The world seems to be obsessed with war. We see it or the idea of it everyday in the newspapers or on the news. One of the horsemen of the apocalypse is busy making people fight. And he was busy the most, at the time of the second world war. Being the bloodiest of them all, it was also the object of affection of historians, writers, filmmakers. Sometimes we look at the films which come from the film industry and think that if Adolf Hitler wouldn’t exist, what would filmmakers make a film about?
Second World War started by the occupation of Poland by Germany on September 1, 1939. And the European war front ended after Germany’s surrender on 8 May 1945 (Allied Forces conquered most of Europe). The Pacific War Front ended after Empire of Japan’s surrender on 2 September 1945 (Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). In six years, approximately 85 million people died, including the Holocaust of 6 million European Jews and the deaths resulting from the atomic bombs in Empire of Japan (about 250000 people). There were larger than life figures like Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin and their circles of people whose biographies were made into films.
This list in no particular order is intended to be a comprehensive guide to the Second World War films.
01. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
“You’ve just given yourself away, Captain. You’re no more German than that scotch.”
Directed by one of the most famous cinephiles, Quentin Tarantino, who watched so many war films and was particularly inspired by the likes of The Dirty Dozen and Inglorious Bastards, this one is for everyone who can be patient about violence and seeing blood on screen. The setting is Nazi Occupied France, our main character is a girl who luckily escaped from the Jew Hunter SS Colonel Hans Landa. But time will bring these two characters together again in the most interesting circumstances. Inglourious Basterds is a fun sometimes a cruel journey of a girl and a group of Nazi Bounty Hunters. Christoph Waltz won an Oscar for his chilling portrayal of Landa, the beginning of the film is enough for his Oscar win on its own. One of my all time favorite scenes is the Bar Scene, which August Diehl and Michael Fassbender showcase their acting talents, and this scene alone proves Tarantino’s great talent for writing and directing.
02. La vita è bella – Life is Beautiful (1997)
Italian director, screenwriter and actor Roberto Benigni’s masterpiece is a holocaust film but somehow it succeeds at being one of the most heartwarming and enjoyable films ever. First it starts as a charming romantic comedy, then when the Nazis take our main characters to a concentration camp it goes on to be a charming tragedy, if this is really a thing. Some people criticized Benigni for mixing war/tragedy and comedy, but in my humble opinion this worked great for La Vita é Bella. Benigni’s father character is a very sympathetic virtuous one and he is the heart of the film alongside with the beautiful story and soundtrack. When he took the stage for taking the Best Foreign Language film Oscar from Sophia Loren’s hands by climbing over the other audience members like Steven Spielberg and hopping on the stairs, he showed us that he was one of the most enthusiastic human beings ever plus his speech was full of great analyses about life : “I would like to thank my parents, they gave me the biggest gift, the poverty.” He also won the best actor Oscar for the film and his speech became one of the most known/inspirational Oscar acceptance speeches of all time. Film’s composer also won an Oscar for his outstanding work.
03. Au revoir les enfants (1987)
Screenwriter/director Louis Malle’s realistic drama about the everyday life in Nazi occupied France during the war was nominated for 2 Oscars and won the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival. A new boy comes to a Catholic boarding school and meets a student who, although a bit hostile at first, would be his best friend soon. But this new boy has secrets about his life and this will bring a tragedy to these children’s lives. Slow burning but a great, enjoyable drama nonetheless, this is a film worth watching for.
04. Europa Europa (1990)
A Jewish boy in the Nazi Germany who could escape from their hands, finds himself in an Orphanage of Soviet Communists. He learns Russian there and when he encounters with German soldiers he introduces himself as an Aryan and soldiers take him to the army as a Russian translator. Then somehow he manages to become a German war hero and again finds himself in an Elite Hitler Youth School. You probably think that this could only happen in a film, but they say that real life is mostly more interesting than films. This was the real life story of Solomon Perel who co-wrote the film together with the director Agnieszka Holland. Marco Hofschneider played him in the film. Oscar Nominee Europa Europa is an intriguing journey of an incredibly lucky boy.
05. Fury (2014)
“I started this war killing Germans in Africa. Then France. Then Belgium. Now I’m killing Germans in Germany. It will end, soon. But before it does, a lot more people gotta die.”
The last month of the European Front of WWII was April, 1945. In the same month a tank named Fury full of 5 American soldiers tried to advance in Germany. One of the soldiers is a young boy who haven’t used a gun in his life, while the others especially Sergeant are the tough soldiers who got used to the horrors of war. The tank is leaded by Brad Pitt’s Sergeant, the new boy is Logan Lerman, while the other soldiers on the team are played by Jon Bernthal, Michael Peña and Shia LaBeouf. David Ayer wrote and directed the film which focuses on the soldiers relationship with each other and with the German civilians who they have encountered on the road. A fan favorite scene is USA’s Sherman Tank (Fury) vs. Germany’s Tiger Tank. The claustrophobic film feels like you are in the tank with its crew too.
06. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
“It is logical, in view of the times in which we live. But to be logical is not to be right, and nothing on God’s earth could ever make it right!”
After the Second World War ended, Nuremberg trials were carried out by the Allied forces for the people who committed war crimes during the Holocaust. Judgment of Nuremberg tells the story of four Nazi judges’ trial. A retired American judge played by Spencer Tracy and an American prosecutor (Richard Widmark) are assigned to the task, while they are defended by a German attorney (brilliant Maximilian Schell, who won an Oscar for this role). Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich are the other actors of the film, this may be the best cast of a film ever. With Ernest Gold’s music, Abby Mann’s writing (who also won an Oscar) and of course Stanley Kramer’s directing, it’s not a surprise that this court drama is a masterpiece which is shown in Law Schools. When the prosecutor starts to talk about the things happened at the concentration camps accompanied by the real life video footage, there will not be a dry eye.
07. The Great Dictator (1940)
“Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness.”
‘The Great Dictator’ is a special film for being the first talkie of the silent film genius Charles Chaplin, it is also special because he started to shoot this Hitler/fascism satire in 1938, a relatively early time because the world war two hadn’t started yet. When he listened to Hitler’s speeches, he saw the danger coming to Europe and to make people aware of it, he used his talent for the seventh art. Hitler, Mussolini, Goebbels and Göring were real life inspirations for the characters of Hynkel, Napaloni, Garbitch and Herring, respectively. Chaplin is the writer, director, composer and the star of the film. He plays two characters, Hynkel is the dictator of Tomania (Germany) who hates Jews and is in love with himself. The other character is a Jewish Barber who reminds us the legendary character of Chaplin, the little tramp. They are lookalikes (hint: toothbrush moustache / same actor) and somehow our barber is mistaken for Hynkel and when the time comes for the big speech after the occupation of Osterlich (Austria), he has to take the stage and make a speech.
When the speech begins, they are not the words of Hynkel or the barber, these are the words coming from Chaplin’s own mouth. He stands there as himself, making a speech about humanity which, years later, people will call the greatest speech ever. The Great Dictator might be the funniest Chaplin film ever (if it’s possible to choose one) with the scenes like Hynkel’s fake German speeches and the plane scene, although its main theme is a very serious subject and Chaplin himself said “if I knew what was going on in concentration camps, I would never dare to make fun of them.” The globe dance accompanied by Hitler’s favorite musician Wagner’s Lohengrin and the barber shop scene using Hungarian Dance No : 5 by Brahms are the film’s most talked about scenes. So, as you can see sometimes there are no need for words for shooting great scenes, only a talent of a genius like Chaplin and some great music.
08. Roma, città aperta – Rome, Open City (1945)
A little cinema history on its own, Roberto Rosselini’s Rome, Open City is the film that started the Italian Neo-realism film movement and the winner of the grand prize at Cannes. Before the war, films were shooted in nice and clean but very artificial film studios whereas Rosselini took his camera to the streets of Rome. Rome is a relatively peaceful city apart from the curfew and food scarcity during the occupation of Nazis, because it is an open city. But that doesn’t mean Rome doesn’t resist to Germans, and one of the leaders of the resistance seek help from some friends, including one played by the famous Italian actress Anna Magnani. The story of the Italian resistance and its fight with the Gestapo, it’s a very emotionally charged and realistic look from the director.
09. To Be or Not to Be (1942)
“As a matter of fact I saw him on the stage when I was in Warsaw once before the war. What he did to Shakespeare we are doing now to Poland.”
What war themed movies needed was “The Lubitsch Touch” and one of the greatest films ever was made. In Nazi Occupied Poland, a group of actors try to help a soldier to prevent a Nazi spy reporting to a German Colonel and the comedy unravels. This witty, clever and touching film is a breath of fresh air in this list. Carole Lombard, Jack Benny and Robert Stack play the main characters. One of Cahiers du Cinéma’s auteurs, German director Ernst Lubitsch is one of my favorite directors ever and this film together with “The Shop Around the Corner” are the obvious reasons for it. If only real life would be like this, and the things happened didn’t happen at all.
10. The Man with the Iron Heart (2017)
Heinrich Himmler was the right hand man of Adolf Hitler, Head of the SS (The Schutzstaffel) which can be translated as the Protection Squadron. Our title character Reinhard Heydrich was the right hand man of Himmler. In the early years of the Nazi Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) where SA (Sturmabteilung – Storm Detachment) was more powerful, SS was a small group in the Third Reich and it was subordinated by SA. Ernst Röhm was the head of the SA, he was there for the party from the beginning and was Hitler’s friend. But his reckless, violent actions and him being the potential rival of Hitler for the leadership made people close to Hitler worry about him and his division. In the end Hitler decided to dis-empowered SA and was convinced by the likes of Göring and Himmler that Röhm had to die Heinrich Himmler was the right hand man of Adolf Hitler, Head of the SS (The Schutzstaffel) which can be translated as the Protection Squadron. Our title character Reinhard Heydrich was the right hand man of Himmler. In the early years of the Nazi Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) where SA (Sturmabteilung – Storm Detachment) was more powerful, SS was a small group in the Third Reich and it was subordinated by SA. Ernst Röhm was the head of the SA, he was there for the party from the beginning and was Hitler’s friend. But his reckless, violent actions and him being the potential rival of Hitler for the leadership made people close to Hitler worry about him and his division. In the end Hitler decided to dis-empowered SA and was convinced by the likes of Göring and Himmler that Röhm had to die for the sake of the party. Then came the Night of the Long Knives (Die Nacht der Langen Messer) and along with Röhm, the powerful people against the party’s well-being were arrested and shot by the SS. Then it became bigger and more important for Nazi Germany. SS had two groups, general SS and Waffen-SS (armed forces). Gestapo, a name which we hear so much, was the Nazi secret police and it was subordinate to SS (Himmler).
After reminding a little bit of history, let’s turn into our film. This film tells the story of Operation Anthropoid but from the two points of view. First it makes us know Heydrich before Hitler and Himmler calls him The Man with The Iron Heart and before he became the Butcher of Prague where he was assigned as the “Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia.” He was so cruel and cold even Hitler and Himmler were afraid of him hence the film’s title, he was the architect of The Final Solution, responsible for the deaths of 6 million Jewish People. He imprisoned, tortured and killed so many Czechs hence “The Butcher of Prague” title. London decided to start a military operation for killing Heydrich and two young Czech agents Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš were assigned to the task and were dropped in Czechoslovakia.
The second half of the film tells their story from their points of view. The assassination wasn’t like Hollywood assassinations we always see in films, they were so brave but their gun jammed. Then Heydrich stood up and started to shoot his assassins then came a hand grenade which hurt Heydrich. He was dead in a week. Reinhard Heydrich was the highest ranking Nazi Officer who was assassinated. After his death, Nazis massacred a whole town called Lidice and killed many people in retaliation. Gabčík and Kubiš fought with German soldiers for hours in a church and then died in 1942. In this film, Jason Clarke played Heydrich, Jack O’Connell was Jan Kubiš and Jack Reynor was Jozef Gabčík. Cédric Jimenez directed the film.
11. Anthropoid (2016)
Yes, this is another version of this operation and was shooted before “The Man with The Iron Heart.” We couldn’t know Heydrich in this one, because the director Sean Ellis decided to tell the story of Czech agents from their points of view, while Jimenez told us this operation in a wider perspective. Because of that, we spend more time with Kubiš and Gabčík and know them better. Heydrich in this film is aloof, cruel Nazi Officer and we as the audience only want him dead. Jamie Dornan played Jan Kubiš and Cillian Murphy was Jozef Gabčík.