The Part-Time Critic

Monday, January 17, 2022

Part-Time Recommendation: In the Name of Jesus

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Part-Time Recommendation: In the Name of Jesus

I've been skimming through a lot of Christian leadership books the last couple of weeks (part of something I'm working on for school) and I came across this simple little book on leadership from Henri Nouwen that I'd never seen before. Full disclosure: I'm a huge Nouwen fan. I'd list him as a top five Christian author of all-time for me. This book does not disappoint. This text has all the classical hallmarks of Nouwen's best work: simple, direct, and always focused on the suffering servant leadership of Christ. If you have ever experienced a position of Christian leadership for any time then I think Nouwen has a way of speaking out loud your struggles and pains like few others can do. I think every Christian leader should read this book every couple of years. 

The text came about because Nouwen was invited to speak about Christian leadership in the 21st century at the Center for Human Development in Washington, DC. Nouwen had been a professor of pastoral theology, pastoral psychology, and Christian spirituality at academic institutions like Notre Dame, Harvard, and Yale for over twenty year and had only recently made a move to serve in L’Arche communities for mentally handicapped people. His experience with teaching at these hallowed academic institutions humbled him into reflection, “As I entered into my fifties and was able to realize the unlikelihood of doubling my years, I came face to face with the simple question, ‘Did becoming older bring me closer to Jesus?’ After twenty-five years of priesthood, I found myself praying poorly, living somewhat isolated from other people, and very much preoccupied with burning issues. Everyone was saying that I was doing really well, but something inside me was telling me that my success was putting my own soul in danger.” (19-20) He later put it another way, “I woke up one day with the realization that I was living in a very dark place and that the term ‘burnout’ was a convenient psychological translation for a spiritual death.” (20)

This experience of moving from the “best and brightest” to those considered marginal to the needs of the world was like a rebirth for Nouwen says these, “broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self - the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things - and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.” (29-30). The insights of this experience at L’Arche would become the foundations for his talk at the the Center for Human Development and the text of this book.

Part of my reading process is to synthesize and paraphrase major quotes/ideas from the book to make a book summary - though this book is so short and direct it's almost a fools errand to summarize it. Still, I enjoy the process of taking the best and most substantive quotes and mashing them together into something more concise, without losing the punch of the book. I thought you might get something out of the summary I created so I've shared it with you below. Keep in mind that this is my synthesis of Nouwen's key quotes (meaning it's almost entirely composed of his words) with a bit of light paraphrasing of my own. You can purchase the book HERE *I don't get referral money :)

Book Thesis: 
“Too often I looked at being relevant, popular, and powerful as ingredients of an effective ministry. The truth, however, is that these are not vocations but temptations. Jesus asks, ‘Do you love me?’ Jesus sends us out to be shepherds, and Jesus promises a life in which we increasingly have to stretch out our hands and be led to places where we would rather not go. He asks us to move from a concern for relevance to a life of prayer, from worries about popularity to community and mutual ministry, and from a leadership built on power to a leadership in which we critically discern where God is leading us and our people.” (91-92)

Part 1 - From Relevance to Prayer: 
Nouwen sees the three major temptations Jesus faced in the desert as still the core temptations the 21st century Christian leader will face. Satan’s first temptation for Jesus was to turn stones into bread - to be relevant as a leader. How great would it be to be successful? To see everyone impoverished become comfortable, everyone suffering become healed, everyone hungry get filled, everyone thirsty be satisfied? How wonderful to point to our accomplishments for God? Christ could have done this, Nouwen argues, but instead forgoes this for the ministry of declaring his Word, “ does not live on bread alone.”

In a world where most ministers suffer from low self-esteem and feel less and less relevant in a secularized world that says, “We can handle things without you!” this temptation is understandable and compelling. To this, Nouwen replies, “But there is a completely different story to tell. Beneath all the great accomplishments of our time there is a deep current of despair. While efficiency and control are the great aspirations of our society, the loneliness, isolation, lack of friendship, and intimacy, broken relationships, boredom, feelings of emptiness and depression, and a deep sense of uselessness fill the hearts of millions of people in our success-oriented world.” (33)

It is here that a new Christian leadership must dare to claim their irrelevance to a world weary of accomplishment, efficiency, and stability. It is the divine vocation of the Christian leader to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self that “allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there.” (34-35) Why? Because this is how Jesus revealed God’s love, “The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God’s Word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.” (29-30)

Nouwen sees the remedy to this temptation in the story of Peter’s reconciliation on the shorelines. Before Christ commissions Peter to be a shepherd in his mission he asks him a simple question three times, “Do you love me?” Nouwen says, “We have to hear that question as being central to all of our Christian ministry because it is the question that can allow us to be, at the same time, irrelevant and truly self-confident…The question is not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus?…In our world of loneliness and despair, there is an enormous need for men and women who know the heart of God, a heart that forgives, cares, reaches out and wants to heal.” (36-37)

A powerful way to be confident in our irrelevance, to offer the world our vulnerability and love of God, is through contemplative prayer where we root ourselves in the truth of God’s first love, “Contemplative prayer keeps us home, rooted, and safe, even when we are on the road, moving from place to place, and often surrounded by sounds of violence and war. Contemplative prayer deepens in us the knowledge that we are already free, that we have already found a place to dwell, that we already belong to God, even though everything and everyone around us keep suggesting the opposite.” (43)

In summary, our world suffers from an epidemic of relevancy. The true Christian leader, rooted in God’s first love stoked through contemplative prayer, is willing to stand in the midst of that broken world, confident and vulnerable in irrelevancy, and point to its only healing source in Christ. The central question Christian leaders must ask is this, are they more interested in the rat race of relevancy or are they “truly men and women of God, people with an ardent desire to dwell in God’s presence, to listen to God’s voice, to look at God’s beauty, to touch God’s incarnate Word, and to taste fully God’s infinite goodness?” (43)

Part II - From Popularity to Ministry
“Throw yourself from the parapet of the temple and let the angels catch you and carry you in their arms” is the second temptation of Jesus in the desert. Nouwen identifies this temptation for Jesus and the contemporary Christian leader as the temptation for popularity, for doing something that would gain the applause of the crowd. Linking with our temptation to be relevant, we want those moments of achievement, those unique talents, those glorious contributions to be noticed and connect us with our people. This, however, is not true ministry, it is just another game of the world - individualism heroism and stardom.

After Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” he commissioned Peter to feed my lambs, look after my sheep, feed my sheep. He gave Peter the task of ministry. If we are to minister as Jesus ministers, we must eschew the power games and professionalism of the world and look to Jesus’ servant leadership, “[Jesus] wants Peter to find his sheep and care for them, not as ‘professionals’ who know their clients’ problems and take care of the, but as vulnerable brothers and sisters who know and are known, who care and are cared for, who forgive and are being forgiven who love and are being loved.” (60-61)

Here is the key quote of the chapter: “Somehow we have come to believe that good leadership requires a safe distance from those we are called to lead. Medicine, psychiatry, and social work all offer us models in which ‘service’ takes place in a one-way direction. Someone serves, someone else is being served, and be sure not to mix up the roles! But how can we lay down our life for those with whom we are not even allowed to enter into a deep personal relationship? Laying down your life means making your own faith and doubt, hope and despair, joy and sadness, courage and fear available to others as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of life. We are not the healers, we are not the reconcilers, we are not the givers of life. We are sinful, broken, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for. The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God. Therefore, true ministry must be mutual. When the members of a community of faith cannot truly know and love their shepherd, shepherding quickly becomes a subtle way of exercising power over others and begins to show authoritarian and dictatorial traits.” (61-62)

The discipline required to keep us in mutual ministry and overcome individual heroism with those we lead is confession and forgiveness. Unfortunately, it seems that , “that priests and ministers are the least confessing people in the Christian community…“How can priests or ministers feel really loved and cared for when they have to hide their own sins and failings from the people to whom they minister and run off to a distant stranger to receive a little comfort and consolation? How can people truly care for their shepherds and keep them faithful to their sacred task when they do not know them and so cannot deeply love them?” (65) Confession has power, it is “Through confession, the dark powers are taken out of their carnal isolation, brought into the light, and made visible to the community. Through forgiveness, they are disarmed and dispelled and a new integration between body and spirit is made possible.” (68) Nouwen doesn’t think this means that priests and ministers bring their sins and failures explicitly into their pulpits and ministries as they wouldn’t be servant leadership. It does mean that our communities must make a truly safe place for priests and ministers to share their deep pain and struggles with someone who doesn’t need them and can bring them deeper into the mystery of God’s love.

In summary, the second major temptation for Christian leaders is to seek the applause of those we serve. This temptation mistakes true ministry which is not a professional “one-way” service, but is a mutual ministry where we remain broken people God is using. To accomplish this, ministers must be able to safely practice confession and forgiveness - they must remain known to their sheep.

Part III - From Leading to Being Led: 
The third temptation of Jesus, and of ministers today, is the temptation of power. “One of the greatest ironies of the history of Christianity is that its leaders constantly gave in to the temptation of power - political power, military power, economic power, or moral and spiritual power - even though they continued to speak in the name of Jesus, who did not cling to his divine power but emptied himself and became as we are.” (76) Why are so many drawn to power instead of the hard task of love? Nouwen ponders, ““Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life. Jesus asks, ‘Do you love me?’ We ask, ‘Can we sit at your right hand and your left hand in your Kingdom?’ (Matthew 20:21)” (77)

After Jesus commissions Peter to be a leader of his sheep, he “confronts him with the hard truth that the servant-leader is the leader who is being led to unknown, undesirable, and painful places. The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross.” (81-82) The Christian leader is one who is being led by the suffering servant to a leadership of powerlessness and humility that demonstrates Christ. This does not mean weak men without any spine, but, “people who are so deeply in love with Jesus that they are ready to follow him wherever he guides them, always trusting that, with him, they will find life and find it abundantly.” (83-84)

The discipline connected with this temptation is, “strenuous theological reflection” that will allow us to discern critically where we are being led. “Theological reflection is reflecting on the painful and joyful realities of every day with the mind of Jesus and thereby raising human consciousness to the knowledge of God’s gentle guidance.” (88)

In Summary, the third temptation of leadership is the call to power. We again look to Peter who was cautioned that he will be led to places of suffering and pain. The Christian leader does not lead, but is being led by Christ into a leadership of powerless and humility that demonstrates Christ. To accomplish this, the leader must be given to strenuous theological reflection, to discern where the will of Christ is leading the servant leader in the confusion and seeming randomness of the present day.

You can purchase the book HERE *I don't get referral money :)

Nouwen, Henri J. M. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership with Study Guide for Groups and Individuals. New York: Crossroad Pub., 2002.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

A Quick Visit to Sewanee - The University of the South

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A Quick Visit to Sewanee - The University of the South


I recently traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee and I noticed that Sewanee - The University of the South was along the way. This is one of those private universities not many people know about, but have been around for a long time and consistently top lists of "Most Beautiful College Campuses" online. The university was established in 1858 as a private university of the Episcopal Church. I thought I'd give it a quick visit and share the video with you.

Chattanooga Thanksgiving Trip

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Chattanooga Thanksgiving Trip


I live in Louisville, Kentucky and my parents live on the eastern coast of Florida. For Thanksgiving this year we met together in Chattanooga, Tennessee to celebrate the holiday and tour the area. I recently posted a a collection of fly on the wall snapshots of my recent family Thanksgiving trip to the Chattanooga area to YouTube and wanted to share it with you here. We head to Lookout Mountain, take the Incline Rail, visit Point Park, walk the Sunset Rock trail, see Ruby Falls, wander in Rock City, stroll along the Chattanooga riverfront, and relax in our cabin.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

WWII Film Guide: Ten Essential Films

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WWII Film Guide: Ten Essential Films


*This post is part of a film guide on World War II. Click here for the main page
*For more context on the process behind this guide, click here for an introduction

Over the last six months I watched over 175 World War II films, classified each one into 12 distinct categories, rated them, and wrote a commentary on each one. I called it my Film Guide to World War II. It was a lot of work, I discovered a lot of hidden gems, and learned a lot of the about subject matter. I also learned that a 12-part film guide to World War II films isn't exactly a topic that brings a lot of casual clicks from social media or from google. So what do the people want? Obviously, a top ten list! It's an impossible assignment, trying to condense all the great stuff I watched into some kind of top ten list, but I think it's a worthwhile task as an entryway into the rest of the list.

What I've compiled below is a list of ten films I feel are essential to understanding the sweep of World War II. Think of it as an entire education on the war in ten viewings. The goal here was to give you the best broad overview of (admittedly American-centric) the diverse experiences found in that conflict. The list pained me to make because it omits so many worthy films; but I hope this narrow focus becomes a helpful guide for those wanting "simple." That said, let's get into it.

10. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) IMDB Trailer

Reason It's On the List: You need to watch at least one mega-budget World War II battle recreation from the pre-CGI era of film. As good as special effects have become (and 2019's Midway might be the WWII peak) there's still nothing that can compare to practical airplanes, ships, and explosions done right and you can't get any better than this epic that covers the attack on Pearl Harbor from both the Japanese and the American perspectives. 
Commentary: "Tora! Tora! Tora!" was the call sign the Japanese pilots were to send back to their officers if they were able to achieve the surprise they so desperately wanted and regrettably were able to achieve. The surprise attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor is one of the major turning points in American and world history - bringing the United States fully into World War II. It's not a surprise then that the event has been covered many times in several films. No film has covered it better than Tora! Tora! Tora! and it is easily the best of the mega-budget large scale event recreations to come out of the 60s-70s. The leadup to the attack takes up the first half of the film and sets the stage perfectly; introducing the key figures and mindsets on the American and Japanese sides. The second half of the film pays off in a sequence that is allowed to build and feature multiple facets of the attack. Being before the age of CGI, there’s a commitment to doing things practical that payoff in ways that films today just can’t pull off. Sweeping aerial shots have a different feel when we know the planes in them are real and the damage being done is practical. There’s some jaw dropping stunt work and large-scale explosions here as well. Mixed in with the real location work is some hit and miss miniature and rear screen projection work. Despite some distracting miniature and rear projection work and the lack of the more dynamic CGI shots of Michael Bay’s 2001 Pearl Harbor sequence, this one remains a cut above. I might like a couple of the eye-popping CGI shots, but it completely lacks the cheesy Hollywoodization that Bay’s “let’s get revenge on them Japs” version lets run throughout the sequence. This 1970 version is the single richest recreation in terms of scale and it is immensely benefited by allowing the sequence to speak for itself without filling it with cheesy glamorous supporting roles that only serve to distract. Most action films need it, but war recreations like this one certainly don’t. This is one of the gems of not just World War II cinema, but war cinema in general. 

If You Liked This One: If large-scale recreations are your thing (let's be honest, why wouldn't they be?), than seek out 1977's A Bridge Too Far and 1962's The Longest Day which cover two of the biggest operations in the European campaign - Operation Market Garden and D-Day. You can also check out more films from the Pacific campaign here

9. The Pacific (2010) IMDB Trailer

Reason It's On the List:
So did the American's just have one glorious streak of victories after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor? Picking up not long after the events in Tora! Tora! Tora! - this 2010 miniseries ticks off two important slots on my imaginary "WWII education checklist": an overview of the Pacific war campaign and a visceral "war is hell" anti-war experience. Watch this and learn, not only about the battles, but about how they steal the souls of even the best men.

Commentary: Without a doubt, this is the most miserable war film I’ve ever seen. Since it is a mini series instead of a 2 hour film, the experience lasts nearly ten hours. To be fair, a miserable experience does not equal a bad film and as you can tell by my rating, this is not a bad film at all. After the success of Band of Brothers in 2001, most of the same creatives came together to make another miniseries covering the Pacific side of World War II. In doing so, they had a small problem to address, Band of Brothers was iconic and already cemented great tales of leadership, courage, and heroism in the popular imagination. Heck, "Band of Brothers" men's groups became popular in many churches I was part of. Was this new miniseries just going to be another Band of Brothers but with palm trees instead of European hedgerows? How could The Pacific differentiate itself? 

The one area that Band of Brothers covered but did not dwell upon fully and certainly did not make its goal, is the "War is Hell" aspect of battle. It seems clear to me that the producers and writers purposefully wanted to counterbalance the public reverence of Band of Brothers by stripping the battle scenes of tactical stories, conventional shows of heroism, and comradery. In its place, The Pacific crafted sequences that drove home to the viewer that this campaign was a nasty business that changed its participants forever. Even the musical theme is more somber and doesn’t have the nostalgic heroism of the Band of Brothers. The series covers Guadalcanal, a layover for restoration in Australia, then back to many key island battlefields including Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. We do grow to know the characters, but the episodes are tougher to watch for a couple of reasons: the characters and issues they have chosen to highlight, mostly the ugly side of war, aren’t as compelling, rousing, and redeeming as the viewer expects. The entire thing is educational, but it feels like having to eat your vegetables without a lot of dessert or meat to balance it out. In the depiction of the Battle of Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, the high production standards are still there, but the framing is more claustrophic, with epic scenery almost always in blur behind our characters. It feels like the directors had two goals: to educate the viewer on the basic geography of the battle and to make you sick to the stomach at the violence of it. There is little comradery (in fact they seem to focus more on combative relationships), there is no conventional heroism (outside of John Basilone on Iwo Jima), there is little technical prowess or tactical excellence, there is only suffering and death. 

By the time the Battle for Okinawa has completed, the war action becomes overwhelming - there's no comic relief or typical redemption. This kind of war film is harder to view because it's not as entertaining or fun as others, but it does provide a necessary pendulum swing. The creators likely would not deny that conventional heroism existed in these battles and that tactical brilliance could have easily have been shown. What they have done instead is fill in the blanks on our World War II experience maps that are only lightly sketched - the intense dehumanization of war. It's a bear, but it's greatly appreciated. We need to be reminded that war is hell and that it ends up taking from everyone involved.

If You Liked This One: There are a number of excellent films who make it their job to try and understand the evil and violence of war. I'd recommend you seek out 1998's The Thin Red Line from Terrence Malick about a battle on Guadalcanal, 2016's Hacksaw Ridge from Mel Gibson that covers a key battle and character in the battle of Okinawa, and 2014's Fury by David Ayer about a tank unit in the European campaign. 

8. 5 Fingers (1952) IMDB Trailer

Reason It's On the List: Moving from front line battles to the work of those behind the lines in intelligence is no less trying on the soul. This spy film realistically dramatizes a true story about a spy in Turkey that nearly compromised the plans for D-Day and features all of the subterfuge, double-turns, and cynicism you expect of people in the business of deception.  

Commentary: This is the most underrated and forgotten spy gem I've come across. I'd venture to say it's a better spy film than any spy film Hitchcock ever made. Set in Ankara, Turkey this espionage story takes place from 1943-1944. The plot gets kick-started when a valet to the British ambassador to neutral Turkey arrives at night to the home of a German foreign officer named Moyzisch (a real life individual whom wrote the book this film is based on) looking to sell photographs of the top secret documents that pass the British ambassador's desk. The Germans begin a back and forth where they want to trust the information, but also not get duped in case the valet is a British double agent. They dub the spy "Cicero" for his high class and sophistication. If this all sounds familiar, it is because it is based on the real life "Cicero Affair", but has been embellished and adapted in a way that makes it both an essentially true recounting of the affair, but also a comprehensive spy story that hits on the themes of the dangers, rewards, and folly of espionage. This film came out a full 11 years before any Bond film and thank goodness it's not obsessed with making it more action oriented or broad for the audience. This is a nuts and bolts, "I've got secret information to sell" spywork and this film is an excellent education in the basics of the running a spy. I think Le Carre would have loved this story, but I can't find any comments he's made on it.

Two examples that I think highlight the inherent tradeoffs of the spy game that get emphasized so perfectly here: Since the documents that Cicero are passing to the Germans are of such top secret nature and of such high quality, they struggle to believe it's genuine. In other words, because it's so genuine, that's good reason to doubt it is genuine! Additional circumstances lead the Germans to question whether or not he is a British agent. Even to this day, it is hotly debated among intelligence historians whether or not "Cicero" was really a British double agent or not. A second example is that Cicero was paid off in forged bank notes - a different secret German operation that you can see play out in the film The Counterfeiters. Just when Cicero believes he has gotten away with everything, fulfilled his dream, and sits down to a meal to enjoy it, everything falls out from under him. It's a classic moment.

5 Fingers is well written, directed, and acted. The writing bears out meticulous work on the details with little moments of surprising knowledge, like inside jokes about German Foreign Secretary von Ribbentrop and a keen understanding of class resentments and trappings in British society. It also bears out in some surprisingly suspenseful sequences, including a wonderful scene where through a series of escalating events, Cicero is finally revealed by the simple diligence of a cleaning lady. James Mason, who plays Cicero, does a grand job here - I think more iconic than his Rommel performances. The final act features some nice twists and turns but it is always clear and easy to follow - you really don't know how it is going to turn out. This might not be a high octane spy film, but it's likely one of the most insightful and educational about what real spy work looked like in World War II than any other film in the category.

If You Liked This One: You'll enjoy the clockwork like precision of Billy Wilder's plot and dialogue in Five Graves to Cairo (1943), the methodical focus on tradecraft in 1956's The Man Who Never Was or the more recent 2014 film The Imitation Game which focuses on the work to decode Nazi signals. 

7. Downfall (2005) IMDB Trailer

Reason It's On the List: How did World War II get so out of hand? We too often look back at fascist figures like Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin as caricatures, but that's not how their followers viewed them. I think it's essential that someone understands the dynamics that surrounded such leaders and caused people to give them dying devotion - even in the face of obvious lies. No other film gives better insight into this dynamic than Downfall.  

Commentary: Almost everyone has seen the famous clip from this video of Hitler yelling at his staff set to a variety of funny captioned messages. I hope that the viral clip led more people to give this film a chance because the full 2.5 hours is a wonderful history lesson and insight not just into the fall of Berlin and downfall of Hitler, but into the power dynamics and fanaticism among his inner circle during those final days. The war is essentially over, Germany has lost, this film is about how Hitler and his inner circle deal with that truth. 

The film begins in 1942 with Hitler getting a new secretary. In truth, much of the film is based on the account of this secretary and her time spent in the bunker with the inner circle in those fateful last days. A real interview with the aged secretary Traudl Junge opened the film with haunting words, "I've got the feeling that I should be angry with this child, this young and oblivious girl. Or that I'm not allowed to forgive her for not seeing the nature of that monster. That she didn't realise what she was doing. And mostly because I've gone so obliviously. Because I wasn't a fanatic Nazi." The film then enters into the bunkers under Berlin where the German high command spend the final weeks of the war in 1945. 

I won't recount the full events here because that's not the point of these commentaries. I'll say this though, for the casual history fan and those deep into history, a film like this one gets better and better with each viewing. It is so handsomely produced and acted (with an iconic performance from Bruno Ganz) that it feels we are intruding on the actual history and with each view gaining more and more insight into the mind and spirit of that group. Yes, this film could likely be trimmed a bit to make the story better paced, but there's too much great history here to be lost. I'm okay with a bloated runtime when the insight is this strong. Paired with a film like 2001's Conspiracy and you have great insight into how the Nazi leadership worked - with fear, ambition, and fanaticism always infusing their actions. 

A final quote from Traudl Junge closes the film, "All these horrors I've heard of during the Nurnberg process, these six million Jews, other thinking people or people of another race, who perished. That shocked me deeply. But I hadn't made the connection with my past. I assured myself with the thought of not being personally guilty. And that I didn't know anything about the enormous scale of it. But one day I walked by a memorial plate of Sophie Scholl in the Franz-Joseph-Strasse. I saw that she was about my age and she was executed in the same year I came to Hitler. And at that moment I actually realized that a young age isn't an excuse. And that it might have been possible to get to know things." Get beyond the meme and watch this whole film. 

If You Liked This One: There's a number of films I'd point you to here. I recommend watching 2001's Conspiracy covering the secret Wannsee Conference (to determine the final solution for the Jews) headed by Reinhard Heydrich who is able to bully an entire room of alpha leaders using charisma and power. A companion to that film would be the masterpiece Judgment at Nuremberg from 1961 that offers the best look into the reasoning, mindset, and procedures behind trying key Germans for war crimes. Also check out 2019's Jojo Rabbit which uses some clever narrative framing, like viewing Hitler and the Nazi movement primarily through the eyes of a 10 year old German boy, to walk the thin line between finding the humor in the Nazi movement while also portraying the gravity of its horrors.

6. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) IMDB Trailer

Reason It's On The List: Aa lean two hour film that details the final days of Sophie Scholl, a young woman part of an anti-Nazi resistance (non-violent) within Germany. It's World War II's A Man for All Seasons, but simplified and streamlined. The film nobly captures the courage and conscience behind Sophie's resistance and how when done righteously, those who have compromised look away in shame, but are condemned in soul. It's the perfect counter to the secretary from Downfall who wondered, "that it might have been possible to get to know things." It was and this film is proof of the simple but profound ways ordinary Germans did stand against Hitler. It's a specific story of a real person, but a universal tale all will recognize.

Commentary: Did the entire country of Germany join in the Nazi party or look the other way? We know that the targets of German occupation and persecution fought back, but did the ordinary German? This film tells the story of the last days of 21 year old Sophie Scholl, a German citizen who decided to resist. Sophie, along with her brother Hans and a few other members, formed the non-violent resistance group known as the White Rose. Comprised of well-educated members, the White Rose wrote pamphlets and fliers looking to expose the German governments war crimes and counter their propaganda.

In a bold move, Sophie and her brother Hans go to Munich University to secretly distribute their most recent pamphlet. In an excruciatingly suspenseful sequence, the two place the pamphlets around the school while class is in session. Unfortunately, a maintenance man observes the two as they finish. They are taken into custody and questioned by the Gestapo. The strength and moral resistance during their questioning is not displayed heroically or as some kind of superhuman feat. What makes these sequences and the whole film really, so special to me, is the simple moral righteousness that underlies their commitment. Much of the film takes place in these interrogations and they were wise to set it here. In the end, Sophie and her brother are charged and stand trial for treason. The trial, rushed into court, is a sham and rather than giving us a courtroom triumph, the film gives us grace under fire. Sophie and her brother are condemned, but always remain courageous and confident in their goodness. The moral goodness isn't braggadocios or arrogant - it's a grace that sees the moral situation clearly and has given up caring what happens to their destiny. You can sense this in two particular quotes from Sophie and Hans respectively, "[to the court] You will soon be standing where we stand now." and "[to the court] If you and Hitler weren't afraid of our opinion, we wouldn't be here."

Coming from a Lutheran background, the film does well to imagine Sophie in the vein of Martin Luther - driven by her religious convictions against a system that demands she deny them. In a revealing moment her police interrogator asks, "Why do you risk so much for false ideas, young as you are?" Sophie responds, "Because of my conscience." This film swims in the same vein as A Man For All Seasons and while not being as good as that film, illustrates well the soul that refuses to "go along" - that refuses to not say what her conscience demands. At the heart of "resistance" films is the conflict - will you compromise your conscience and go along with the others for the sake of your life, or will you fight back? This is one of my favorite stories of a German who decided to fight back.

If You Liked This One: Check out 2015's 13 Minutes that, like Sophie, tells the true story of an ordinary German upset by the fascist changes in his country and he becomes determined to resist. The more stories of the French resistance in 1969's Army of Shadows and 2009's Army of Crime are educational and impactful. Finally, check out 2008's Valkyrie and 2016's Anthropoid for stories of resistance through organized assassinations.

5. The Hill (1965) IMDB Trailer

Reason It's On the List: For many soldiers, World War II was spent in prison camps - whether on the side of the enemy or on their own side. The Hill tells the story of overbearing leadership in a prison camp for "criminals" on their own side - like soldiers who refused to fight. What makes this story stand out is the searing psychological and sociological insight into how men justify and rationalize the dehumanizing aspects of war, authority structures, and warfront justice.

Commentary: Leave it to Sidney Lumet to bring the sobering reality! In a twist on the typical POW film, this film (based on a play) takes place in a British military prison (for soldiers charged with crimes) in North Africa. The camp is run with brutal order and severe discipline. Right in the middle of the camp is the titular hill that prisoners are forced to run up and down for punishment. The film begins with the arrival of five new prisoners with Joe Roberts, played by Sean Connery, among them. The prisoner introduction sequence is effective and brutal: it introduces us to the prison geographically, our five new prisoners, and a few of the staff guards who can run the spectrum of fair, tough, and sadistic. They days go by and a sadistic guard named Williams (played incredibly well by Ian Hendry) pushes a prisoner too far. The prisoner dies in the night and the camp guards and doctors begin looking to shift the blame and angle for an accidental death. What works so well, and Lumet and the screenplay capitalize on this, is the brutally honest/insightful psychology at work. You can see all the contradictory instincts of how each prisoner and guards wants to help each other, do what's right, look out for themselves, do their duty, justify their own actions, and find some little comfort in these horrible circumstances. It all comes to head on a crazy day that begins with a near riot settled down with great delicacy and ingenuity by the Sergeant Major. The ends with a showdown in a prison cell where hierarchies of power, order following, and self-protection all come to clash in an intense and insightful sequence. I guess this film is close enough to being a "seventies film" that if has to offer one last bitter note near the end as well. There are lots of good POW films - this is the best.

If You Liked This One: A lot of great POW films were produced about World War II. If you are looking for a more grounded and insightful film, check out 2001's To End All Wars. If you're interested in the classic "escape" style POW film than check out 1955's Colditz Story and 1961's The Great Escape.

4. Grave of the Fireflies (1988) IMDB Trailer

Reason It's On the List: One cannot endeavor to watch and learn about a historical event like World War II that directly led to the world we live in today without being challenged to remember the sufferings and sacrifices that hundreds of millions of civilians made. Grave of the Fireflies is a simple but challenging work of art calling the viewer to remember those who have come before us. We owe them at least their memory and dignity and beyond that, our stewardship of the world we have received on their backs. Watch this one and be prepared to live differently after.

Commentary: What do we owe the generations that came before us? Are we bound to them in any direct way? I've never felt that question hit as hard as it does in this film - which is odd because the film never directly asks the question but only indirectly applies it. This is a film that is equally built for the atrocity and aftermath sub-categories and it might very well be the greatest anti-war film I've ever come across. The film opens with a broken down teenage boy named Seita dying in the subways of postwar Kobe, Japan. As he dies we see his spirit join with his young sister, Setsuko, as they ride a subway train together. For an animated film, this is easily the saddest and bleakest opening I've ever seen. From that opening we flash back a year or so to Seita and Setsuko escaping their home during an American fire-bombing raid. Their mother is badly injured (and eventually dies) from the bombing and their father is off to war. The rest of the film tells the story of their attempt to survive the aftermath of the bombings, as they pass hands through relatives, come into conflict with others, struggle to find water and food, and eventually strike out on their own.

Most of the runtime is filled with the mundane tasks of trying to survive with little food or water. It's often very depressing stuff - to watch young children struggle in hunger and thirst and watch community members often not care. However, there is always a search for goodness and beauty interspersed throughout the trials. Whether it's taking the moment to enjoy freshening up from a busted water pipe, a hot bath, the sweet taste of a fruit drop, or the wonderful sight of fireflies - this movie juxtaposes all the suffering with wonder and goodness of life. This makes sense as we are really getting the perspective of what its like to endure a war from the perspective of the youth. 

After the death of Saito and Setsuko (which we know from the beginning of the film) their spirits travel along the journey of the film, observing the main events. As we come to the end of the film their spirits sit atop a hill and overlook modern and prosperous Japan. Even typing these words I struggle to not cry while thinking about their implications. 

If You Liked This One: You need to begin with 1946's The Best Years of Our Lives covering the lives of American serviceman as they return back to civilian lives. 

3. Casablanca (1942) IMDB Trailer

Reason It's On the List: I'm shocked to find this masterpiece on another one of my lists! Let me be up front with you, I am biased; this is one of my favorite films of all-time, I watch it about once a year, and it's only gotten better with each viewing. Watch this because it encapsulates a classic Hollywood take on World War II featuring classic Hollywood actors (too many to name!), that nearly perfectly sums up the country went pre-war "I stick my neck out for nobody" to finally answering the noble call to do what's right. On top of that, I think it's the best WWII romance and comedy as well! 

Commentary: I love this film. It's my second favorite film of all-time. It's one of the masterpieces everyone talks about that still holds up when you get to it. I tell you this so that you'll understand that my bias is up front in this commentary. This classic film is set in the titular town of Vichy occupied town of Casablanca in 1942. Morocco is the final destination for many immigrants and refugees looking to flee Europe and get a plane to Lisbon and then America. Since the town is controlled by the Vichy government, approved travel papers are required to get out and these can be secured from Capt. Renault played by Claude Rains. It just so happens that two blank transit papers were stolen off German couriers and were to be traded in the popular cafe "Rick's" owned by the American Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart. The papers went missing in the cafe just as the infamous French resistance leader Victor Laszlo and his wife Illsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) show up in the cafe. The rest of the story revolves around Laszlo trying to secure those transit papers and leave occupied territory - but the Vichy and German authorities as well as Rick Blaine all figure into the story as different kinds of obstacles.

This film straddles many of my WWII subcategories and so you'll find it in the special ops/spy/resistance category as it's primary story is about a French resistance leader escaping the authorities and the primary theme sees the main character learning that there's some things important enough to stick your neck out for (a not so subtle dig at isolationists). However, the film would be just as comfortable in the comedy section. In fact, I think it has more famous jokes and laugh lines than any comedy I've put in that category. It also finds a place in this category. Yes, this film is about resistance but at its center is the romance between Rick and Ilsa. I couldn't bring myself to keeping it in just one category.

I tend to watch Casablanca at least once a year and like all the great films, Casablanca is so rich and layered that it rewards multiple viewings & seems to change the older I get. In my teens, I was surprised by the film's wit and humor. It was the first time I found myself laughing out loud & quoting a B&W film. In my twenties, I was taken in by the love stories: Rick-Ilsa, Ilsa-Laszlo, and even the near tragic sub-plot of the two Bulgarians cleverly weaved throughout the film. Now I'm moved by the film's cynical atmosphere, Rick's idealism broken into scrupulous pragmatism ultimately redeemed by a noble forgiveness and self-sacrifice, and finally Laszlo's inspiring and dogged patriotism. The performances are iconic and spot-on, especially the delightful Claude Rains who gets most of the films funniest lines. Few films boast a roster of characters this memorable, this enjoyable, and this heartbreaking. The writing, which at first can seem convoluted, deftly introduces a large cast of well-drawn characters who each play their own important role in telling the story. Everything leads up to that famous third act, which features a few quickly paced twists that continue to feel fresh to this day and remain enjoyable even after seeing the film well over ten times.

If You Liked This One: Check out either edition of To Be Or Not To Be, the original 1942 film with Jack Benny or the Mel Brooks remake - both are  a riot that are not afraid to lampoon the Nazi state. Although it can be tough for modern audiences, I'll also recommend a viewing of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator from 1940. He was one of the first artists to truly risk his reputation to call out the effects of fascism on Europe and try to get the world to see and make note of the terror of Hitler & Mussolini. 

2. Schindler's List (1993) IMDB - Trailer

Reason It's On the List:  It is likely a cliché pick, but there's a good reason that Schindler's List has earned the reputation as THE holocaust film. It is a masterpiece. I believe it's one of the finest pieces of art any human has ever made. If you can only watch one film about the horrors of the holocaust make it this one. To paraphrase a character from the film, "This movie is an absolute good. This life. All around its reels lies the gulf."

Commentary: There's a scene near the final act of the lengthy Schindler's List where Oskar Schindler, a German factory owner, and his Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern are creating a list of names - the titular "Schindler's List." The list of names are the Jews that Schindler is paying Amon Goeth, the commander of the Plaszow concentration camp, enormous sums of money to bring over to his factory instead of shipping to their deaths at Auschwitz. After finalizing the list, Stern removes it from the typewriter and says to Oskar, "This list... is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf." It's a beautiful and moving sequence showing the journey Schindler has made so far in the film. I think it's one of the best sequences in all of cinema. To understand why, we have to start at the beginning of this film. 

Schindler's List begins its narrative with Jews departing from a train and walking up to attendants who are making lists of their names as they enter the Jewish ghetto of Krakow. In this case, to be on the list is to be inferior and controlled by the state - less than human. This sequence is contrasted with Schindler's introduction at a German dinner club where he pays large sums to wine and dine Nazi top brass. He's doing it to network and get approval to start factories and get military contracts. In this sense, names on a list, signatures, are everything to Oskar because they are just a means to an ends - his wealth. Schindler arrives in the Jewish ghetto looking to take advantage of the situation, using Jewish cash as capital to fund his factories and using the Jews as workers because they cost less.
Stern: “. . . The Jews themselves receive nothing. Poles you pay wages. Generally they get a little more. Are you listening? . . . The Jewish worker’s salary, you pay it directly to the SS, not to the worker. He gets nothing.”
Schindler: “But it’s less. It’s less than what I would pay a Pole. . . . Poles cost more. Why should I hire Poles?”
What's the value of a Jew to Schindler? Very little - they are just a quicker way of achieving his personal goals. As the story progresses and Schindler encounters Jews and observes their treatment at the hands of the Nazi authorities, he undergoes a slow change. It happens in subtle ways at first, but then it becomes more and more obvious until he arrives at the moment I described at the beginning of this commentary. You may be asking, how is the story of a German factory owner a good "holocaust" story? I think the key here is that Schindler's character journey both hyper focuses and personalizes the journey the viewer makes and allows us to observe a broader holocaust story than is often presented. 

By primarily following Schindler and the development of his factories, it allows us to take the journey of his Jewish workers from their quarantining in the Krakow ghettos, to the liquidation of the ghetto, and to their lives in the Plaszow concentration camp; while also observing the German view point of a businessman, and the commander of the concentration camp itself. The director, Steven Spielberg, masterfully portrays these events - with a directness, verisimilitude, and perspective that still has the power to stun me on repeated viewings. I often feel like an observer thrusted into real life events. The liquidation of the ghetto, the cruelty and random violence of life under Amon Goeth (a chilling Ralph Fiennes) in the camps, and the horrors of Auschwitz are now forever embedded in my mind. 

Like Schindler who observes the treatment of the Jews mostly from a distance, the viewer watches people on a screen. We too must grow to care for them. We have been told about the holocaust in our schools (hopefully!), but they are just words on the paper, maybe a few pictures. Schindler's character arc mirrors the arc this story is attempting to give to the viewer as well. After we view what Schindler views, know what he now knows, will we grow to see these people as humans with value or will they just remain names on a list in history? There's a reason the movie goes out of its way to repeatedly find situations where they can say the names of as many of the Jewish workers as possible. The creation of the list of names to be saved I described at the beginning is the moment that demonstrates Schindler has given up his previous views: to use the Jews as a means to his end - riches. The list demonstrates that Schindler has grown to know that a human life, each one, is sacred and not a means to an end. That he must sacrifice the thing that meant the most to him, his riches, to demonstrate this is poetic. This isn't the last time Spielberg has used the conceit of a list of names to depict whether we find value in a human life - think about it: in Catch Me If You Can Frank's ever-changing name showed his lack of integrity and peace with his self-worth, in Minority Report the pre-cogs produced a ball with a name of a victim and a perpetrator, in The Terminal Victor Navorski seeks to get his name on a list so he can enter the country, in an inversion of the list of life Munich starts with a list of names Avner must assassinate and he comes to realize it is dehumanizing, and in Lincoln the President demands the right amount of names to vote on a bill to end the de-humanizing practice of slavery. 

I could write much more and I fear that what I've already written is nowhere near worthy of this film. It's one of the greatest films of all-time and one you definitely should not miss. To paraphrase Stern's comment to Schindler in the film, "The movie is an absolute good. This movie is life... all around its reels lies the gulf."

If You Liked This One: There are a number of good films you can seek out about the holocaust. I think 2002's The Pianist is the best film you can watch about the experience in the ghetto's.  I think to get a handle on the concentration camps then you are best trying to come at it from different perspectives. I recommend starting with 2015's Son of Saul for its harrowing "in the moment" perspective of the sheer evil of gas chambers. Then leave the "horror" behind for the holocaust told from the perspective of a "clown" (I mean that more philosophically than literally) by watching 1998's Life is Beautiful. Finish off from a different angle, that of the child of a death camp commander in 2008's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

1. Band of Brothers (2001) IMDB - Trailer

Reason It's On the List: Simply put, 2001's HBO miniseries Band of Brothers is the best thing ever made about World War II combat (in any theater). I've seen no other work that is as diverse in character, plot, action, and theme while retaining richness in a single narrative and maintaining consistently high production values. War is complex and while it is horrifying and evil, it also contains moments of nobility, courage, and good. Most great films about WWII are lucky to capture one of these aspects. Band of Brothers ably captures the complexities unlike anything else on the list. That's why it's essential viewing for anyone seeking to learn more about the war.

Commentary: Coming back to this venerated series so many years later and after running through war film after war film, I wondered if the quality of this series would hold up on re-inspection. Similar to the The Pacific miniseries that came a decade later – Band of Brothers gives a kind of overview of a major theater of war. In this case, the miniseries follows Easy Company of the 101st Airborne division from boot camp, to England, to D-Day, to French hedgerows and towns, to Operation Market Garden, to the Battle of the Bulge, to concentration camps, and all the way to VE-Day. The miniseries format gives the ability to tell multiple stories, chronicle a range of characters, and portray a full spectrum of war experiences. Because they are focusing on one company, the narrative always feels focused and cohesive, a trait that The Pacific lacked, despite its grander ambitions. The action in the series follows in the style of Saving Private Ryan with an emphasis on three things: intensity, violence, and tactics. The stand out feature here, and what separates this from its sister series The Pacific, is the series’ clear view that there really are some redeemable aspects to be found in the hell of war. The series identifies three in particular: The camaraderie and relationships built among the soldiers, the power of good leadership, and courage/bravery/perseverance in the face of great suffering and fear. This is why the characters of Band of Brothers, like Dick Winters, Lipton, Compton, Guarnere, Malarkey and Doc Roe, are revered by its fans and not more faceless soldiers forgotten as soon the screen goes black. The creators laid out the scope of the episodes perfectly, allowing a quick pace, constantly changing scenery that brings fresh settings, new characters getting focused on or old characters getting spotlighted for the first time.

The emotional climax of the series is the two-part episode covering the events surrounding the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne. In a genius move, as the men hit their lowest point of suffering, the series puts us in the shoes of the company medic, Doc Roe. We get to experience his day to day as he seeks to serve, despite harboring clear worries about if it all matters. The series finds time to validate another heroic role – giving comfort in the middle of suffering. Likewise, as they conclude their time in Bastogne, the focus centers on Lipton for the first time as he takes the leadership role and sees man after man go down. Particularly affective is the mental breakdown of Compton, a once steadfast leader of the men. After the men take the town of Foy we are given one of the most haunting and striking images of all war cinema: Easy company sitting in a church, listening to the beauty of an angelic sounding choir, as we visually see the casualties of Easy company slow fade from existence. It's haunting. The film wraps up in its last few episodes by focusing on the rundown of the war. In my opinion, this is the single best primer on the American experience of the European theater in World War II - and more than that- one of the best pieces of art on war in general. 

If You Liked This One: If you don't have the time for a ten-part miniseries, then watch 1998's Saving Private Ryan which plays like a condensed version of Band of Brothers that miraculously sacrifices little in its briefer runtime. To my mind, these two films are the best this category (or all of war cinema to be honest) has to offer and it killed me to leave it off of this list. For more like this, I'd recommend 1943's Sahara with Humphrey Bogart, 1953's The Desert Rats with Richard Burton, 1953's The Cruel Sea with Jack Hawkins, and finally 2020's Greyhound with Tom Hanks.

Back to the World War II Home Page

Sunday, October 31, 2021

WWII Film Guide: Comedy

7:18 PM 0
WWII Film Guide: Comedy

 *This post is part of a film guide on World War II. Click here for the main page
*For more context on the process behind this guide, click here for an introduction

How do you laugh about war? Even more so, how do you find humor in the most destructive war of all-time? In an odd quirk of human nature, it seems that one of our essential ways in dealing with horrifying realities is by identifying their ironies, contradictions, pretensions, and absurdities. How do you get your mind around the incomprehensible evil of a figure like Hitler or the dehumanization of the military machine? This category claims one vital way of doing so is by popping their pompous and self-important balloon through satire, irony, and insult. There are a few films I missed in this category (mostly due their only availability being to purchase on DVD or VHS), but it seems this category wouldn't quite fully mature until television and the Vietnam War. In general, it seems that Americans liked World War II to retain a certain serious nobility to it, but Korea and Vietnam were not so sacred. Perhaps one could argue that the greater the disconnect between the perceived righteousness of the conflict and the actual approval of the conflict the greater the need for humor to deal with it?

In order to get you to the thing most of you came for, "What's the best in this genre? I've put my recommendations for you below. Following that, if you'd like to learn more about the 10 films in this section, then you can find each film in this category organized by release date (oldest to newest) with a brief commentary, a link to its IMDB page, and my grade.

The Top Shelf: Films like 1942's Casablanca and 1998's Life is Beautiful are great comedies that I have primarily located in other WWII categories: War backdrop and Holocaust respectively. In their absence, there is no true standout, just a lot of solid comedies. If pushed, I'd likely recommend 2019's Jojo Rabbit.  Through some clever narrative framing, like viewing Hitler and the Nazi movement primarily through the eyes of a 10 year old German boy, the film is able to walk the thin line between finding the humor in the Nazi movement while also portraying the gravity of its horrors. It's easily the best WWII comedy of the last century.

The Deep Dive: For those wanting a broader and richer journey...
  • The Great Dictator (1940): Charlie Chaplin's courageous and mostly excellent satire of Hitler, Mussolini, and Fascism. 
  • To Be Or Not To Be (1942) / (1983): Whether you are watching the original starring Jack Benny or the remake by Mel Brooks, it just plain works. The original is the better overall film, but Brook's take is much funnier.

Individual Film Commentary (Oldest to Newest)
  • A+ = All-time Classic
  • A   = Excellent Film
  • A-  = Excellent Film, but some minor faults
  • B+ = Very Good film
  • B   = Good Film
  • B-  = Good Film, but some key faults
  • C+ = Average with some redeeming qualities, but major faults
  • C   = Mediocre Film
  • C-  = Poor Film
  • D+ = Bad Film
  • I don't usually rate anything lower
Individual Film Commentary (Oldest to Newest)

1. The Great Dictator (1940) IMDB
- The similar physical appearances between Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler, two of the most popular figures in the world during the 1930's, was not lost on Chaplin who used the opportunity to satirize the dictator and bring a personal message to the world. That message came in the film The Great Dictator. It is Chaplin's first "talkie" film coming a few years after Chaplin's final silent "Tramp" film - 1936's Modern Times. Chaplin plays the role of a Jewish barber who has a striking resemblance to the country's dictator Hynckel (a stand-in for Hitler also being played by Chaplin). He lives in Tomania (a stand-in for Germany) just before the beginning of war as persecution against Jews begins to ramp up. The barber is captured and taken to camp as his friends and girlfriend make their way to live in Osterlich (stand-in for Austria I believe). Through a series of events, the Jewish barber is mistaken for the dictator and ultimately ends up giving a climactic speech about peace to end the film.
Chaplin handles the transition to "talkies" splendidly- mixing his physical silent comedy style with music, sound effects, and verbal jokes. A great example here is the classic sequence where the dictator Hynkel dances with the world globe. It's one of my favorite comedic sequences of all-time and one that that could have played in any silent era film and still stood out. However, the sequence is made better for the delicate musical score, the Hynkel cackle that begins it and the balloon pop sound that ends it. There's some great comedy little jokes sprinkled throughout the film, but the key satire themes here is the over-developed pride and ego of fascism. It's successful. 

The film was ahead of its time and was a courageous effort from Chaplin and mostly succeeds as a satire of fascism, Hitler, and Nazism. The ending monologue is certainly engaging and uplifting, but it also bears a dated hope in the potential of some kind of universal secular humanism - the film equivalent of John Lennon's idealistic and philosophically naïve "Imagine". Still, it's a good comedy and a wonderful time piece to study. Give it a view. GRADE: B+

2. You Natzy Spy! (1940) IMDB
- This short 18 minute production featuring the 3 Stooges is the first major Hollywood production to make fun of the Nazi regime (it came out about 9 months before The Great Dictator). The stooges begin as wallpaper hangers and are enlisted by a few wealthy men to overthrow their monarchy and become the dictators of the country. The stooges end up leading the country with Moe as a kind of Hitler stand-in, Curly as Goering, and Larry as Goebbels. What follows is their usual slapstick and verbal sparring schtick with a couple little jokes hitting here and there. There's nothing really here that stands out as true comedic punches landed at the Nazi's and there's no jokes/sequences worth seeking this short out for. This is just a sub-par Stooges short that so happens to feature similarities to world leaders for topicality. GRADE: D+

3. To Be or Not To Be (1942) IMDB
- A group of Polish soldiers accidentally trust a German secret agent named Siletsky with the names and locations of their family members in the Polish underground. Polish soldier Sobinksi, played by Robert Stack, is charged with jumping into occupied Poland to stop Siletsky before he's able to get the list of names to the Gestapo. Sobinski entangles a Polish theatrical troupe headed by Maria and Joseph Tura, played by Jack Benny and Carole Lombard respectively. Benny provides the traditional comedy (I've always had a soft spot for Benny's humor) and Lombard plays things a bit more straight with a stinging humor that punches up nearly every scene she's in. This is my first time seeing Lombard and she's a fantastic - I think stealing every scene she is in. This was her last performance, she died in a plane crash the same year this film came out. 

In order to trick Siletsky into handing over the list, the theatrical troupe pretends to be the Gestapo and meet with him.  This is where much of the comedy comes from with Benny getting a chance to ham it up a bit with the "So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt?" sequence being a standout in the film. There's more back and forth between the troupe and the Gestapo and it ultimately all ends with a trip from Hitler to the theater. While this is billed as a comedy, I'm surprised at how dramatic and suspenseful it gets. This is a good comedy that manages, like Casablanca, to float between drama, broad comedy, and a biting wit. It successfully satirizes the Nazi, especially the SS/Gestapo, without losing sight of their atrocities. A nice surprise find. GRADE: B+

4. Mister Roberts (1955) IMDB
- Thirty minutes into this two hour comedy and the only thing that has happened is we've been introduced to a bunch of bored sailors who remain behind the lines on a supply ship far away from any action. It's been dull and humorless. The lead officer is played by Henry Fonda, who is, god bless him, just not that funny. The ensign is played by Jack Lemmon in an over the top comedic role as the lazy but resourceful officer. The Captain, played by James Cagney, is played as crazy and out of touch. The comedy is supposed to come from how these sailors all try and keep their sanity on a boring supply ship with a crazy captain, but it all feels so forced, lifeless, and lacking moral sense. It isn't until about an hour in that the film moves locations and the men get to a port. I want to be kind to this film, but it's dated portrayals of natives, Animal House-lite portrayal of horny sailors, non-sensical Captain written to just be a nuisance, and humorless Fonda just doesn't work. It's a shame this all-star cast is working with material that just doesn't translate for me. GRADE: D+

5. Operation Petticoat (1959) IMDB
- It's December 1941 and Commander Sherman, played by Cary Grant, wants to get his submarine into the Pacific war. Unfortunately, his submarine is strafed by the Japanese forcing makeshift repairs, manned with an unusual officer, played by Tony Curtis, and saddled with five U.S. nurses who were left stranded on a Pacific island. Grant's Commander is the straight man here trying to manage all of these obstacles while getting his boat into the war. It's an interesting premise, but it doesn't just pay off like it should. For example, how could women and men coexist on a submarine? I mean in one scene when they are looking to take out a ship a nurse comes up to give the Commander his daily pill and accidentally hits the fire button! Other moments see men and women trying to use the shower at the same time or some necking happening or women putting their drying clothes in the engine room. Despite good direction and a strong effort from Grant, this just doesn't quite click like it should. GRADE: C

6. Catch-22 (1970) IMDB
- Hollywood has tried a couple of times to adapt Joseph Heller's famous novel - none have been all that successful in my opinion. The novel is a hilarious and insightful satire into the contradictions, ironies, and incompetents that the bomber pilot Yosarrian encounters during World War II. Bomber crews were required to fly a certain number of missions before they were allowed to leave the front lines. The catch is that if you knew the casualty rate of a mission was 10% or more, than doing 20-25 missions means you likely don't have a chance of ever returning. Crew never knew when their aircraft would get it and this led to lots of anxiety and breakdowns. To get out of missions, crew would claim all sorts of issues. A key example of the comedy and irony identified by the novel is that if a crew complained to the doctor that they were insane with nervousness and anxiety and couldn't go on a mission, this was actually a sign that they were sane (who wouldn't be nervous) and were cleared to go on a mission. 

Anyways, the movie is anchored by Alan Arkin's Yosarrian and it's...okay. There are nice moments, but many of the best moments and characters from the novel just don't hit with the same humor or insight in the film. If you'll never read the book, then this film is a poor substitute. I might even recommend just staying away from it at all unless you are really curious. GRADE: C+

7. 1941 (1979) IMDB
- After the Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, California is gripped by hysterics and fear about possible Japanese attacks. Steven Spielberg made this comedy as his follow-up to Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and its clearly a step down in quality. I appreciate the desire to really commit to the madcap comedy, but it’s all so hit and miss – with a lot more misses than hits. A lot of the comedy is just characters turned up to 11, yelling, screaming, laughing, or whatever – just do it loudly and its funny and zany right? This is less about World War II, or about the interesting paranoia of California post Pearl Harbor, or about any kind of comedy based on the silliness/irony of war – it’s much more an artifact of its time in 1979. GRADE: D+

8. To Be or Not To Be (1983) IMDB
- An adaptation (made much more straight up comedic) of the 1942 classic that appears earlier on this list and Mel Brooks knocks a solid homerun here. The German invasion of Poland brings the Nazi's into Warsaw and a game of cat and mouse between the Gestapo and Polish underground ensures. Caught between them is a troupe of Polish actors, headed by the couple of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, allowing for lots of madcap back and forth with disguises and subterfuge aplenty. There's a kind of Marx brothers feeling to some of the scenes here, but the humor is unmistakably of Brooks' oeuvre. A solid comedy that moves fast while flinging lots of jokes and comedic situations at the screen. It doesn't match the heights of Brooks' Young Frankenstein for me, but I'd say this is probably his second best overall comedy. This is straight up funnier than the original, but the original is a better overall film. GRADE: B+ 

9. Biloxi Blues (1988) IMDB
- Based on Neil Simon's play, Biloxi Blues tells the story of young recruits from New Jersey going through WWII basic training in Biloxi, Mississippi. It's a leisurely film, taking its time to introduce characters like Matthew Broderick's Eugene, the intelligent but young and naïve writer. The young platoon runs struggles through basic training under the watchful eye of Christopher Walken's drill Sgt. Toomey. Walken is able to take the stock "tough" Sgt. and give it his own spin - mixing a kind of wit in his punishments that set him apart from the more yell and scream type. 

It's based on a play so the film comes down to a handful of mostly self-contained sequences. The whole thing is pretty uneven, some pretty funny stuff and some dramatic stuff that doesn't quite work. There's a sequence when all the men are in the barracks and they are sharing fantasies about their last week alive and the personalities all shine and come through. For a couple of minutes, every character is likable, interesting, and well - just human beings enjoying each other in the midst a crappy basic training experience. It's a lovely moment. However, there's also an odd dramatic ending with a drunken drill Sgt. that doesn't ever work like the film wants it to. In the end, it has some moments, but the whole never quite gels together as a story. GRADE: C+

10. Jojo Rabbit (2019) IMDB
- The interesting conceit of this film (what makes it a comedy with social commentary) is to view Hitler and the Nazi movement through the eyes of a 10 year old boy. Through the eyes of ten-year old Jojo, there is no one cooler than Adolf Hitler, and being part of the Hitler youth is like being part of the cool kids club. This idea is hilariously introduced in the beginning of the film as Jojo is given a pep talk on how to Heil by an imaginary Hitler (who visits him) - it gets him so amped up he runs around the town heiling everyone to the tunes of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" by the Beatles. This conceit allows us to see how easily youths could be swept up into such a fervor. In particular, the film takes aim at how hatred and fear of Jews could take hold in our minds.

At a Hitler Youth weekend, Jojo sits and listens to a presentation of how evil the Jews are as the kids suggest more evil ways to depict them, "...with a serpent's tongue!" To a child, why not trust the adults telling them this. Later, when a Jewish girl finds a hiding place in Jojo's house, Jojo is forced to confront his view of Jewish people (and build up his courage) and the fact his mother is complicit in hiding the Jews. Essentially, this film is an examination of the massive influence father and mother figures play in our development. In striving to be more than just a comedy, the film sets a pretty tough balancing act with tone - too comedic and the meaningful stuff doesn't work, too serious and the comedic stuff doesn't work. Thankfully it mostly pulls off that balance well and becomes quite an effective piece of dramedy. GRADE: B+

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