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Europe and Hollywood: Depiction of Second World War in Movies

November 10, 2009 | By

Movies produced as the Second World War progressed were inclined more towards propaganda to boost the morale of the soldiers at the front and civilians suffering back home. These are mostly of the flag-waving patriotic in nature, with glorification of the achievements (real or imaginary) of the fighting forces.

Why War Films — or Why Not?

The War film is a way of telling stories about the tragic and seemingly inevitable violence that humans continue to commit against one another and the world. Since the early days of the twentieth century, war films have been a part of popular cinema and have managed to captivate audience interest with incredible force and consistency. Why?


Europe and Hollywood: Depiction of Second World War in Movies Because a war film is not just about a war or a battle, a report on corps movement, quantity of ammunition used, list of casualties or specific details of a conflict situation – which might not interest general viewers. More often that not, war is used in cinema as a mean by which to dramatise the enduring issues that all of us face – mortality, emotional and physical frailty, sense of community and camaraderie and above all, courage – courage in the face of adversity. A number of war films have made great efforts to express some of the trauma of the war, magnify the insecurities and represent the conflict of morality – not just conflict of arms and armies.

War films can vary greatly in their forms and contents, styles and tones – some war movies serve a propaganda purpose, while others seek to suggest that there are no good wars, and never will be. Some seek to visualise the horror, both emotional and visceral, whilst others seek to acknowledge the heroism of the soldiers or civilians in violent warlike situations, or expose the twisted social and political backdrops that lead to the catastrophe.

This immense variety is what makes war movies interesting and captivating. Human history is mostly about kings, emperors and their wars, from small skirmishes to great battles. Even our own epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, narrate the circumstances that ultimately lead to a mighty clash of arms between two belligerent parties, as are epics from other lands like Greece. So the war stories have existed for as long as people fought each other. This rich history has allowed the filmmakers to dip into a vast repertoire of wars to pick up their favourite one. Ranging from the fantasy based depiction of pre-Christian era wars where a small army of superhuman Spartans fight against an overwhelming Persian army in the film 300 to the very Twenty First century War against Terrorism as in The Kingdom, almost every conceivable war fought till date has been depicted on film – such is the pull of political violence.

Europe and Hollywood: Depiction of Second World War in Movies By far the most popular type of the war films are the straightforward action-adventure spectacles, based on fictions where the war serves as an excuse for heroism. The hugely popular movies like Guns of Navarone (1961), Where Eagles Dare (1968) or The Great Escape (1963) are typical of this sub-genre and are much-loved for their flair and high octane action.

However, not all war films are of action-adventure genre, with dashing heroes and thrilling stunts. As David Lean was producing his action-drama The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1956, he commented that ‘War is not fun except in bad films and bad books…These ideas are false…War is the greatest plague on earth. I don’t think this is a time to minimise its horror and film it in false colours.’ There are films, specially coming out from Europe at about the same time, or even earlier, which made people think – think twice about the false glorification of war, cringe from its horrors and abhor its waste.

The Parting of Ways — Search for the Origins.

The contrasting styles between Hollywood and European War movies are in fact, embedded in their history. USA and Europe have different histories; they fought wars, maybe the same wars, but due to different reasons, on different sides, and their psychological approaches to these wars had been different. In this article, the term “Hollywood” has been loosely used to mean the English Language movies produced in USA which depict the fighting Americans soldiers or airmen, star Americans as heroes or protagonists, directed by mainstream directors working in established studios.

Europe and Hollywood: Depiction of Second World War in Movies

The Second World War left indelible marks on all the belligerents involved, be it the Axis powers of Germany, Italy or Japan, or the Allied nations of USA, France, Great Britain or the Soviet Union. The occupied nations of Belgium, Netherlands, Norway, Greece, Yugoslavia and Poland were also scarred by the raging battles. The innumerable movies produced by all the nations involved in this war also reflect the deep impact made by the last total war to ravage Europe.

USA as a belligerent nation has put its fighting men on the ground in a number of wars, including the Second World War. But this war never reached the American mainland. American cities and states (other than Hawaiian Islands) were never imperilled by foreign invasion. American citizens were never subjected to occupation by a foreign army, never had to organize resistance, never had their fundamental rights snatched away like the majority of the Europeans had during the second world war. In fact, the role of the American public in most of this war was that of a professional combatant, a paid member of the country’s armed forces. There were no American occupiers, resistance workers, collaborationists, turncoats or refugees in these wars. And this limited role has been reflected in the war movies produced by Hollywood.

Even before the Second World War started, the strong pacifist sentiments of Europe, its memory still fresh from the horrors of the First World War, made stunning anti-war films which are still relevant today. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), although produced by Universal Pictures in Hollywood, was based on the classic anti-war text of Erich Maria Remarque, a German by birth. It deserves a special mention as it marks a moment in cinema where there was recognition of the need to communicate the reality of combat – “the truth about the trenches”. In contrast, Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (France – 1937), made just as war clouds are gathering over Europe again, remains one of the most gentle anti-war statements captured on celluloid. In comparison, although the American public opinion was strongly anti-war before Pearl Harbour, it was more of an isolationist stand rather than pacifism.

Europe and Hollywood: Depiction of Second World War in Movies Movies produced as the Second World War progressed were inclined more towards propaganda to boost the morale of the soldiers at the front and civilians suffering back home. These are mostly of the flag-waving patriotic in nature, with glorification of the achievements (real or imaginary) of the fighting forces. David Lean and Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve (1942) about the valiant crew of the Royal Navy or William Wyler’s multi award winning Mrs Minniver (1942), the story of British homefront struggle against Nazi aggression are some fine examples of movies made to celebrate the fighting spirit and demonize the enemy.

But after the war ended in 1945, movies about the just concluded war started to be produced both in Hollywood and in battle-scarred European nations. And two very popular 1940s films which characterise the difference between the two schools are Roma, Citta Aperta or Rome, Open City (Italy -1945) and Battleground (USA -1949). Roberto Rossellini’s masterpiece, made shortly after liberation of Italy in 1945, is a highly unsettling, yet profoundly reaffirming story of struggle and defiance of the ordinary people in the face of adversity. The technical imperfection of the film, due to shortage of film stocks in Italy just after the war, creates a documentary appearance, highlighting the drama of post-war turmoil of the Italian people as a whole. In a way, this grainy, realistic film paved the way to Italian Neorealism. In contrast, Battleground is about a group of American soldiers caught up in the Battle of the Bulge. Although extremely realistic in showing the war conditions – from freezing battlefields to foxhole musings of the battle-wearied soldiers, the camera remains sharply focussed on the heroic, unyielding GIs, the “battered bastards of Bastogne”, who held on against overwhelming German attacks and secured the ultimate victory for the allied forces. Both these movies are unrelenting in their depiction of war situations, but the European film had the populace in its focus, whereas the US film was about the soldiers on the frontline. These movies thus set a broad pattern that the two continents will follow for decades to come. A brief look into a few films coming out of some of the war ravaged countries in Europe vis a vis Hollywood’s movies will confirm the described pattern.

Conqueror and the Violated – Films from Germany & Poland

Poland was where the war started, and this is the nation which bore the brunt of a long Nazi occupation, brutal extermination of the Jews and then a bitter war for liberation. Naturally, this country has been the source of some of the most well known movies based on the war. Kanal (1957) by Andrzej Wajda remains a stunning film on the 1944 Warsaw uprising. This relentlessly bleak film is not at all exhilarating as war films from Hollywood generally are, nor does it provides any sense of promise at the end, when the survivors, battered and broken, choose to descend back into the sewers, uncompromisingly hopeless. The Pianist (Roman Polanski – 2003) has a number of similarities with Kanal, especially its final phase in which the protagonist, wandering through the apocalyptic rubble of Warsaw, finally comes across a piano, which sustains him emotionally in his isolated existence. Although The Pianist is a Poland/ France/ Germany /UK co-production, its director Roman Polanski is one of the most popular Polish directors today, and the film is based on a real-life Jewish-Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman, based on a book he authored on his wartime experiences in occupied Poland. In contrast, the film Westerplatte (1967) by Stanislaw Rozewicz, a popular war epic, is more in line with mainstream war movie template, full of heroic combats by beleaguered Polish soldiers up against the German might at the start of the Second World War.


Europe and Hollywood: Depiction of Second World War in Movies

Interestingly, among the major filmmaking nations, Germany has shown a true interest in filming its own history, maybe bettered only by the United Kingdom.

Germany has long been a producer of iconic war films like Das Boot (1981) by Wolfgang Petersen or Europa Europa (1990) by Agnieszka Holland. The film Stalingrad (1993) by Joseph Vilsmaier presented a German point-of-view anti-war battle drama, which was released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the crucial defeat of the Nazi forces in Stalingrad, a turning point of WWII. The grim and depressing film told docu-drama style was made by the producers of Das Boot, to authentically portray the loss of two million lives on the Eastern front, when abandoned Nazi troops literally froze and starved to death during the brutal winter. The Stalingrad battle was also recently portrayed by Hollywood in a thrilling war film Enemy at the Gates (2001) by Jean-Jacques Annaud. The tense cat and mouse game between two sniper aces from Russia and Germany makes a visually impressive film, with a lot of combat zone action, love blooming amidst the ruins and ultimately a narrow victory for the talented young hero, not the evil heartless Nazi. Two films – based on the same battle – but the treatments are markedly different.

Over the last decade or so, a number of remarkable full-length feature films about World War II have been produced East of the Rhine. Most widely viewed among them are Amen (2002) by Costa-Gavras, Nowhere in Africa (2003) by Caroline Link, The Downfall (2004) by Oliver Hirschbiegel, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) by Mark Rothemund, and The Counterfeiters (2007) by Stefan Ruzowitzky. All the above mentioned films, except maybe The Downfall, hardly have combat scenes worth mentioning. Perhaps the most widely released and viewed amongst these films is Der Untergang (The Downfall). The film is an excellent portrayal of Adolf Hitler’s chaotic final days in his Berlin Bunker, as seen through the eyes of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s personal secretary. The superb performance of Bruno Granz as Adolf Hitler, who descends into madness and impotent anger as he realises that the war is lost, adds a whole new dimension to the film. Amen examines the relation between Vatican and the Nazi Germany through the eyes of a catholic priest and an SS Officer. The director Costa-Gavras, renowned for making political films with rather uncomfortable themes (Z, The Confession, Missing) adds new life to a debate that’s ongoing to this day, 60 years after the actual events took place. Nirgendwo in Afrika (Nowhere in Africa) is a story of a German Jewish Family who escapes from the Nazis to settle down at a farm in Kenya before the War. Each member of the family discovers in his or her own way that they are alien to the rest of Africa in three different levels – they are white, they are German and they are Jewish!!! Sophie Scholl – Die Letzten Tage (Sophie Scholl: The Final Days) is an intense film about the last few days of the life of a young German girl, Sophie Scholl. Sophie was a member of the German Resistance Group, White Rose, and she – along with her brother – was found guilty of distributing pamphlets denouncing the Nazis in Munich University. She was sentenced to death for treason after a routine interrogation and trial. Die Falscher (The Counterfeiters) is a compelling World War II drama about concentration camp Jews who are spared the gas chamber – in exchange for printing fake money for the Nazis. The obvious dilemma of choice of being moral or saving one’s skin gets clouded in this fascinating true story of the attempt by the Nazis to ruin Allied economies.

Hollywood Taste — & Hollywood Money

Almost all the films mentioned above deviate widely from the normal Hollywood-style template of Second World War films, depicting nasty Nazis, persecuted hapless Jews and unconflicted resistance warriors. The Hollywood perfected its action-oriented war film formula during the 1960s and 70s. Vietnam was fast developing into a quagmire for American forces during this time. The moral, political and military situation in USA called for these tales of gallant sacrifice and struggle in a previous war where good and evil are more clearly demarked. The films like Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Longest Day (1962), The Bridge at Remagen (1969), Patton (1970), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) or Midway (1976) becomes moral boosting historical recreations of major battles or War related events, or biopics of important war figures. The action is mainly limited to the clash of arms between modern armies locked into a deadly embrace, the focus remains sharply on the fighting men and their activities and achievements during the wartime. It does not mean that these films were badly made. On the contrary, these are still enormously popular and remain as war classics. The technical superiority of these films remains unquestionable.


Europe and Hollywood: Depiction of Second World War in Movies

Another major point to note is that producing a war film that takes place between 1939 and 1945 requires having a big budget. In fact, during the immediate post war days with half the Europe in ruins, this budget constraint was another important factor that made the European movie producers to go for low-cost productions which are more intimate in nature and battle scenes are few and far between. This therefore limited the number of ambitious projects, making international co-productions necessary. In this frugal period, they adopted the style that distinguished them from Hollywood. On the other hand, financing an ambitious war film was never a problem for Hollywood studios, with their enormous financial muscle. They had the luxury to produce the impressive war films, involving thousands of extras, lavish sets complete with tanks, aircrafts and even bombed cities. Recent Hollywood war movies like Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Thin Red Line (1999) or Clint Eastwood’s double Flags of our Fathers (2006) & Letters from Iwo Jima (2007) are extremely impressive productions, both as visual treats and in content. For example, the movie Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg) had a thousand real-life Irish Soldiers enacting the film’s famous Omaha Beach Landing sequence. These films immerse their audience within the combat zone like never before, and are rightly considered as technical, critical and commercial success. These resources, till recently, were out of bounds for most of the European production houses.

There are numerous movies made on the Second World War. What is discussed above is to be taken as a rather broad generalization. There are very notable exceptions to the “formulaic” approach of Hollywood Films and on the other hand, there are European War Films that are spectacular War epics or unabashed worship of national heroes that will make Hollywood pale in comparison. Schindler’s List (1993), a black and white masterpiece on Holocaust from director Steven Spielberg, does not have a single scene of the actual War, yet IMDB ranks it as the Number One “War” Title (as on 9th August, 2009).

Ultimately, images of war, whether Hollywood or European, remind us of its immense tragedy that have always formed a part of human expression. French director Francois Truffaut objected to the idea of making Anti-War films, as he thought films would always make war look exciting and heroic. We abhor war, our animal instincts leads to war. But when it comes to war films, we are fascinated by its epic scope, its uniforms, martial music, arms and weapons, flag-waving heroic soldiers. We cry at the sufferings of the affected population, we side with the resistance workers, the beaten underdogs. We cheer at the courage of all involved. We follow our basic instincts. But war movies also lead us to re-experience the horrors of the war, understand the trauma of conflict. The films force us, the audience, to find better ways of living, loving and understanding, they ignite our faith in peace.


Clarke, James, War Films, Virgin Books, 2006
Ebert, Roger, The Great Movies, Broadway Books, 2003
Pierre Eisenreich, “World War II and German Cinema in the Eyes of Modern-Day French Critics” Goethe-Institut, Filmbereich. Accessed June 2009
Tim Dirks, “War and Anti-War Films” Accessed July 2009
The Internet Movie Database, Accessed June-August, 2009

(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)

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Ratul Jash is a senior IT professional from Kolkata. His interests include cinema and history.
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