Writer: Peter Arnott
Director: Hamish Glen
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Nazi Germany understood the need for a propaganda war to support the physical war as they sought to dishearten the allies and break their spirit. Central to this was, of course, the “Germany Calling, Germany Calling” broadcasts of William Joyce – Lord Haw Haw – but his rhetoric was somewhat dry and ideological. Germany needed something extra to make people listen. Prior to the war, Berlin had a great nightlife, with jazz clubs aplenty. But the state did not approve of jazz music – they felt its rhythms and origins in black music undermined the concept of an Aryan master race. They even disapproved of the wild abandon with which it was played – banning soloists from standing up and horn sections from swinging their horns from side to side. Jazz was most definitely not uplifting, nor enjoyable.
But the people loved it and it flourished underground. The propaganda machine, led by Goebbels, spotted an opportunity. The state would sponsor a jazz band made up of respected musicians. Some had made unguarded comments about the Nazi regime and were easily persuaded to play once the consequences of refusal were outlined. Lyrics of popular songs would be changed to reinforce the messages of the Nazi government and used to leaven Joyce’s more leaden prose. A perfect plan – the evils of the decadent allies used against them! And so, Charly’s Orchestra was born. Propaganda Swing is a fictionalised account of this phenomenon as seen through the eyes of an American Journalist in Berlin.
Bill Constant is that journalist who has come to Berlin to broadcast to America. He also had a previous encounter with Lala Anderson and seeks to get to know her better. He sees first-hand the tribulations and constraints under which jazz musicians exist, in particular, bandleader Lutz Templin and club owner Otto Stenzl. Into this brittle equation comes Charly Schwedler, a jazz loving German officer with a reasonable crooning voice, and Lutz’ band becomes Charly and his Orchestra, broadcasting twice weekly dance music to Germany and the allies. But all is not well – someone betrays Stenzl’s Jewish background and he goes into hiding – can he escape the Nazis’ wrath? And Lala is arrested for singing the banned Lilli Marleen just before she is set to escape Germany to be with Constant. What will become of her?
Libby Watson’s period set is evocative of the era, every inch the sparkly jazz club, but also allowing darker elements to show. Constant’s narrative is reminiscent of film noir – indeed, Richard Conlon’s Constant bears a passing resemblance, visually and aurally to Humphrey Bogart. Mike Robertson’s lighting design, with harsh spotlights and high contrast supports that feeling. The onstage band play superbly, with fine singing from Miranda Wilford’s Lala, Jonny Bower’s Charly and Clara Darcy’s Anita Spada. Yet Propaganda Swing remains somehow unfulfilling. Some of the language and attitudes so casually demonstrated by the Germans should be shocking but in fact are curiously anodyne. The episodic nature of the narrative prevents us getting under the skin of the characters. We should care very much about the duress they are put under but any inner turmoil Tomm Coles’ Templin might feel at having his artistic integrity compromised by the state, while eloquently explored in dialogue with Anderson, remains flat. In contrast, however, Stenzl’s club routine in which he stands alone in the spotlight telling Jewish jokes with increasing desperation as he admits to his background is powerful and poignant. But we never quite invest in the characters. Maybe this is down to some pedestrian direction in the first half, maybe the dialogue is just too wordy and the action too static, but there is little emotional connection to the characters.
Nevertheless, the cast put in fine performances. Darcy is effective as the singer out for what she can get, Conlon is suitably hard-bitten as the cynical hack, and Chris Andrew Mellon’s Stenzl is the performance of the night. Callum Coates’ pompous Joyce is indeed immovably ideological and thoroughly unpleasant. However, the Germans are less successful, with Paul Lincoln’s Hinkel never really feeling menacing enough but rather a figure of fun.
Overall, then, an interesting take on a piece of history largely unremembered, one that is visually stunning and sounds great to the ear, but that is, ultimately, disappointing.
Photo: Robert Day | Runs until: 27th September