When the quiet German village of Altdorf is taken over by an SS platoon which proceeds to enforce Hitler's ideals upon its inhabitants, a kindly pastor questions the agenda of ‘The New Order’ while members of his parish turn a blind eye to the insidious indoctrination. Before long, he is punished for his vocal opposition and is sent to Dachau, where, despite the abuse and brutality which he suffers, he refuses to give in to the madness and inhumanity of National Socialism.
Adapted from Ernst Toller’s 1939 play of the same name, and based on the true story of Protestant minister Martin Niemöller, Pastor Hall is the impressive third feature from the Boulting brothers (Brighton Rock). Starring Wilfrid Lawson (Pygmalion) as the iconic pastor, and Nova Pilbeam (Young and Innocent) as his formidable daughter, the film was one of the first anti-Nazi dramas ever made and had its original production delayed by British censors who were not yet ready to be openly critical of Hitler's regime.
A bold and stirring tribute to the universal power of faith, courage and personal conviction, Pastor Hall has been newly restored from a 4K scan of the nitrate duplicate negative by Powerhouse Films and is finally available on Blu-ray for the first time in the world.
Indicator presents Roy Boulting's Pastor Hall on Blu-ray, delivering the film on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a new 2K restoration, which, in turn, comes from a 4K scan of the original 35mm nitrate positive held by the BFI National Archive. The release is a dual UK/US release, and the disc is region free.
The end presentation looks exceptional, minor issues with the source materials being the only hindrance. The digital encode is very strong, providing a clean image with a lovely looking grain that remains sharp and natural throughout. Details are crisp and clear, close-ups looking especially great, and contrast and grayscale look excellent, allowing for nice deep blacks and very wide range in the grays.
The restoration has been incredibly thorough, though, as mentioned, a few, mostly minor issues remain. There are a couple of instances where it’s clear frames are missing; there will be a slight distortion in the audio and a clear jump in the image, suggesting a few frames are missing at the very least. Everything else is minor and easy to overlook, from a few small scratches to a spec of dirt here and there, along with a mild flicker on occasion. Still, it’s clear a lot of work has gone into this and the end results are very striking, Indicator’s usual sharp encode sealing the deal.
The lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack sounds quite good. It’s sharp and clear with minimal distortion outside of some of the music's higher points (and where there are missing frames), and excessive filtering doesn’t sound to have been applied.
Indicator has put together an interesting special edition for the film, focusing on the time of the film’s release and the looming threat of war, while also touching on the inspiration for the film’s protagonist. Author Matthew Hockenos pops up for 15-minutes to talk about that inspiration, Martin Niemöller, the protestant nationalist pastor who would stand up (sort of) to Hitler and be thrown in a concentration camp for his efforts. At first it all sounds well-and-good yet there is an incredibly big “but” in there, the film simplifying a lot of things in order to present a clearer hero. Though Niemöller was the one responsible for the oft-referenced “First they came for…” quote, he was, initially, full-in on the Nazi ideology, perfectly okay with anti-Semitism and willing to turn a blind eye to everything. It was only when he was directly impacted, when the Nazi regime made the German Christians the accepted majority religion, not allowing any sort of alternative including his own, he spoke out, leading to his incarceration. At the time it was assumed he was anti-Nazi in western media, making him a sort of hero, but this wasn’t true and it wasn’t until after the war where he renounced his previously held nationalist beliefs and acknowledged the horrors his country had committed. I confess I was only passively familiar with Niemöller due to the quote, so this proved especially fascinating to me, particularly in how the reality was adjusted in the film to better suit the clear good-vs-evil narrative it aims to achieve.
Another fascinating feature focuses on the BBFC and how it approached subject matter addressing the war and Nazi Germany, handled here in a 14-minute interview with ex-BBFC examiner Richard Fallon. Interestingly, the BBFC took a stance to not approve films that were critical of Hitler and the Nazis. Fallon doesn’t deny this was an incredibly insane stance, especially in retrospect, but he explains it was over concerns that any film that even mildly criticized the Nazis would negatively impact any possible peace deals between Chamberlain and Hitler. This stance even impacted the 1928 film about nurse Edith Cavell, Dawn, after the German government objected to its very existence (the Germans also apparently got the film removed from circulation in the States). It’s a surprising and wonderful addition to the release, Fallon even talking about a film that never got off the ground due to the BBFC stance, the title alone being incredibly inflammatory: The Mad Dog of Europe.
Fallon of course explains how all of this impacted Pastor Hall (getting made eventually, clearly) with director Roy Boulting touching on the topic in an audio interview conducted in 1980 by the Imperial War Museum and included here as an alternate audio track over the film. While he talks a little about his feature film work, which also includes Thunder Rock, the discussion focuses primarily on his work with the Army Film Unit, Boulting sharing his “war stories” and sharing how he filmed various missions. It sounds as though he also had to deal with the Ministry of Information in not always pleasing ways and there’s a discussion around a film that sounds to have never been shot, simply called “Production X.”
Boulting also talks about his short propaganda film The Dawn Guard, which Indicator includes here. The 6-minute short presents two home guard volunteers talking about their lives before the war and how they took their freedoms and simple life for granted, the film sinking in for its audience that nothing is guaranteed and to not be complacent after the war is over. Indicator also includes one of his Army Film Unit works, Minefield!, which documents, for 14-minutes, the reconnaissance work that would go into revealing minefields so troops and/or vehicles could move safely through them. It also showcases the different types of mines and how they would be disarmed.
On top of a decent sized image gallery presenting production photos, lobby cards, posters, a press book, and more, the disc also includes over 2-minutes’ worth of newsreel footage featuring Niemöller talking about how the German people should carry the guilt of the war. The release also comes with one of Indicator’s typically thorough booklets, starting off with a rather extensive essay by the Imperial War Museums Fiona Kelly on the Boulting brothers, Roy and John, their film work during the war, and Pastor Hall. Following that is a reprint of a 1940 article reporting from the set, the notes highlighting the passive attitude that was present around the time of the war (apparently called a “phony war” by many), and then details about a lost Eleanor Roosevelt prologue, which is also referenced in the disc’s image gallery. The booklet then samples a few of the critical reactions to the film, including a couple that were wary of how the film presented the Nazis, for differing reasons, and this is then followed by writings/reviews by Documentary News Letter about the two short films on the disc.
The release doesn’t appear to be jam-packed with content, but between everything included, from the audio interview to the booklet, the features end up being incredibly dense, covering the film’s subject matter and the aura that was lingering over the UK due to the potential conflict with Germany, and how entities like the BBFC dealt with it. A wonderfully thought out set of features.
A terrific release, delivering insightful supplements alongside a sharp looking new restoration and digital presentation.