WWII Film Guide: Ten Essential Films - The Part-Time Critic

Sunday, November 21, 2021

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. 
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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 movie...is 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.


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