The propaganda needs of the Second World War offered artists working with film numerous opportunities, but sometimes challenging briefs. 

Films showing in this section: 

11.02 - Len Lye Musical Poster No.1 1940
11.05 - Humphrey Jennings Listen to Britain 1942
11.25 - Franciszka and Stefan Themerson Calling Mr Smith 1944

Len Lye Musical Poster No.1 1940

2 minutes. BFI National Film & Television Archive / Imperial War Museum 

To The Bugle-call Rag, Len Lye’s hand-painted film Musical Poster made for the Ministry of Information promotes the wartime slogan Careless Talk Costs Lives. 


Len Lye was born in Christchurch New Zealand in 1901. He studied at Wellington Technical Institute and Canterbury College of Art (NZ). In London, he exhibited with the Seven and Five Society and at the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition, and designed bookjackets for Robert Graves and Laura Riding. The success of A Colour Box 1936 led to commissions from the GPO and other advertisers. He moved to New York in 1944 to work for the March of Time. Post War, he self-funded films, and exhibited kinetic sculpture. He died in New York in 1980.

Humphrey Jennings Listen to Britain 1942

20 minutes. Collection: BFI National Film & Television Archive / Imperial War Museum 

A portrait of British resolve in war. ‘The picture is a stylistic triumph (Humphrey Jennings shared the credit with his editor, Stewart McAllister), a succession of marvellously evocative images freely linked by contrasting and complementary sounds; and yet is is not for its quality of form that one remembers it most warmly, but for its continuous sensitivity of human regard.’ Lindsay Anderson 1954 


Humphrey Jennings was born in 1907. He studied English at Cambridge and was active as a painter and theatre designer before joining the GPO Film Unit in 1934. He was a member of the organising committee of the International Surrealist Exhibition 1936, and one of the instigators of Mass Observation ‘an anthropology of our own people’. These contrasting intellectual movements equally shaped his film work. He died at Poros, Greece in 1950. 

Franciszka and Stefan Themerson Calling Mr Smith 1944

9 minutes. Collection: BFI National Film & Television Archive / Lux 

Franciszka and Stefan Themerson were leading members of the Polish avant-garde before the Second World War. As refugees in London and working for the Polish Government in Exile, they made this appeal to ‘Mr Smith’ to join the anti-fascist struggle and halt the destruction of Europe’s culture. The British film censor objected to a shot of a man hanging from the gallows, and the film was not widely shown. 


Franciszka Themerson was born in Warsaw in 1907 and died in London in 1988. Stefan Themerson was born in Plock in 1910 and died in London in 1988. After studying in Warsaw, the Themersons became leading members of the Polish avant-garde, making films and photographic works, founding the Polish Filmmakers Co-operative 1935-7, and a journal Art Film f.a. 1937. Visiting London in 1938, they met John Grierson, Len Lye and other filmmakers. The War brought them to London permanently. Following their two films funded by the Polish Government in exile, they concentrated on illustrated books and paintings (Franciszka) and writing and publishing (Stefan - Gaberbocchus Press).