We are in the midst of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Germans surrendered in May of 1945 and the Japanese in August and September of the same year. A war on such a truly global scale was bound to produce some amazing global cinema, so take a moment to explore six of the best films made about the conflict.
Title: Kanal (Poland, 1956)
Plot: “Watch them closely, for these are the last hours of their lives,” intones the narrator at the beginning of Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal, one of the most harrowing things you’ll ever see. Set during the failed Warsaw Uprising of 1944 (not to be confused with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943), Kanal follows a doomed Polish partisan unit as they attempt to escape the Nazis by fleeing through the sewers of Warsaw. Kanal shows us a world where heroism and nobility can’t save you from grim, implacable horror.
Historical context: Kanal is the second of Andrzej Wajda’s WWII trilogy, which begins with A Generation (1955) and concludes with Ashes and Diamonds (1958). Masterpieces of post-war cinema, Wajda’s films represent a fascinating exploration of Poland’s wartime experience and a negotiation of the reality of the Soviet-imposed communism that followed the war. Wajda’s father was murdered by the Soviets during the Katyn Massacre of 1940, a subject he wouldn’t treat until decades later with 2007’s Katyn. Also notably absent from this trilogy, with the exception of a single bit in A Generation, is the subject of the Holocaust, which Wadja would go on to address in films like Korczak (1990). Over the decades, Wajda has addressed many topic, but his explorations of WWII represent one of the most consistent and penetrating cinematic engagements with the subject.
Where it’s streaming: Hulu.
Title: Overlord (United Kingdom, 1975)
Plot: When young Englishman Tommy is called up in the midst of World War II, he puts on a brave face for mum, dad, and Tina (his cocker spaniel), and embarks on a distinctly unglamorous military career. Tommy is a small cog in a very large military machine, and as the film takes him from training to D-Day (the first stage of Operation Overlord, which was the broader invasion of Normandy), one is struck time and again by the powerlessness of the individual when confronted by the forces of history.
Historical context: The story of the genesis of Overlord could be a movie unto itself. Director Stuart Cooper was an American actor in Britain whose most notable film appearance to date was in The Dirty Dozen (a very different kind of WWII movie). In 1974, he began research for a documentary on the Overlord embroidery, a Bayeux-style tapestry depicting the Normandy landings. From this, he conceived the film that became Overlord, which combines documentary footage from WWII with the story of poor Tommy, whose misadventures were shot on 1940’s film stock that blends seamlessly with the rest of the film. The result is one of the most idiosyncratic and simultaneously moving film treatments that the war has ever received.
Where it’s streaming: Hulu.
Title: The Ascent (USSR, 1977)
Plot: In German-occupied Belarus (then the Byelorussian SSR), a haggard Soviet partisan unit sends two soldiers, Sotnikov and Rybak, off to find food. When Sotnikov is wounded in the leg, Rybak selflessly refuses to leave him behind, and they both end up captured by the Nazis. The Germans offer the two partisans a choice: become collaborationist policemen under the command of the German Army, or face death by hanging. The fateful decisions that Sotnikov and Rybak will have to make remain as shocking and heartbreaking as ever.
Historical context: Belarus lost a third of its population during WWII through a combination of murder and displacement. Hundreds of Belarusian villages were burned to the ground, some several times over. Although occupied and behind the lines for much of the war, Belarus was never at peace; virtually from the beginning of the Axis invasion of the USSR, Soviet partisans waged a desperate insurgency in German-occupied Belarus, Ukraine, and western Russia. With The Ascent, brilliant and underrated director Larisa Shepitko presents a devastating picture of both the physical brutality and the moral quandaries posed by the war. It was to be Shepitko’s last film, as she died in a car accident in 1979. Her widower, the director Elem Klimov, would create his own distinctive Belarusian nightmare with 1985’s Come and See.
Where it’s streaming: Hulu.
Title: The Thin Red Line (USA, 1998)
Plot: At the heart of this ensemble film from Terrance Malick lies a hill on Guadalcanal. It has been thoroughly fortified by Japanese soldiers, and it is the dubious task of an American army unit (Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, and others) to dislodge them. Filmed in the impressionistic, “spiritual” style for which Malick is known (with all the characters providing their own philosophical voice-over narration), The Thin Red Line is one of the most hypnotic and immersive WWII films to come out of the U.S. (even if it was eclipsed upon its release by a certain Steven Spielberg movie about the extrication of Matt Damon from the Battle of the Bulge…).
Historical context: The Battle of Guadalcanal was the first major American ground campaign in the Pacific Theater. It pitted largely untested American soldiers against an experienced Japanese force that became increasingly desperate as the battle turned against them. With its scope and its juxtaposition of great natural beauty with appalling human violence, the Battle of Guadalcanal was the ideal subject for Terrance Malick’s return to filmmaking after 20 years of silence. Everybody wanted to be in this movie. In fact, there were A-list actors (Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall) who took part in filming only to find that they had been edited out entirely from the final product. It was also a great platform for its fresh-faced lead, Jim Caviezel, before he squandered any good will accumulated thereby with his starring role in The Passion of the Christ.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: City of Life and Death (China, 2009)
Plot: Few episodes in the Chinese theater of WWII, where somewhere between 15 and 20 million people died, are more horrifying than the Rape of Nanking. When Nanking, the capital of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government, fell to Japanese forces in 1937, the latter began a six-week campaign of mass rape and murder in the fallen city, in which tens or even hundreds of thousands of people were killed. To make a film about this subject is a tall order to say the least, but director Lu Chuan rises to the occasion, telling the story in an episodic fashion that presents us with a series of tableaux of the Japanese atrocities, capturing both the horror of the event, as well as the episodes of heroism that spared further thousands from a grisly fate.
Historical context: The Rape of Nanking remains a source of controversy between China and Japan (and it really shouldn’t) because there are right-wing militarists in Japan who like to deny that it even happened. Unlike Germany, which has generally been brutally honest with itself about its wartime atrocities, the Japanese have been distinctly reluctant to come to a similar reckoning. It’s this ambivalence which allows this denial — like that espoused by far-right leader Shintaro Ishihara — to flourish. Brave, then, were the Japanese actors who participated in Lu’s film, which actually managed to alienate people on all sides. Lu made the choice to show a number of Japanese soldiers as being doubtful about, or downright opposed to, the crimes they were ordered to commit. Certain elements of the Chinese establishment were appalled that he didn’t depict all the Japanese soldiers as monsters. And then we have the above-mentioned Japanese nationalists, who objected to the depiction of any Japanese soldiers as monsters. And so, by seeking honesty and balance, Lu Chuan managed to alienate everybody. An admirable feat.
Where it’s streaming: Fandor.
Title: My Way (South Korea, 2011)
Plot: This epic film follows the WWII experience of two competitive runners, one Korean, one Japanese, as their peregrinations and sufferings takes them, through many twists and turns, overland across the Eurasian continent from Korea to France. This takes us through a broad sweep of the Asian and European theaters of the war conveying, as few other films have, the truly global scope of the conflict. It also bears witness to the sufferings of the Korean people in the 20th century and the pernicious effects of racism, both between peoples and between individuals.
Historical Context: Kang Je-gyu’s My Way features a plot so farfetched that one is astonished to find out that it’s more or less true. Kang, whose previous films include the nightmarish Korean War epic Taegukji, takes as his subject Yang Kyoung-jong, who was discovered by American soldiers dressed in German uniform at Normandy in 1944. They at first assumed he was Japanese, but he explained to them that no, he was in fact Korean, and he had an incredible story to tell. Beginning in 1938 and ending with his capture in 1944, Yang was variously drafted and imprisoned by the Japanese, the Soviets, and the Germans (each side concluding that he was more useful to them as a soldier than a prisoner), until he found himself in American custody. Based on his experiences, he probably assumed the Americans were going to draft him too, but instead they shipped him off to a POW camp. Upon his release, he made his home in the United States, where he died in Illinois in 1992.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.