Don’t look! Or: What did the illegal newspapers say about cinema?

The Norwegian wartime classic The missing sausage-maker (“Den forsvundne pølsemaker”) from 1942, was one of the most popular films that were shown in Norwegian cinemas during WW2. Beloved actors Ernst Diesen and Leif Juster played a hopeless detective couple, famous for quotes like: “If there isn’t anybody in there, let me know now!”

Going to the cinema was one of the few things people in an occupied country could do for the sake of entertainment. It was a cheap, readily available and safe form of relaxation. The most popular films were Scandinavian comedies. There were made more than 20 Norwegian films  during the war, and most of them were farces and light comedies. This fact tells two things: Comedies were allowed to be produced by the National Film Directorate; and the public loved watching Norwegian comedies at the cinema.

Well, there was only one problem; parts of the resistance movement didn’t want Norwegians to attend cinemas at all. In occupied Norway illegal flyers and newspapers flourished after the confiscation of radios in the summer of 1941. These newspapers were full of slogans (“paroler”) and  exhortations about cinema strike. The rhetoric of cinema strike in the illegal press was ridiculed and feared by Nasjonal Samling (NS) authorities; followed closely by the German Sicherheitsdienst; supported by parts of the resistance movement and certain audience groups; overseen, ignored and/or misunderstood by others.

According to the slogans in the illegal press the cinema strike was both necessary and successful. Any “good Norwegian” should not go to the cinema. Excactly who did and who didn’t, why and how so, is not my topic here. Instead I will reflect upon this simple but paradoxical question: Under what circumstances is it possible to get people to not looking at something desirable?

War doesn’t erase people’s desires and dreams. Imagination is a basic human condition. It is often said that the film medium is attractive to people because it offers an escape from reality. Maybe it should be seen the other way around. Certainly, the cinema has turned out to be one of the most desired places to hang out for especially young people. The cinema experience is most definitely a part of social reality, not a flight from it. There are indications that older people were more inclined to follow the anti-cinema slogans than younger people. I think this has something to do with the fact that young people didn’t (have they ever?) like others to tell them what to do. All parents are aware of the dangers of telling their children not to look at something. The child will automatically think: What’s so dangerous about it? And then goes on to investigate the matter for itself. Even more so in times of war. The exhortation to resist from going to the cinema may have been judged silly by some. Either because cinema-going was seen as an innocent thing to do, or because it was seen as an existential issue.

“Don’t look!” is not what you should say if you want people to look away. Films are made to be watched, as food is produced to feed the nation.



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