Tag Archive: world war ii


It Has Happened Here

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There are two great myths of World War II. The first says that there was something intrinsic to the national characters of Germany and Italy, a flaw that made them uniquely susceptible to the destructive id of fascism. The second myth evangelizes the existence of a unified, democratic resistance to fascism even amongst the nations occupied by the Nazis.

Marcel Ophüls’ 1969 documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity, demolishes both myths and, in the process, serves as a harrowing reminder of the ease with which liberty and human prosperity can fall when they aren’t safeguarded through constant vigilance. Few historical documents of the 20th century offer as intimate a peek into the constant struggle to identify, combat, organize against, and educate others about political oppression.

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(Author’s Note: I originally posted these thoughts as a series of tweets. I’m posting them here for people who don’t follow me on Twitter or who want these thoughts in a more readable format.)

If anybody needs an explanation for what happened this week, watch Marcel Ophuls’ ‘The Sorrow & the Pity.’ It’s a documentary from the 1960s that decimates the enduring myth of the united French resistance to fascism during the Occupation.

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I’ve long thought about trying my hand at writing a war movie. Other than the clear obstacle that I have absolutely no military experience whatsoever, I’ve alays been plagued by my desire to not write your typical, American military film. If I ever wrote a war movie, I wouldn’t want to write about the winning side, or, in the fashion of Saving Private Ryan, at least not one who achieved anything more than a Pyrrhic victory. War films about glorious victors are too self-congratulatory and celebratory. The notion of “We won; you lost,” permeates every scene and they generally fail to capture the hellish realities of war. And, perhaps, that’s why my two favorite World War II films come from the perspective of the soon-to-be damned.

Up until last night, I would have said 1981’s Das Boot was the best World War II movie ever made. Wolfgang Petersen’s classic examination of life on a German U-Boat at the end of World War II captures the reality of “War Is Hell” better than any film ever made, except perhaps Grave of the Fireflies. And it achieved that through avoid any glorification of war whatsoever. These men’s lives were miserable and full of death, and even when they made it back to Germany, death awaited them. It was one man’s deconstruction of a glorious myth of his own people’s past, and it remains one of the finest war films ever made. 2004’s Downfall takes an even more stark and controversial route than Das Boot by daring to humanize the final days of the Third Reich.

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It is, in Germany, illegal to display most symbols of the Nazi party. Nationalist and hard-right political parties are illegal, and performing the Nazi salute is a prosecutable offense. German’s are sick, to this day, to their very soul by the horrors they committed in World War II, and what makes Downfall work so well is that, like The White Ribbon, it is both a cinematic excoriation of the darker side of German culture as well as an honest humanization of the men and women who oversaw some of the worst atrocities in human history. That the film dares offer a realistic and honest portrait of Adolf Hitler alone would have qualified it as mandatory World War II viewing, but the film is much more ambitious and far-sighted than that.

Based heavily on the testimony of Hitler’s personal secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), Downfall is a painstakingly realized portrayal of the final week of the men in the Third Reich’s bunker in Berlin as Russian forces slowly but surely capture the city. Hitler (Wings of Desire‘s Bruno Ganz) lives in a schizophrenic state of absolute refusal to accept that his dreams shall not come to pass against sudden bouts of realistic acceptance and plans for his own imminent suicide with his mistress Eva Braun (Nowhere in Africa‘s Juliane Kohler). As  Hitler’s stability dwindles, his top generals and brass, including Albert Speer, Heinrich Himler, and Josef Goebbels, are left fighting amongst themselves on whether to obey’s the Fuhrer’s orders and refuse surrender or to ignore Hitler and save their people from total destruction.

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And as life in the bunker devolves into a daily race to see who Hitler accuses of being a traitor next (if for no other reason than not being able to follow his impossible demands), life above the bunker in the streets of Berlin is even worse. Goebbels has commanded battalions of children to serve as cannon fodder to slow the advance of the Red Army. Heinrich Himmler has removed all of the SS and most top government officials from the city leaving the remaining civilians to die of starvation and sickness. And what few doctors remain in the city are stretched threadbare amongst the surviving resistance. And, without fail, the Russians continue their march into the city itself.

Bruno Ganz’s performance as Adolf Hitler is one of the most remarkable and stunningly courageous performances in the history of the silver screen. Hitler is not the type of role any German actor would naturally gravitate towards, but Ganz brings him to life in a wrenchingly honest way. In a performance that can only be described as the exact opposite of his kind and sensitive angel Damiel in Wings of Desire, Ganz’s Hitler is by turns despotic, brutal, cruel, and unyielding. Yet, minutes later, he can be caring, gentle with women and children, despairing, and frightened. If any historical figure from the 1900s lends itself to over-the-top caricature, it’s Hitler, but even in his most explosive angry moments, Bruno Ganz keeps his characterization frighteningly realistic.

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And Ganz is supported by an exceptional pool of talented German actors and actresses. Anyone who’s seen Nowhere in Africa knows how talented Juliane Kohler is, and her Eva Braun is exceptionally different from her suffering Jewish wife/mother. She’s a manic creature who wants to manufacture a joie de vivre in the bunker even when she knows she will die soon. Alexandra Maria Lara brings the secretary to life, and you sympathize with her suffering even though you know she works directly for one of the most evil men in human history. Other stellar supporting performances include Corinna Harfouch as Goebbel’s zealously loyal wife, Christian Berkel as a nazi doctor, and Ulrich Matthes as Goebbels himself.

When the movie was released in 2004, it was fairly controversial for its dogged refusal to not simply make its protagonist monstrous caricatures. Yes, we see how truly monstrous these men and women can be. Hitler asserts repeatedly that the German people don’t deserve to live after the war because they have failed him. Goebbel’s wife, Magda, poisons her children in their sleep rather than let them live in a world without National Socialism. Many of Hitler’s men scheme to depose him now that the war is clearly lost. But, at the same time, the movie touches on the small moments of humanity these comrades share before their downfall. Eva Braun gives Traudl her best fur coat. Hitler walks his dog and congratulates his best soldiers. Goebbels leads his children in German songs to entertain the soldiers and the Fuhrer.

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The film never stops finding little moments like that. Though there is plenty of conventional warfare going on above the bunker (which is displayed in graphic detail), the movie’s most effective moments are in the character-building and day-to-day life at the end of a wannabe empire. This movie’s deliberate pacing may scare away more action-oriented war movie lovers, but for those who understand that the key to a successful war film (or any film to be honest) is character driven storytelling (so we’re invested in the outcome on screen), Downfall‘s dedication to character is a breath of fresh air.

At 110o words, I’m going to draw this review to a close because I promised my sister I would watch the Billy Wilder/Humphrey Bogart/Audrey Hepburn classic Sabrina with her later. Also, I’m very, very hungry. It’s 4:30 and I haven’t eaten anything today (although to be fair, I didn’t wake up until 2:30 PM). If you’re looking for a World War II movie that breaks the mold, look no further than Downfall. After some contemplation, it replaces Das Boot as what I consider to be the best World War II film ever made, and it’s deserving of a wider audience than it’s had over the years.

Final Score: A

 

(Quick aside before my actual review. As always. Yes, I realize that my last three films have been from the 1950s now. I was supposed to review Woody Allen’s 1990s movie Crimes and Misdemeanors but the copy of it that I got sent from Netflix was cracked so there was no dice there. If I review a film tomorrow [which I may not because I’m going to be working on the new Ariel Pink’s Haunted Grafitti album for my NYC job and I also have to see my academic adviser for Morgantown school life], it’s going to be the more modern Like Water for Chocolate. So for those of you who have grown tired of me reviewing so many older films, that should change shortly.)

It’s one of the rare pleasures of watching an absurd number of movies that you get to see when future directors lift entire scenes from older films to suit their homage/genre feature purposes. Quentin Tarantino is notorious for it, almost to the point that he’s been accused of plagiarism (although I’ll let it slide for Tarantino since they are such loving [and usually awesome] scenes that are better remembered than the films he cribbed from). One can put in the Indiana Jones films and go back and look at old adventure serials to see exactly which scenes Lucas and Spielberg took from to make the movie. The 1955 World War II “classic”, The Dam Busters, was liberally stolen from in Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope for the Death Star sequences. An interesting and surprisingly science-driven look at one of the lesser known aspects of World War II, The Dam Busters is an educating film if not quite an entertaining one.


In the waning months of the European campaign of World War II, British military scientist Doctor Wallis (Michael Redgrave) believes he has come up with a way to cripple the German industrial machine. Most of German’s steel manufacturing at the time was reliant on power generated by hydro-electric dams, and if one were to knock those dams out, the German’s ability to continue to arm themselves would be crippled. Doctor Wallis devises a “bouncing” bomb to be delivered by highly trained fighter pilots to breach the German defenses and blow up the dams. After much fighting with the British government, his plan is eventually approved, and with the help of ace pilot Wing Commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd), the Brits train an elite cadre of pilots to fly behind German lines and lay the groundwork for the ultimate Allied victory.

Much like The Longest Day (but without suffering that film’s interminable length), The Dam Busters works more as a history lesson than a dramatic film. Roughly the only character traits developed in this film is Commander Gibson’s love of his dog (whose racist name I will not be printing in this review). Other than that, everyone from the top down is a bland mix of archetypal World War II caricatures. Even when the flyboys let off some steam by getting into a playful fight with another group of airmen, you feel like you’re watching more a bland representation of a historical occurrence than a moment which could have shown the boiling tension these men are facing before they go off on a possible suicide mission. The only times when the film’s History Channel presentation has any life (besides the climactic final mission) are the small science moments where Michael Redgrave delights over his own ingenuity.

However, during the bombing missions themselves, I must admit that I let out some mild squeals of glee when I saw just how many images from the iconic Death Star scenes were taken from this movie. Whether it’s the turret run, trying to hit an almost impossible target, the sights on Luke’s Tie-Fighter (or do the Rebels use X-Wings? I can never remember. I’m sure some nerd will correct me), or even some of the dialogue on how their voices sound on the comm systems, it really was just a real life version of the big battle in A New Hope. The film was nominated for a Visual Effects Oscar, and while some of the artillery fire and flak may seem really fake looking today, it’s obvious that The Dam Busters was a major technical achievement when it was first released. There is just something inherently thrilling about dogfights, and The Dam Busters delivers the goods.

For those who don’t find themselves enamored with the minutiae of history, The Dam Busters may come off as a terrible bore. The characters are all instantly forgettable, and it isn’t until the final thirty minutes or so of the film that any action ever actually happens. However, for World War II buffs and those interested in the lesser-explored sides of military history, it has its moments. It’s one of the only military dramas I can think of where a scientist was one of the primary heroes. That has to count for something. Peter Jackson has long been rumored to be working on a remake of the film. If that ever comes to fruition (after the three Hobbit films [serious overkill]), I could find myself getting very excited for the direction he could take this compelling story.

Final Score: B-

Trying to make a war film that is neither jingoistic propaganda or patent exploitation of historical tragedy is a very fine balancing act. During Hollywood’s history, there have been far, far too many movies about military conflict that are just clear-cut propaganda supporting the conflict that don’t even begin to look at the actual details of what brought us to this war in the first place or to place you inside the mindsets of the men fighting the war. They are just made to glorify battle and to satisfy the public that our men aren’t dying for no reason. This hasn’t been as common post-Vietnam (when war films became increasingly anti-war), but before that, it’s hard to find a single war movie that wasn’t meant to glorify battle. The second problem (exploiting historical maladies to make a film for entertainment) is the more common modern issue. Unless you are opening your audience’s eyes to something many people didn’t even know existed or you’re creating a genuinely original artifact or thematic statement, why rehash ideas that have grown completely old and stale. You’re simply making money off of other’s people past suffering, and where is the art in that?

1962’s The Longest Day doesn’t actually suffer from either of those problems (though it encounters others). This three hour long epic look at the D-Day invasion (whether this is the sea landing at Normandy or the parachutists landing behind enemy lines) tries to paint the complete picture of that day through stories told through the eyes of the Americans, the French, the British, and every surprisingly sympathetic Germans. So, there’s certainly a certain air of patriotism to the film and a focus on some of the heroism of not just our soldiers but of every nation fighting in the battle, but the film never tries to beat you over the head with a jingoistic pro-America message. Similarly, although the film came out 20 years after World War II, it’s safe to say that it’s detailed and specific approach to capturing the historical reality of what was happening in a scale that no one had tried to capture before means it wasn’t exploiting that horrific day. American audiences deserved to know what happened and film is our most universal storytelling format. It hadn’t been done to death yet. However, as I said, despite avoiding those two pitfalls of military storytelling, The Longest Day fails to live up to the standards set by modern military films like Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers which covered similar ground in a much more effective manner.

To the film’s credit, it has one of the most impressive and star-studded casts in the history of cinema. To wit, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Sean Connery, Robert Mitchum, Robert Wagner, Richard Burton, Sal Mineo, Rod Steiger, and I’m sure there were other big names that I missed when I watched the ending credits. This would be like if a movie had George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Will Smith, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Cruise, and Clint Eastwood all in one place today. It would never happen. No movie could afford that kind of budget for actors, but back then, epics in the vein of Cecil B. Demille were a little more common and thus this fantastic pairing was allowed to occur. It’s a shame that none of their characters have any memorable traits and that I literally don’t know the name of a single person in this film besides historical figures like Omar Bradley and Eisenhower. Everyone else is so one-dimensional and forgettable that I never took the time to remember who was who, why they were killing the specific Nazis they were fighting, or one single characteristic of their role other than things I associate with all of their parts (John Wayne is a bad-ass, Henry Fonda is dashing, etc).

As a history lesson, the movie is a success. As a movie with real artistic value, it’s pretty distinct failure. History buffs will assuredly delight in all of the locations that are named, all of the historical and (I’m assuming) accurately re-enacted battles. Real generals and lieutenants and other soldiers from the battle are named and ranked and we see how they lived or died (or both). There are lots of interesting tidbits about what was happening on the German side of the equation that led to us being able to pull this massive gambit off (mainly we caught them with their pants down and they made several strategic mistakes). Unless you’ve already went out and learned as much as you can about Project Overlord (I think that was the code name for the Normandy Invasion and what came after), you are guaranteed to learn something new about World War II from The Longest Day. However, if I want to watch a documentary about WW II, I’ll find something that Ken Burns made (I think his WWII documentary was called The War). I want to watch a film and create emotional connections with the action unfolding on screen, and in that regard, The Longest Day was colder than my NYC apartment without the heat on (which is to say what’s happening right now. I’m freezing my ass off).

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the gritty and graphic realism of Saving Private Ryan, but The Longest Day was just a little too soft. I understand that by the film code of the day, they couldn’t make it as violent and real as Saving Private Ryan, but if I judge the film by modern standards, you can’t make a serious war film that is rated G (which this movie is). I felt as if I was watching some History channel re-enactment and I never once connected with the action on screen other than bemoaning the sad sacrifices that this world had to go through to take down fascism. Maybe I should judge the film as a product of it’s times (where it would probably have seemed much more groundbreaking), but it is almost laughably simple by today’s standards. There were exactly two moments in the film of real emotional impact (one was a man hanging helplessly from his parachute caught on a building as he watched all of his friends be massacred and the other was the second to last scene of the movie where two men simply talk about the apocalyptic violence of the day) and that was it. So, for all history and military buffs, you may enjoy this more than I did, but for everyone who wants a little life in their films, you can steer clear.

Final Score: C+