The Spirit of ’45, Ken Loach’s new documentary, looks back at the period that followed the end of the WWII in the UK, when the Labor Party won the elections and implemented their social democratic program.

Nita Bianca-Olivia
Bianca-Olivia is a regular critic for ModernTimes.review.

The Spirit Of ’45

Ken Loach

UK, 2013, 98 min.

The film links past and present and invites the young generation to reflect upon their own ideals by looking at the dreams that inspired the post-war period.

Socialism is nowadays a term too often associated with the opposite of democracy. But after the war, socialism meant something else. It meant dismantling a pre-war economic system ran by the rich in favor of the rich. The new government secured housing for the poor, established a free universal health care system and nationalized some of the key industries.

The film is a mix of archive footage and recent testimonies. The images are black and white and often it is difficult to distinguish whether the people filmed are part of the archive footage or not. Maybe the blur between past and present is intentional but that is nevertheless confusing.

the-spirit-of-45-dogwoof-1930-slums_copyright-bbc-360x240Beginning with the generous ideas of the post-war era that brought in the welfare state in the United Kingdom, and moving on through the Thatcher period and its liberalization, the film points at how a society governed by the market logic disadvantages the majority of the people.

The storyline punctually follows historical moments and the most important decisions taken in each period. The interviewees in the film are common people, doctors, nurses and trade unionist who witnessed the pre-war period as children and lived most of their lives in the post-war period followed by the Thatcher government. Contrasted with their personal testimonies, the archive footage that backs their stories feels impersonal at times.

There is something bitter-sweet about the interviewees, something in their appearance and their words. They have a certain dignity and flair reminding of the past. Their stories are lively and they tell them with pride and humor. The viewer will feel the consistency of their words, coming not from simply telling a story but from having lived that story.

These personal narratives bring the past closer. Without them, the film would be just a flat historical narrative. It is the personal memories of the interviewees what gives a real human
dimension to those times. One of them
recalls life when their family had to pay for every doctor’s visit and sometimes could not afford it.
Another one recalls how risky mining life was when coal was more important than the lives of the people. And they all vividly remember how things changed for the better after the war, for example the excitement of having a house with a bathroom and a garden.

Everything changed when Margaret Thatcher came to power. The economic measures her government took were meant to make the British economy more competitive and those measures brought a lot of uncertainty. The rule of the market that came to govern economy did not serve the working class but quite the opposite. The generation of ’45 witnessed the step by step deconstruction of the welfare state created after the war. Within this new frame, many of the social needs that were not reflected in the market demand have been left unanswered.

However, the portrayal of the Thatcher period is rather one sided. The film explains too briefly the reasons for those economic measures. That serves the message of the film but not the viewer’s understanding of that period.

To a large extend The Spirit of ’45 puts modern Britain into perspective and it is a gentle reminder of the important steps that lead to the problems Britain is facing today. Still, understanding what was lost but also what was gained during the Thatcher period is essential. Otherwise the line of argument is reduced to a plain feeling of nostalgia for the post-war period and an emotional disapproval of what came after.

The film ends with a short footage of the street celebrations at the end of WWII. For the first time throughout the film, the images are in color. They inspire happiness, liveliness and optimism. This ending in color links the past to the present and gives a strong feeling that those people in 1945 and their dreams were real and not too far in the past. They are the images of people at the end of many difficult years, which now look towards a new life ahead of them. The ending is a plea for nowadays young generation. It is a plea to take charge, learn and find inspiration in the dreams that defined the spirit of ’45.


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