Whether you call it Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, Veterans Day, or in Poland’s case, Independence Day, November 11th of each year is kept in memory of the great wars of the twentieth century, and of the many sacrifices made in the fight for freedom.
Until relatively recently, movies about the two World Wars have focused almost exclusively on the heroic exploits of a few soldiers, with relatively little attention drawn to the horrors of war. This romantic view of modern warfare has changed more recently, with movies which are not nearly as one sided in their portrayals of armed conflict.
In 1993, Schindler’s List was released, addressing issues of the Holocaust. This marked the first of many award nominated war films by director Stephen Spielberg. While some have complained that this film focuses on the 600 Jews who were saved, rather than the several million Jews who were murdered during the Second World War, it is an emotionally powerful film.
Spielberg followed up in 1998 with Saving Private Ryan. This was one of the first movies to portray the horrors of war as just that: horrifying. The landing scene at Omaha Beach is chaotic and deadly, with a frenetic pace as soldiers died to take the beachhead. Of particular note in this film is the framing device, the and elderly veteran visiting the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, to honour his fallen comrades. There is a great deal of focus on what we do with our lives, and how to live them in a way which honours the fallen soldiers in these great wars.
In 2001, the HBO series Band of Brothers followed the men of Easy Company as they fought in WWII, along with interviews with the surviving members of Easy Company. This series goes beyond any other that I have seen in depicting the war, and the terrible toll it took on the soldiers who fought in them. It’s a visually stunning film, and extremely emotional. Part 9, Why We Fight, is one of the most heartbreaking of episodes, and invariably brings tears to my eyes.
While I have not yet seen it, in 2010, the HBO miniseries The Pacific focused on the efforts of the US Marines in the Pacific front in WWII. This forms a counterbalance to Band of Brothers which focused exclusively on the European front.
There are a number of documentaries about the war as well. I’ve recently watched Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State, a BBC documentary narrated by Linda Hunt, which uses multiply sourced historical documents to portray the Nazi’s genocidal program at the concentration camps. It’s a powerful documentary, in clinical precision detailing how the Nazi regime carried out the mass murder of over six million Jews and undesirables.
There are also films which show Hitler‘s rise and fall. The film Downfall has become famous for various YouTube spoofs where Hitler learns of some new event, for which he is then angry. The real film is quite powerful, showing a Führer out of touch with the realities of the war, and of his own people.
Another highly fictionalized portrayal is Hitler: The Rise of Evil. This film covers the period from the end of the Great War to the Night of the Long Knives. This movie was uncomfortable to watch, and not just because it was showing the beginning of the Nazi regime. The filmmakers made several decisions which seemed to make a caricature of Hitler, well beyond what would have been necessary. Choices in the film are entirely fictionalized, even contradicting historical evidence. This was a disturbing film to watch, slough perhaps not in the way the filmmakers intended.
There are of course many other recent films which depict the wars and the Holocaust. Passchendaele, by Canadian director Paul Gross shows the futile battles fought over fields of mud in World War I. Life is Beautiful, The Pianist, The Counterfeiters, and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas all cover stories of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
Film plays a great part in remembering the past. All the more so today, when there are so few veterans of the Second World War alive today. Their personal testament to the horrors of war have gone silent, and these films, although they often contain fictional elements, are now the most vivid reminders of worldwide war.