Nationalism, the unhappy offspring of Empire and Enlightenment, has often been good for art. The musical and literary revivals that occurred in 19th century Europe produced some of the greatest work not only of national but of world culture. It was partly in being so Czech, or Norwegian, or German, that Dvořák, Ibsen or Lang created art that was appreciated everywhere.
At the same time, nationalism has been as destructive of art as it has been of everything else. It has forced artists to write, paint and play things they did not believe, and imprisoned, expelled or killed them when they refused. More often, perhaps, it has inspired them to write, paint and play things they later came to regret.
The tension in human affairs between big and small is ancient. Empires or city states, federations or nations—whether people believe in the universal or the local changes with time and place. Today, the battle lines seem to be between a globalizing neoliberal capitalism on the one hand and an angry resurgent nationalism on the other. Curiously, few artists seem much interested in either of these competing ideologies, although similar ideas were so important to them in the past.
Cinema has often been a place where economics and nationalism intersect. While France defends its film industry from American incursion, Britain protects fiscal rather than cultural interests. In 2007, a test was introduced to determine whether a film production was ‘British’ enough to qualify for tax concessions. The system awarded points—and points mean prizes!—according to a film’s cultural content, location, crew and so on.
Now the current test is to be relaxed so that, for instance, actors will no longer need to be British for a film to qualify, provided they speak English (that will be the Americans, then). And yet, since The Dark Knight Rises qualified as a British film, it is hard to see the existing restrictions as being unduly nationalistic. It does seem that what interests the British government in this domain is money.
That, though it seems strange to say it, may not be such a bad thing, if the alternative were a state interest in the representation of national identity. Almost anything, and certainly a merely utilitarian interest in economics, is preferable to the prospect of politicians interrogating citizens about their patriotism.
My favourite film about Englishness, and one of my favourite films about anything, is A Canterbury Tale, Powell and Pressburger’s strange and beautiful elegy to a vision of England that, if it ever existed, was vanishing under the dual onslaught of war with Germany and the changes that fighting it were bringing about.
It feels absolutely right that it was written and directed by a partnership between the son of a Kent farmer and a stateless Hungarian Jew who found asylum in England in 1935, filmed by a German cinematographer who had worked with Fritz Lang and largely told through the eyes of an American character played by a native of Minneapolis.
The combination of internal and external perspectives is what makes a film that could have been wartime propaganda such a powerful creation. And it is that diversity, with its freedom from state direction about the representation of national identity, that explains why the film could never have been made in Germany in 1944.