A Comprehensive Guide to The Second World War Films – Part 2

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.

12. Conspiracy (2001)

Credit: HBO

We all know today what happened in the concentration camps or more aptly named death camps. Deaths by the Zyklon B gas in gas chambers, burning the bodies of humans in the ovens specially built for this reason, it is unbelievable what could a human being do to another human being. Mass shootings and hunger and illness in the Ghettos weren’t effective enough for the mass murders so Nazis thought how to get rid of the European Jews thoroughly (in their words) and spent serious time on this subject and then came the final solution. They decided this horrible thing in Wannsee Conference,1942 with Hermann Göring’s order. And the head of the conference is again, General Reinhard Heydrich, second hand man to Himmler who was the responsible man for the camps. Another famous Nazi, Lieutenant (promoted to Lieutenant Colonel) Adolf Eichmann who was the subject of the scientific study of Hannah Arendt, and about 10 more influential Nazis including many legal experts  they brought “the Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”

They don’t use the word “killing”, the word they utter is “evacuation.” In Wannsee Conference, they also talked about chemical castration of Jewish people for eliminating them and creating more aryans. This time Kenneth Baranagh plays Heydrich, Stanley Tucci (who won a Golden Globe for his performance) is Eichmann and Colin Firth is also in the cast as Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart who co-wrote the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws in 1935. It’s shocking to witness this process, this shameful part of history in the name of the mankind.

13. Dunkirk (2017)

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

“- Well done, lads. Well done.
 – All we did is survive.
 – That’s enough.”

When German soldiers surrounded the British, Belgian, Polish and French soldiers in the French seaport Dunkerque after their bliztkrieg attack, Churchill decided to save them, code-name of the operation was Dynamo. Nazis were attacking the Allied troops from the air and from the sea, and the operation seemed so hard to succeed at first, but the British government called out civilian boats and sent fighter planes to Dunkirk. About 700 civilian boats came to the rescue together with Royal Navy and RAF (Royal Air force).

Thanks to Hitler’s decision by sticking to the Luftwaffe (Nazi Air Force) and U-boats (submarine) instead of a ground attack, Allied forces evacuated about 350 thousand soldiers. This is called the Miracle of Dunkirk and it was the largest military evacuation of history. Christopher Nolan made a film about this operation as realistically as possible. You can feel the desperation of soldiers who tries to get on the ship, who tries to save themselves from this dead-end place, their heroism when they try to save their brothers in arms by flying the fighter planes. It’s a very atmospheric film shooted in the city where it all took place, Dunkirk.

14. Das Boot (1981)

Credit: Neue Constantin Film

The story of a German U-Boat’s captain and crew in the Battle of Atlantic, as you watch the film (which is 3 hours long) and as you spend time with them you start to know them and empathize with them. In the claustrophobic atmosphere of a U-boat, they also fight against the torpedoes coming from the destroyers of the Allied Forces. Is the U-boat powerful enough to resist  these bombs or will they sink and drown? This nervous feeling and the suspense never leave you until they leave the U-boat. And what happens next is one of the most poetic and surprising endings to a film ever (certainly one of my favorites). In this Wolfgang Petersen’s masterpiece, Jürgen Prochnow plays the captain of the U-boat and Herbert Grönemeyer plays Lt. Werner. If you want to see a film and lose yourself in its atmosphere, this is a very good one although it’s not a happy one in the slightest.

15. U-571 (2000)

Credit: Universal Pictures

Enigma machine is an encryption machine used by the Nazis to protect Naval communication during the Second World War. It was very important for The Allied forces to capture Enigma machine to be able to solve the German war codes. An American submarine has a plan for it, they will disguise themselves as Germans and will take over the U-boat (U-571) where Germans have an Enigma Machine. But the other Germans mustn’t know that because if they learn that the Allies now have the Enigma Machine, they will change the codes and the Allies will be back to square one. Of course Das Boot is the king of the U-boat films, but U-571 is an exciting film that reflects the soldiers’ state of minds from both sides with a good cast. Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel, Thomas Kretschmann and surprisingly Jon Bon Jovi!

16. Enigma (2001)

Credit: Manhattan Pictures

“- Do you know, without your glasses, you don’t look half bad.
 – Do you know, without my glasses, nor do you?”

Yes, this is the machine which soldiers died for. And capturing it wasn’t enough, someone had to solve the codes for it being useful. A group of clever young men tries to solve the code and one of them succeeded. According to this film, a fictional character Thomas Jericho (Dougray Scott) was the one who did it. But his private life interferes and he loses his job. After the Enigma code is changed by the Germans, he is invited to solve the new code again. This will be the start of some mysterious events and his business life coincides with his private life again while he tries to solve the new code. There are many things going on in the film, it even touches upon Katyn Massacre at some point which Soviets executed about 20000 Polish soldiers in Katyn forest. It’s a spy, war, mystery and romance film, but somehow it makes you watch itself. Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay from Robert Harris’ book and  Michael Apted directed the film. Kate Winslet, Jeremy Northam, Saffron Burrows are also in the cast.

17. The Imitation Game (2014)

Credit: The Weinstein Company

“His machine was never perfected, though it generated a whole field of research into what became known as ‘Turing Machines.’ Today we call them ‘computers’.”

It was actually the famous English mathematician Alan Turing who broke the Enigma code. He is also known as the father of computer science and AI because of the Turing Machine. He was the chief researcher of Bletchley Park, the school of the British code-breakers. Churchill said breaking the Enigma code shortened the war by two years and Bletchley Park’s contribution to the war was the greatest. The Imitation Game aka Enigma tells the life-story of Alan Turing. Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal was excellent, he is really cut out for these unusual genius characters and he won an Oscar nomination for it. Film’s screenwriter Graham Moore won an Oscar. Alan Turing was a brilliant genius who sadly died at a very early age by his own hands, he felt outcast and discriminated against because of the ignorance of the time.

18. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Credit: Paramount Pictures

“James.. earn this. Earn it.”

I was a little girl when I watched this film, it was one of the first war films I have ever watched. Tom Hanks wasn’t just an actor for a child who loved cinema dearly, he wasn’t only America’s sweetheart, he was like a big brother to me, too. His films like Big, The Green Mile and Forrest Gump transcend the barrier of geography. He was the reason why I rented Saving Private Ryan in the first place. It was a long film full of violence and bloody scenes but the thing that affected me the most was the emotional atmosphere of the film. Thanks to its director Steven Spielberg, Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and Composer John Williams and the brilliant cast. The film won  5 Oscars most of them being technical.

It stars on the D-Day, the Normandy Landing at Omaha Beach of the Allied Forces. This film is famous for its realistic and very detailed opening scene and rightly so. So many soldiers who landed on the beach died from the machine guns, mines and mortars. And a group of survivors led by Hanks’ Captain Miller were assigned to the task of finding a soldier, a private named Ryan, because his three brothers already died in the war. But whereabouts of Ryan isn’t known to anybody, so to send him to his family first they have to find him. Question that this group of soldiers ask to themselves and to us during the film is that is it logical and moral to danger eight lives to save one life. And their answer differs during the film. Each of this soldiers have their own personalities, the ones that come to mind first is the duty man Captain Miller, sniper Private Jackson, Corporal Upham and Private Reiben. Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Tom Sizemore, Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Jeremy Davies are the actors who portrayed the members of the group, and Private Ryan is played by Matt Damon. Why does America always try to save Matt Damon is an unsolved mystery, but to watch them trying is always a great fun (see also Interstellar and The Martian).

The Omaha Beach landing at Normandy, France (code-named Operation Over-Lord) was the reason of the success of the Allied forces entering and conquering the continental Europe alongside with the Soviet Union’s success from the other side of the continent. There wasn’t a Captain Miller and Private Ryan in real life, but there was a thing called Sole-Survivor Policy which the film’s logic came close to reality. Five Sullivan brothers died in the cruiser, USS Juneau in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific. And because of this tragic incident, this policy which means that assigning the soldiers of the same family to different places to protect them and to prevent a family disaster was implemented.

19. Schindler’s List (1993)

Credit: Universal Pictures

“Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”

Probably the most famous Holocaust film ever, Schindler’s List tells us the inspirational story of Nazi party member businessman Oskar Schindler in Nazi Occupied Poland. The only thing in his mind first was the money he could make and his profit from the war then he realizes of the inhumanity of Nazis and that he can save Jewish people from the concentration camps by employing them in his factory. This sweet-talking man makes friends with Nazis and Jews at the same time, then he uses his friendship with the Nazis and his money to save as many Jewish people as possible (about 1000 people) from Auschwitz. Liam Neeson played Schindler, Ralph Fiennes played the antagonist, a Waffen-SS member Amon Goeth (one of the most chilling portrayals ever) and Ben Kingsley portrayed one of the Jewish people who Schindler saved from the Nazis.

Amon Goeth is a very complicated character who seems like a monster but he also falls in love with a Jewish girl and has his own tragedy in the film. Character of  Schindler really grows on you, especially towards the end when he uttered his famous words : “I could have gotten one more person..” If you don’t cry until now, wait for the haunting ending montage of real life Schindler Jews’ alongside the actors who played them in the film paying a visit to Schindler’s graveyard. Directed by the master Spielberg again and won 7 Oscars (the most important ones including the best picture), this is a must-see film for everyone.

20. Empire of the Sun (1987)

Credit: Warner Bros.

“Learned a new word today: ‘Atom bomb.’ It was like a white light in the sky, like God taking a photograph.”

From J. G. Ballard’s book, Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay of ‘Empire of the Sun’ and Spielberg directed this 6 Oscar nominated film. An aristocrat English family’s only son, loses his parents in Shanghai in the time of Japanese occupation. He makes himself a few friends and starts to live in a Japanese prison camp where he has to grow up faster than normal because of the harsh circumstances there. He knows that life is a great gift and he is determined to keep this gift as long as possible with a little help from his childish imagination. After the atomic bombings and Emperor Hirohito’s surrender, he finally meets his parents again but is he really the child that they lost years ago?

As expected from the master, ‘Empire of the Sun’ is an emotionally-charged journey (what an ending!) of an unlucky boy who finds himself in difficult circumstances and trying to make the best of them. This is the film that introduces us a little known actor called Christian Bale, he was born to be an actor for sure and John Malkovich is great as always. The music is also great as expected from the maestro John Williams with the addition of some beautiful songs like Suo Gan.


Gamze Akan

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