the same thing, expressing the relationship between the two thus: “If a body gives off the energy in the form of radiation, its mass diminishes by L/V2” – where L stands for energy and V stands for the speed of light. This equation went through various permutations at the hands of various scientists, always with the intention of making it more elegant rather than changing its fundamental meaning, until Einstein himself returned to it after the Second World War and expressed it as E=mc2. Whichever way you want to write it, the equation suggests that for any given mass, there is a gigantic amount of energy contained within. It suggests that mass is, in essence, “solid” energy. Einstein was not the first scientist to suggest that mass and energy might have some sort of relationship, but he was the first to suggest that the relationship was constant, and that the missing part of the equation – the bit that would give a precise answer no matter what amount of mass or what material (a pint of milk, a sack of coal, or a Toyota Corolla) – was the speed of light multiplied by itself. His paper was positing that this relationship was universal and fundamental. Einstein theorised this relationship before the discovery of basic atomic particles, such as the neutron, and his theory wasn’t capable of being verified until 1932, at which point Einstein was vindicated. One gram of mass (milk, coal or Corollas) is equivalent to 89.0 terajoules of energy, roughly 568,000 US gallons of gasoline. Of course unlocking that energy is a different problem altogether, one nuclear scientists set to work on almost immediately.




The War Game (1965, dir: Peter Watkins)

A mock-documentary made for the BBC in 1965, The War Game takes the most likely trigger point of the day – increasing Chinese involvement in the Vietnam War – then quickly escalates it to the point of war between the US and USSR. A limited nuclear exchange takes place, in Europe. The cameras of Peter Watkins then take up the story in the United Kingdom, where a “small” bomb has missed its target, but has still wreaked awful havoc on the South East flank of London, in Rochester, Kent. In grainy newsreel which was entirely the way TV reports looked back then, we watch firefighters fail to cope with the firestorm, doctors failing to cope with the number of casualties, people who are too seriously injured being left to die without palliative care of any sort. There just aren’t enough drugs or medical people to go round. Corpses are piled high and burned. The army is shooting looters. It is a picture of a society, and a civilisation, as it collapses. Deemed too powerful for public taste, and too critical of government unpreparedness (while pointing out that preparation was not even possible) The War Game was withdrawn from the TV schedules but went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary that year. Shot handheld in black and white, only 50 minutes long – it had been made for the Wednesday Play slot (home of other “awkward” talents such as Ken Loach and Dennis Potter) – and was made without any “names” and barely any professional actors (though it used the voice of newsreader Michael Aspel to good effect). It resurfaced in the UK in the mid-1980s, when worries over nuclear war were again rife. It’s a powerful work even today.



Why Watch?


  • A regular on “best British TV programme” ever made lists
  • The Academy Award for Documentary
  • A key work of the mock documentary genre
  • Based on actual happenings in Hiroshima and the firestorm cities of Hamburg and Dresden


© Steve Morrissey 2013



The War Game – at Amazon





Man Bites Dog

Benoît Poelvoorde in Man Bites Dog


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



4 October



Belgium is created, 1830

On this day in 1830, the state and kingdom of Belgium was created, after a revolution against the rule of King William I which saw the southern, mostly Catholic, significantly French-speaking states break away from the largely protestant, significantly Flemish-speaking United Kingdom of the Netherlands. Though ostensibly linguistic and religious in origin, the revolution was in fact fuelled by economics – the “Belgian” territories were more populous though far poorer, more rural, less well represented in government, than the northern “Dutch” territories. On being granted independence by the Treaty of London in 1830, the Belgian National Congress voted for Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld to be their king (he had previously turned down the crown of Greece). Interestingly, he was known as Leopold I, “King of the Belgians” rather than King of Belgium, to suggest that he was king by appointment rather than by some mystical relationship to the soil. Belgium was unusual in an age of nationalism for being a country of mixed ethnicities – French, Dutch and German. After becoming independent the country rapidly industrialised and set about gaining colonies and an empire. One thing that didn’t change was its reputation as the “battlefield of Europe” which had been gained from the 16th century onwards. In fact both the First and Second World Wars saw bloody battles fought in Belgium.



Man Bites Dog (1992, dir: Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde)

The journalistic phrase “man bites dog” refers to a news story that is noteworthy because it reverses the normal run of events. It’s what this Belgian film is about. Though it’s also about the violence itself too, as evidence there’s the onslaught of appalling brutishness and terrible degradation that co-directors/stars Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde visit upon us, the audience, in the name of entertainment (theirs rather than ours). We’re following a documentary team keen to discover what makes a serial killer (played by Benoît Poelvoorde) tick. Ben is a fun guy, charming, family-loving, clever. But as the “documentary” progresses we start to see another side of him as he subjects the camera crew, and us, to a series of increasingly savage scenarios involving violence, torture, rape and murder, with the crew becoming increasingly involved in the grisliness. Shot in handheld black and white and made on a tiny budget, Man Bites Dog is a key exhibit in the development of the mock-doc, a genuinely different type of film when it debuted, which paved the way for all the found footage and mock-docs to come, from the Blair Witch onwards. For reasons that must be guessed at it is generally hated by film critics, who seem to be upset that it appears to be sitting on its hands when it comes to taking a moral position. This is a bad man, so why isn’t the film saying so? The answer could be because the film-makers aren’t making a film about the killer but one about the people making a film about the killer. Satire often unsettles critics, who for all their sophistication would rather that audiences, and themselves, were treated as passive consumers, rather than as part of a system of cultural production and consumption, which sounds a bit like Communism. Michael Haneke’s Funny Games – which operates in similar territory – got pretty much the same bum end of the pineapple.



Why Watch?


  • Funny and shocking, a hard one to pull off
  • The daddy of the ugly mock-docs
  • Poelvoorde the comedian in a completely different role
  • Uncompromising


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Man Bites Dog – at Amazon