Some lesser-known wartime stories, such as Japan’s The Burmese Harp and the German-made Generation War, rank alongside the classics
March 30, 2017
No recent historical cataclysm has eclipsed the magnitude of the second world war. And thank God for that: the war was horrible! Its aftershocks are still felt in many current conflicts. The war touched every life differently, so it’s no wonder authors and film-makers keep returning to it, finding new stories to tell.
The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)
The Zookeeper’s Wife (out in the US on 31 March), based on the bravery of righteous Polish Gentiles who put their lives on the line to smuggle Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto, is a remarkable true story. But for a number of reasons it isn’t quite the masterpiece it wants to be. It feels improper to shrug off so important a tale, but the truth is that the movie “is OK”.
Of course, not everything can be a critical and commercial success like The Best Years of Our Lives, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Hope and Glory, The Thin Red Line, The Pianist or Son of Saul. But rather than dwell on something that is almost good, here, in chronological order, are 10 outstanding, lesser-known second world war movies that, like The Zookeeper’s Wife, illuminate a corner of the war that perhaps doesn’t get as much attention.
I know, I know: I left out so many good ones.
The Burmese Harp (1956)
OK, technically the bulk of this movie is set directly after war is over. A close-knit group of Japanese soldiers fighting in Burma surrender to the British when armistice is declared. When a platoon of Japanese holdouts atop a mountain continue fighting, Pte Mizushima, something of a mascot, volunteers to convince them to put down their weapons. Things don’t go as planned and Mizushima, who has picked up the ability to play a local harp, emerges from the incident transformed.
What follows is a long walk through grief toward healing, as Mizushima and his comrades eye each other from opposite sides of a prison fence. While hardly a traditional musical, The Burmese Harp has some of the most heartbreaking scenes of group singing in all of world cinema.
Ballad of a Soldier (1959)
Quite lauded at its time, this gem from the Soviet Union is a bit overshadowed these days by the steamier 1957 home front film The Cranes Are Flying. But this is the one that actually put a face to Mother Russia, America and Britain’s great ally until approximately 10 minutes after the war ended.
After knocking out two German tanks, a 19-year-old private is offered a commendation. He asks, instead, for a brief furlough to visit his mother and help repair a leaky roof. Along the way, a number of small tasks occupy him, including falling in love. In gorgeous, silvery black-and-white, it’s a rather lovely picture of bravery, and not much different from the propagandized images coming out of Hollywood.
The Train (1964)
It’s impossible not to love this extremely fictionalized but not-exactly-untrue story of how Burt Lancaster beat Nazis to a pulp to make sure French museums could never be beat. John Frankenheimer somehow turned art preservation into a white-knuckle actioner, as train saboteurs conspire to prevent Germany from looting artifacts as they bug out of Paris. On the one hand, it’s silly to get worked up about decorative things when there are lives at stake, but on the other, if not the culture, what are we fighting for? Paul Scofield is particularly slimy as the art-loving villain screaming “schnell!”
The Last Metro (1980)
A less pugilistic example of French culture in the face of fascism, François Truffaut’s wartime resistance drama also doubles as one of the great “backstage” films. A German-Jewish theater impresario is hiding beneath his own stage, as his wife (Catherine Deneuve) tries to keep the lights on. Recognizable moments of everyday life (or, at least, everyday showbiz life) collide with the grander tragedy of the war. A remarkable ensemble cast (including Gérard Depardieu) allows for an exquisite tapestry of tragedy.
The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982)
Framed as a bedtime story from contemporary suburbia, The Night of the Shooting Stars seesaws between brutal realism and whimsical fairytale. I know that sounds really annoying, but back in 1982 this sort of thing was much more novel in cinema, and the Taviani brothers knew they were breaking ground.
A small Italian town cracks apart as it tries to survive the death throes of the war. The retreating Germans are (probably, maybe, we can’t be sure) going to destroy everything in their path, so most of the residents flee, without exactly knowing where to go. Mind games and tragedies await, as well as lighter moments of humanism and humor.
One of the few films to focus on Nazi persecution of homosexuals, Bent began as a play and, as such, has many theatrical flourishes beyond Mick Jagger in drag singing about boys in Berlin. At its root, Bent shows how love can find a way, even in the worst of all possible settings. Clive Owen, in one of his earliest major roles, works alongside Lothaire Bluteau in a concentration camp, and the two form a bond despite being unable to touch.
Bent is a heavily stylized film (a low-budget indie with that late-90s Channel Four sheen) but the writing is sharp, as are the performances. Blink and you’ll miss them, but in the mix you’ll find the future stars Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jude Law, Paul Bettany and Rachel Weisz. Sir Ian McKellen has a tragic scene describing how one must survive under Nazism as (as he puts it) a “fluff”.
The Grey Zone (2001)
Let’s face it, all of these movies are depressing, but The Grey Zone is one of the more brutal examples of an “I’d like two Excedrin now!” film.
Before Son of Saul, no movie had really “gone inside” Auschwitz with any degree of verisimilitude except Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone. It focuses on the Jewish Sonderkommando, who kept the gears of death oiled under the promise of another day’s survival and a bit of food. After the initial shock of the setting, the film settles on a seldom-told story of concentration camp insurrection.
We all wonder what we would do if we were put in this horrifying situation. This is the rare film that dares to answer.
A film so gruesome one can only interpret it as allegory, Caterpillar focuses on the Japanese home front, and a woman caring for her returning war hero husband. Despite his medals, his acts on the battlefield included rape and barbarism, and he comes back mangled and limbless and covered in burn scars. A putrid husk of extremism and nationalism, he subjects his wife to sexual sadism, while she performs what she considers her wifely and patriotic duty.
This is not some weird fetish film. Kôji Wakamatsu’s previous work, United Red Army, is one of the most insightful films about the mania of extreme political groups, and Caterpillar, despite being about the far right instead of the far left, can almost be seen as a companion piece to that great work.
A sumptuous fable from the Australian director Cate Shortland, Lore follows a group of children “on their way to Grandmother’s house” after their Nazi parents are taken in by the Americans. The trek is through a weird ellipsis of history; survivors emerge from a daze, a nation tries to piece together an identity out of rubble. This is a coming-of-age film, a road film, an adventure film, a dizzying naturalist film and above all a humanist film. At its center is a remarkable performance from Saskia Rosendahl, who begins the story as a precocious girl and ends a wise young woman.
Generation War (2013)
A number of films have humanized the German rank-and-file during the second world war. A conversation about Das Boot in the early 1980s caused a Passover seder rift I’ll never forget. Generation War is one that might still push some viewers’ buttons. This, naturally, makes it all the more relevant.
At four and a half hours (made for European television, but released theatrically in the United States), the film affords us plenty of time to meet a wide group of friends and follow their wartime experiences. Among them are a decorated soldier and a persecuted Jew, a wide-eyed nurse and an ambitious performer. “Just following orders” is the standard old line, but what’s most striking about this story is seeing how so many can disagree with their government, yet find themselves still going along. Maybe it’s revisionist history, or maybe it’s a warning for the future.