More information please, Herr Liepmann

As was widely announced in the picture-houses of the United Kingdom at the close of 1936:

This is from a book by the German exile and novelist Heinz Liepmann, Death from the Skies: A Study of Gas and Microbial Warfare (London: Martin Secker & Warburg, 1937), 273. There's no more information than that. What could he be referring to? A film? Newsreel? Advertisement? Public service announcement? Maybe it's from the 1936 political film Hell Unltd. The BFI describes it as follows:

Hell Unltd. links government's preoccupation with armaments to a likelihood of war, and relates this to the First World War. Stock footage of the horrors of this war is shown, while titles such as "die" and "to make a world safe for democracy" are displayed. This combination of titles and image is intended to show the negative effects of war and to condemn a government committing itself to further warfare.

On the other hand, it's also described as a 'heavily experimental' film, which seems an unlikely candidate to 'widely announce' anything. So what else might it be from?

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12 thoughts on “More information please, Herr Liepmann

  1. Nemo

    There is a brief excerpt from HELL UNLIMITED (all sources I find on this spell out the second word in full) at:

    The film has no soundtrack, so it can't have been widely distributed in 1936. Most likely it was shown at meetings of pacifist and similar groups. In its complete form it is only about 15 minutes long, so it is likely it was either shown with other such films or on the same program with a lecture etc. From what is available online it seems to be a fairly credible piece of amateur filmmaking, heavily propagandistic in tone.

  2. Post author

    Thanks for the fast responses -- maybe I should outsource more of my idle questions to my readers!


    I did think it might have something to do with some sort of peace group -- I hadn't heard of the Anti-Poison Gas Association, though, thanks for that. It seems that many single-issue groups popped up in the 1930s; on the other side of the (armament) fence were the Air Raid Defence League, not to be confused with (my favourite so far) the Hands Off Britain Air Defence League.

    I found the Times reference, it's from a letter to the editor on 22 July 1936, from the APGA secretary Mr W. Crompton Holgate of Glasgow, writing to urge that the Government continue to support the 1925 Geneva gas protocols. He claims that the APGA has 20,000 members. But it seems to have left few traces, otherwise.


    Oh, thanks for clueing me in on the correct name, I wondered why IMDB didn't know about it. I didn't realise it was silent, either; I think that would have limited its audience, it does sound like something that might be shown in a lecture hall rather than a cinema. As Liepmann refers to 'the picture-houses of the United Kingdom', I now tend to doubt he was thinking of Hell Unlimited.

  3. Nemo


    Get ready for a Homer Simpson "D'oh!" momen't. The 1936 film referred to is obviously THINGS TO COME, the adaptation of H.G. Wells' THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME. It's been a while since I've seen it, but the film begins with an eerily presceint depiction of what would come to be called the blitz, except some of the bombs have poison gas. (At any rate I remember characters with gas masks). This film was widely distributed, although it didn't do that well at the box office.

  4. Post author

    It's a good suggestion (and was actually my first thought :), but I don't think Things to Come is what Liepmann is referring to. Mainly because TTC premiered in Britain in February 1936, not at the end of 1936. You're right, gas is used in the attack on Everytown (at least, people without gas masks fall down for no apparent reason) as well as later in the film. But I've just watched these sections again (I'd forgotten how terrific they are -- pity about the horrendous dialogue!) and couldn't see anything resembling the statement Liepmann reproduces, written or verbal, exact or approximate.

    On other hand, there's always the possibility that Liepmann shouldn't be taken too literally. Maybe the quote is not intended to be an exact one; and maybe he was writing from memory and got the date wrong. However, the text indicates he was revising the English edition in mid-January 1937, so he probably wouldn't confuse a film that came out almost a year earlier for one from a month or two ago.

  5. Nemo

    I didn't realize THINGS TO COME was released in February of 1936, but movie distribution in the 1930s was much different than today. I actually don't know about the UK, but in the US it worked like this: A film was first released to first-run theatres in "downtown" urban areas. Eventually it made its way to second-run theatres in residential and secondary commercial areas. (In small towns the only theatre may have been a second-run).These theatres were smaller and often quite dingy -they were sometimes semi-affectionally referred to as "dumps". The movies were months old, sometimes as much as a year. The prints may have been run thru projectors hundreds of times and had the scratches to prove it. The attraction was the price of admission, half or less than what it cost to go to a first-run theatre.

    In Hitchcock's SABOTAGE(1936) Mr. Verloc runs such a dump when he's not planting bombs. It's a pretty safe bet he isn't showing the latest films. (Like in SABOTAGE, many dumps were family run businesses).

    This system prevailed (again, in the US, but probably elsewhere) until the 1970s. I was born in 1957, so I can remember the last years of it in the late 1960s and earliest 1970s. There was a dump in my town of 10,000 or so people that seated about 200 and was sometimes referred to (by kids anyway) as "The Armpit" or "The Stinkbox".

    So its quite possible that in 1936 a film could open in a majestic theatre in the center of Everytown in February and be playing in Mr. Verloc's dump in November or December.

    For more on second-run theaters:

  6. FWIW I don't think it has anything directly to do with Things To Come. Ever since I saw this post I've been vaguely recalling something I once read about a lobby group that posted advertisements along these very lines in cinemas in the mid-1930s. Unfortunately I have no idea where I read it now. Sorry ...

  7. Post author

    Thanks, Nemo, that's a good point. I suspect something similar did happen in Britain (I recall seeing ads for Gone With the Wind from well into the war years). But a search on The Times digital archive shows that the last ad in that paper for TTC was on 26 September 1936 (last day at the Polytechnic, double feature with Rhodes of Africa). That doesn't seem to quite qualify as 'the close of 1936'. Maybe it was still showing on a few screens in November/December, in the provinces, and maybe dumps didn't advertise in The Times anyway -- but the vast majority of screenings would presumably have occurred much earlier in the year (whereas Liepmann said it was 'widely announced' at 'the close of 1936'). And as I said, the statement itself doesn't really fit TTC anyway (for one thing, there actually is defence from poison gas in the film -- characters wearing gas masks survive!) So I still think he wasn't referring to TTC.

    I think Alan's suggestion is more likely -- I can well imagine some pro-peace pressure group paying for slide advertisements that ran before the features and newsreels etc. At least, they used to run here, I'm guessing they did in the UK too. Guess I need to read up on British interwar cinemas ...

  8. Chris Williams

    The best (indeed only) systematic examination of picture-going in C20th Britain is _The Place of the Audience_ by Jancovich and Faire. I think it's great, but I have to confess a bit of bias owing to a connection with one of the authors.

  9. Post author

    Another candidate: People of Britain, AKA The Peace Film, a three-minute short directed by Paul Rotha. Content: 'The revelation of the Government's secret rearmament policies, and a plea to the viewer to campaign for peace'. Graham Greene (in Spectator, 24 April 1936, p. 744) praises it for its 'point and economy, its clever simultaneous use of image, caption and voice'. Sounds like it could be what Liepmann was referring to, but then again April is still not 'the close of 1936'. Could have been repeated easily enough, since it was so short, but still. Seems to have been shown more widely than Hell Unltd though, as the Spectator notice reports that it's on at 'the London Pavilion and elsewhere'.

    Just re-reading Nemo's comments about "dumps", I realise that we have or had much the same thing in Australia until quite recently: the commuter town my family lived in in the 1990s had a small independent cinema which would show films which had recently stopped playing in the big multiplexes in the city. Last I heard they seemed be showing new releases so maybe that era is over here, too.

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