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We Live in Two Worlds (1937)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of We Live in Two Worlds (1937)
35mm, black and white, 13 mins
DirectorAlberto Cavalcanti
ProductionGPO Film Unit
CompaniesPro Telephon-Zürich
ProducerJohn Grierson
Screenplay/NarratorJ.B. Priestley
PhotographyJohn Taylor
MusicMaurice Jaubert

J.B. Priestley talks about the two worlds of nationalism and internationalism, as exemplified by Switzerland, where new means of communication and industries exist alongside the traditional way of life of the peasantry.

Show full synopsis

One world, drearily familiar, is rigidly divided by political boundaries. The other, forged by new communications technology, wipes them away. Such idealistic internationalism would soon be trampled upon (this obvious hindsight is further prompted by the bought-in military footage included in this film). But in the internet era contemporary echoes abound.

The occasionally pompous We Live in Two Worlds is subtitled 'A Film Talk by J.B. Priestley'. The left-leaning playwright and social commentator was a key middlebrow celebrity of the day, and his inimitable voice would become a familiar fixture on British radios. His presence here is clunky, but bookends imagery that is freshly, excitingly put together, even if it's basically cutting-room-floor stuff. Cavalcanti and John Taylor had been shooting in Switzerland, on a joint project between the GPO and Pro Telephon-Zürich. Their footage here brings to life Priestley's abstract ideas, juxtaposing traditional Swiss folklore with the incursion of telecommunications and hydroelectric power.

Continuity and change: the theme recurs across the documentary movement's output - but mainly painted, before now, on a domestic canvas. Here it takes on not merely global but cosmic implications. Cavalcanti's weird experiments with echo, repetition and amplification take the film to the edge of science fiction: a contrast with lovely quieter moments earlier on, in which pastoral scenes unfold beneath Maurice Jaubert's lyrical score (this was the French composer's only British soundtrack).

The 'film talk' structure would be echoed by 1939's The City, in which Sir Charles Bressey takes the role of the lecturer to camera performed here by Priestley. Their presence in the GPO catalogue is a little ironic, as John Grierson had long decried 'illustrated lecture' as a form of non-fiction film inferior to the more creative and relevatory 'documentary'. But We Live in Two Worlds can hardly be accused of lacking ambition. In a mere 14 minutes we travel from Priestley's armchair, via the Alps, to the very heavens.

Patrick Russell

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'We Live in Two Worlds: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 2'.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Switzerland (3:10)
2. Laying the lines (1:31)
3. No more frontiers (1:45)
Complete film (13:18)
Cavalcanti, Alberto (1897-1982)
Taylor, John (1914-1992)
GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)
Science in Non-Fiction Film
The GPO Film Unit: 1937