The Part-Time Critic

Monday, October 11, 2021

WWII Film Guide: The Aftermath

7:45 PM 0
WWII Film Guide: The Aftermath


*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

What strings does the past have on our present? To what do we owe today what happened some 80 years ago now? The second world war created giant historical political, economic, and social waves that are still being felt today. In that sense, almost every post-war historical story is in some big or small way directly or indirectly part of the fallout of the war. The films on this list deal with the psychological burdens of war (The Best Years of Our Lives), the final moments of the German and Japanese militaries (Downfall, Emperor), the physical and social mines leftover (Ten Seconds to Hell, Land of Mine) the burgeoning cold war (The Good German), the humanitarian crisis (Grave of the Fireflies), and the search for justice against war criminals (Judgment at Nuremberg, Labyrinth of Lies, Operation Finale). This is a category stacked with excellent films folks.

One of my favorite film quotes comes from Frodo Baggins in Return of the King after he's gone through the entire ordeal of the ring and he's dealing with the trauma, "How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand... there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep, that have taken hold." After the evil and upheaval that occurred in the second world war, how do you pick up the pieces? How is it possible to try and make things right again? These films struggle to show just how we tried. 

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 16 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: Best in this category belongs to...
  • Grave of the Fireflies (1987): A simple but challenging work of art. This war film for me, more than any other I've ever seen, is a direct challenge to those alive to remember the sufferings and sacrifices of 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.

The Deep Dive: For those wanting a broader and richer journey...
  • Dealing with the End - Downfall (2005): After so many lives have been sacrificed in the bloodiest war of all-time and the Allies are closing in on Berlin, how does Hitler and his inner circle deal with the truth that the end is near? A fascinating and educational look into history of when fanatical leaders finally must face reality.
  • Seeking Justice - Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) & Labyrinth of Lies (2014): The best look into the reasoning, mindset, and procedures behind trying key Germans for war crimes. 
  • Domestic Aftermath - The Best Years of Our Lives (1946): The success William Wellman had in depicting British domestic life at the onset of World War II with Mrs. Miniver he is able to duplicate in his depiction of three American servicemen adjusting to life after the war. Grounded, incredibly well-written, and ultimately hopeful.
  • Telling the Story - Denial (2016): How can later generations tell the story of the war? Are they allowed to deny clear historical events like the Holocaust? This film demonstrates that the fight for truth is not a once and for all battle. It's a fight that every generation, every human brings up anew. 

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

1. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) IMDB
-  There's a strange silence that surrounds certain issues of war. After a lengthy quiet on war crimes, atrocities, and the holocaust, it has now become quite regular to see films tackle that issue. Still to this day, the issue of re-adjusting to life after war and overcoming issues like disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorder are not depicted very often. I think it's because it's a topic with no easy answers. Like dealing with depression or drug abuse - it's not like the normal character arc where a hero just makes a decision to change to confront evil. Learning to live with a disability or deal with PTSD is much more difficult, much more nuanced, often includes bouts with alcoholism, and is often filled with small and incremental steps.

The Best Years of Our Lives was brave to tackle these issues in 1946 so soon after the war and it was handsomely rewarded at the box office and Oscars for its quality. The film follows the return of three different servicemen to the city of Boone. Harold Russell plays Homer Parrish, a Navy serviceman dealing with the loss of his hands and the reaction his family and girlfriend have to his disability. Frederic March plays Al Stephenson trying to tackle the changes in domestic life his family has gone through during the war. Finally, Dana Andrews plays Fred Derry who became a Captain dropping bombs from a bomber and finds it hard to get work he feels worthy of and going back to his wife who can't imagine him as a civilian.

The film takes its time following these men, giving the viewer (especially decades later) a nice window into a spectrum of what society looked like after the war. Director William Wyler (who also directed the war film Mrs. Miniver and was a veteran himself) has done a great job trying to be honest and grounded in his depictions here. He is not afraid to get dark, though I'm sure there were some realities the time period wouldn't allow him to depict to audiences. In the end, one of the most underrated and moving aspects about William Wellman's WWII films about domestic life, Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives, are the imperfect but loving families and marriages at the center. Films today so often feature broken families it has been moving experiencing that simple goodness on screen. There's something to be said that when faced with the greatest crisis in history and in the lives of the characters enduring it - Wellman's films suggest that a family, open to each other, accepting and forgiving and enduring together is the best response to navigate it. It's beautiful and refreshing. GRADE: A-

2. Ten Seconds to Hell (1959) IMDB
- It is the end of the war and six men who worked on bomb disposal with the German army are employed by the Allies to defuse bombs throughout Berlin. It's a daunting task that has a very short life span, so the down on their luck men make a deal with each other to put away half their earnings and if they die in the next three months their earnings will go to the surviving men. As the weeks go by, the men get organized, defuse bombs, but mistakes, accidents, and tricky bombs begin diminishing the group. As the band of men narrows, there thoughts turn to their morbid bet and if anyone will survive it.

Jack Palance plays the lead character here and is the moral backbone of the film. When the film focuses on the dynamic between the bomb defusers and their difficult job it is pretty darn good and thrilling. However, when the film turns to romance and love relationships, it all gets pretty sentimental and dated. Check this one out for the bomb disposal scenes and Palance's performance alone. GRADE: C+ 

3. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) IMDB
- Responsibility...who is responsible for war and the things that happen under its auspices? That's the question at the heart of this film. It has been a few years since the biggest Nazi leaders were tried. It's now 1948 and a tribunal has been called to hold try key German judges during the Nazi regime. This lengthy prestige film (roughly based on a number of real trials) was a passion project for Stanley Kramer and he has made an incredible film - a film full of righteous indignation. Providing the anchor for that indignation is the calm, measured, and steady performance of Spencer Tracy as the head American judge. He oversees the trial and it's clear he wants justice and won't be swayed by any attempt to stack the deck and get a pre-ordained judgment as some kind of revenge or retribution.

"A judge does not make the law, he carries them out" says Maximillian Schell in his Oscar winning performance as the lead defense attorney. This is the key defense - how can you hold someone responsible who was just following orders, doing their duty, and was not necessarily responsible for the original orders. I like to see this as the natural sequel to 2001's Conspiracy and 2005's Sophie Scholl: The Final Days - films that depict civil lawyers and judges being unsure of but still abusing their profession in order to carry the water for the government's central policies. This battle largely plays out in the courtroom with the prosecutor and defense dueling with witnesses and Spencer Tracy playing referee. 

There are a few things that stand out in the courtroom back and forth. First, the film's willingness to call out American double standards. While exploring the issue of judges recommending the use of sterilization as punishment the defense reads a favorable opinion on sterilization from popular American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes. In this sense, the film is at least willing to broaden "responsibility" beyond just the Germans to American law trends as well. This kind of nuance, without still losing sight of Nazi guilt, is rare in films and much appreciated . Second, Judy Garland's Hoffman and Montgomery Clift's Peterson provide two of the most memorable sequences of the entire film. Clift's plea for justice of what happened to him and his mentally ill mother in particular is a sequence I frequently return to. It's devastating. One of the finest pieces of acting I've ever seen.

Finally, the character who hangs over the entire film, but says little until the end, is Burt Lancaster's Ernst Janning. It is clear from his mostly silent performance and the way the camera films him there is an internal tempest going on inside him. When he finally breaks and lets his emotions out in the final act of the film - it's a dramatic catharsis and moral acknowledgement felt well beyond the confines of the film. There's a moral lesson that speaks to and educates the viewer: there is no depth to the evil men can do if they allow their fear of others and love for country to overtake their principles. GRADE: A-

4. Grave of the Fireflies (1988) IMDB
- 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. 

In this sense, the film should fall in the "holocaust/subcategory" right? I'd agree if it wasn't for the framing of the film that I think more firmly places this film in the "aftermath" category. 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. To return back to the opening question, "What do we owe the generations that came before us?" This film for me, more than any other I've ever seen, is a direct challenge for us to remember the sufferings and sacrifices of 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. GRADE: A+

5. Downfall (2005) IMDB
-  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. GRADE: A-

6. The Good German (2006) IMDB
-  The thought of Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, and Cate Blanchett shooting a black and white thriller taking place in Berlin after World War II in the style of old 1940's films (think Casablanca mixed with film noir) is really exciting. Were they able to execute the concept? Well, on the level of craft, the execution is great. Clooney is well suited for the role and it's fun to see a contemporary crime mystery filtered this way. On the level of a World War II film, there's a lot of interesting threads here: the Potsdam Conference, US vs. Russia, tracking down war criminals, and Operation Paperclip. I like that the film swirls these all together and asks the basic question, "Are any Germans clean?" or put another way, "Are there any good Germans?" left after the war? Unfortunately, the story crafted to mix all these threads just never quite engages and gels. Thankfully it's on the shorter end, but this feels like one of the films you can praise individual parts but never quite find yourself complimenting the actual story - which is unfortunately the most important part of the film. GRADE: C+

7. The Reader (2008) IMDB
- In postwar West Germany, a young fifteen year old boy named Michael encounters a middle-aged German woman named Hanna and played by Kate Winslet. The curious, and hormone driven young boy returns to Winslet's apartment where they begin a love relationship. During their encounters, Michael begins to read to Hanna, who we later learn can't read on her own. Eventually, Hanna ups and mysteriously leaves. The catch to this postwar story is that it twists into an aftermath story where Hanna turns out to have been a prison guard at a concentration camp during World War II and Michael, now a young adult and student studying to be a lawyer encounters her again at a war crimes trial. This revelation sends Michael into a tailspin that distances him from his college roommates.

The premise is interesting, but the execution, while professional, is morally offensive to me. It's one thing to tell a story about a young boy's first infatuation with an older woman, but it's another to show their sexual encounters in vivid detail. While the actor is likely above 18 at the time of shooting (I read that they waited to film those scenes until just after his 18th birthday), I don't think there's any excuse to show sexualized nudity of a character who is meant to be 15-16 years old. The sequences are unnecessary and offensive in my opinion. Additionally, the movie completely fails in giving us any worthwhile insight into Winslet's Hanna. I don't quite understand how a woman who did the vile things she is accused of at Auschwitz, then essentially seduces and beds an underage boy over and over, can be countered by an empathetic performance, the sad fact she is illiterate, and her sad "we were just doing our job" defense. By the end of the film, I just don't know what we are supposed to feel and think. If anything it seems the film is committed to wanting us to side with Hanna as a victim. I don't get it. Despite the kind gesture from Michael at the end of the film. I think that of all the films that explore the question of what we do with those who partook of the atrocities during the war, this one seems to bring more confusion and do so in a painfully slow way. One of the more overrated Oscar nominated films ever. GRADE: C-

8. The Debt (2011) IMDB
- A fictionalized account of a trio of Israeli Mossad agents slipping into East Berlin in 1965 to kidnap and smuggle out an infamous Nazi war criminal. The story of Israeli groups working to bring justice to Nazi war criminals who escaped trials is a classic WWII aftermath story. What seems like a straightforward story (see 2018's Operation Finale for something more like that) is subverted with a major plot twist about halfway through. While this probably seemed like a great idea on paper (and it is) the actual finished film is hodgepodge of tones and a plot that starts and stops in fits. The 1965 kidnapping story starts out well,  moving quickly, and providing some suspenseful sequences. After the kidnapping and failed border crossing the group must settle down in their hideout and the film becomes stagnant and boring. These agents are supposed to be quiet and in hiding, but they are yelling and fighting and turn into an unlikeable group of actors. In particular is Sam Worthington, who was in every major film around this time, and is just kinda there on the screen lacking any serious emotion. Another issue here is the attempt to turn the Nazi war criminal into some kind of Hannibal Lecter - working psychological games on the group. It's all so...obviously written...that it just feels so false. Once the twist of the film comes about halfway, the film primarily moves to 1997 when the trio of agents must continue to deal with the aftermath of their actions in 1965. This section of the film feels like it belongs in another movie to me. Despite what I've said, there's a decent thread about telling the truth and the toll that keeping lies takes - I just wish the storytelling here did a better job at getting that across. GRADE: C

9. Emperor (2013) IMDB
- Japan has just surrendered and the Americans have the task of seeking out war criminals and administering a peaceful transfer to peace. Tommy Lee Jones plays General Douglas MacArthur who is in charge of this process, but it is Matthew Fox's General Bonner Fellers who gets the lead task of investigating whether or not the Japanese Emperor should be tried. This task allows the movie to explore the complicated system that led Japan to war and for Fellers to seek out his old Japanese flame from when he used to be stationed there. 

The premise is engaging to me as the Japanese surrender and transfer of power is not well depicted in film or taught in history. Unfortunately, this film does little to shine a strong light on it. Told partly as a straight historical narrative, partly as a noir like investigation, partly as a political thriller, and partly as a tragic romance - the film feels uneven and never quite hits a groove. Matthew Fox, who can be a good actor, doesn't feel quite right for the role here. When he gets angry and threatens Japanese generals to cooperate, he just isn't believable. When the film flashes back to his previous romance it essentially just stops all momentum. It's just not well tied together. At least, by its conclusion, the film captures the consequential meeting between MacArthur and Hirohito in dramatic fashion. GRADE: C

10. The Railway Man (2013) IMDB
- This film mixes several categories for its story - the prisoner of war, atrocity, and aftermath. It is based on the true story of Eric Lomax who was a prisoner of war in Southeast Asia during World War II. Like the films Bridge on the River Kwai and To End All Wars, Eric was forced to work on the Japanese railway. In his time as a POW he was tortured and beaten. After the war, Eric retained his interest in railways but struggled, like many soldiers, with what he experienced. With the introduction of a new wife and the unique challenge of a friend, Eric returns to Southeast Asia to confront the man behind his torture. Will he take revenge? Will he forgive? Will he find any closure? It's a bit slow, but this well-acted story with a difficult but challenging ending is worth a watch. GRADE: B 

11. Labyrinth of Lies (2014) IMDB
- How far should the officers of German death and concentration camps be prosecuted after the war? What about those who've burned their uniforms and become upstanding citizens? The film begins in 1958 as a survivor from the Auschwitz concentration camp recognizes that the teacher at an elementary school is an SS officers from the camp. When a journalist brings this to the attention of the local attorney general's office, he is essentially laughed out of the room...except by one young prosecutor who finds the claim curious. He doesn't understand why everyone seems so quick to dismiss it. He does some research, finds it to be true, but finds resistance in his own ranks. The more resistance he meets, the more he pushes and wonders, "What happened at Auschwitz and won't people address it?" In his naiveite, he and many others think that Auschwitz is just another camp like all countries had during the war and the more outlandish stories are just victor propaganda. The young prosecutor Radmann operates as the audiences perspective, so as he learns that the horrors of Auschwitz extend beyond the normal prison camp, beyond a couple of bad apple officers, and was in fact systematic genocide, we learn it as well. He wants to push for more and thankfully he finds support for it from the attorney general. 

The rest of the film recounts the building and trying of the case against the officers at Auschwitz and the obstacles and excuses for resistance  encountered all seem reasonable: It's a nonstarter; They were soldiers just doing their duty; Everyone was a Nazi; If aliens came down you'd turn alien; You'll just be digging old wounds; Hitler is gone, the Russians are the new enemy. This is all well executed stuff and it doesn't shy away from the tough questions and the brutal realities. In the end, I'm on the side of truth - and I think the best healing and moving can't move forward without as much transparency/clarity as possible. I'll remember for a while this exchange between a cynical layer and the hopeful Radmann:

Cynic: Are you aware of the consequences? Do you want every young German to ask if their father was a murderer?!"
Radmann: Yes, that's exactly what I want. I want these lies and this silence to end. 

Turns out, when Radmann investigates his own father, he finds what he does not want to. The film says it's worth knowing, even if it will be devastating to come to terms with. I agree. GRADE: A-

12. Land of Mine (2015) IMDB
- The Germans buried over 2.2 million land mines along the Danish coastline during World War II. Once the war was over, German POWS, many of them just teen boys, were used to clear the land mines. Dane actor Roland Moller plays a Danish Sergeant overseeing a squad of Germans who are assigned a stretch of the coast line to complete. Once they clear their stretch, they are free to go home, until then, they are prisoners under the harsh eye of the Sergeant. At first, the Sergeant is filled with hatred and bitterness towards the POWs. It's clear that he could care less if any POW lost their life while defusing the bombs. When one of the young soldiers is mangled by a bomb, the Sergeant only leaves his hut to administer morphine. Later when the soldiers steal some grain, they aren't being fed because food is scarce for German POWS, and get sick - the Sergeant takes pleasure in their suffering - even if you can see a little bit of a fatherly affection growing. 

As he works with the young prisoners, witnesses their suffering, sees their lack of food, and glimpses his own hatred in the behavior of other Danish officers, he begins to change. He beings to empathize with their situation and see their humanity. In scene after scene, the audience begins to see their simple humanity as well and we begin to cheer for them. This simple premise sets out the ethical dilemma at the core of cleaning up a war's aftermath - how do you stop the cycle of violence and resentment once it has begun? In many ways, it was the lingering frustration of World War I that sowed the seeds of hate that flowered into World War II. It's certain the Sergeant suffered by the Germans in the war, does his ill treatment simply beget more German resentment and their reprisals at first chance? Unless we are confronted with the humanity of our enemy and treat them with dignity and compassion in response, we will never escape the endless cycle of violence. 

The cinematography of the film balances the two sides of this cycle well - beautifully showcasing the striking beauty of the Danish beaches right alongside the grizzly sweat, popping veins, and gory violence and realism of the situation. It's like the cinematography is saying that if only we treated each other better we could enjoy this good earth together. There's a beautiful sequence when the men, including the Sergeant, are playing soccer on the beach and just enjoying each other's company. Naturally, it's interrupted with a mistake, with violence, and an explosion that threatens the goodwill earned. By the time the end draws near, the toll taken is nearly unbearable. As it draws near, naturally with a good story, it asks the Danish Sergeant to put to the test how much he has changed. I really loved this film and the way it so simply and organically challenges the viewer to go on a transformative journey with the Danish Sergeant. Don't miss out on it. GRADE: A-

13. The People vs. Fritz Bauer (2015) IMDB
- One can think of this film as the intellectual forerunner and cinematic reflection of films like Labyrinth of Lies and Operation Finale. Not in that it came out before those films, but because it depicts the higher level leadership battles over the ramifications of searching for and putting him on trial. The film recounts the efforts and trials of West German Attorney General Fritz Bauer in hunting down escaped Nazi war criminals, in particular Adolph Eichmann. Playing Bauer is Burghart Klausner and the character feels lived in, weary, and weighed down by his burden to bring justice to those profiteering Nazi's who slipped back into society. It's a slow burner, but for those wanting a bit more understanding of the political complications in the hunt for Nazi war criminals, or even want a prologue to the film Operation Finale, check this one out. GRADE: B 

14. The Woman in Gold (2015) IMDB
- Based on the true story of Maria Altmann, a Jewish refugee and daughter of a wealthy and influential Jewish family, who fled shortly Austria after the Nazi's annexed it. Maria fled, but many in her family did not make it out and paid for it with their wealth and their lives. Part of that wealth was a series of paintings made by Gustav Klimt of Maria's Aunt. These paintings made their way from the Nazi's to a Austrian museum and became world famous since. Later in life, Maria hires lawyer Randol Schoenberg, grandson of the famous Austrian Arnold Schoenberg, to sue the Austrian government to get the art back. The art restitution case allows the film to weave in the story of the Nazi takeover of Austria and Maria's backstory as dramatic flashbacks. I think this framing ends up working quite well. Randol, played well here by Ryan Reynolds, initially takes interest Maria's case because of the value of the Klimt paintings, but eventually grows to see the case as a matter of moral imperative. 

As you can tell by the other films on this list, I really like the "thorny search for justice" stories of World War II and this is another excellent entry. The film manages to navigate several time periods and genres of film while still putting the characters and performances in the lead. Remember that scene at the end of Titanic where Rose slips off to death (sleep?) and the camera goes into the depths, finds the sunken Titanic, and it's transformed into its original state, and Rose finds Jack with everyone around her cheering? There's a sequence at the end of this film that is similar and it is equally moving. There's something about characters being transported to earlier in their lives like this that connects with me. It's a better film about recovering culture/art that was lost than Monuments Men and a solid entry in dealing with the aftermath. GRADE: B+

15. Denial (2016) IMDB
- Based on a true story, this film recounts the British libel court battle between Penguin Books and and holocaust denier David Irving. Penguin Books published a book by Deborah Lipstadt calling out Irving's holocaust denials. The trial became a battleground for not just the historical case behind the holocaust, but the free speech case surrounding it as well. Further, there's the question of one should even engage with people who deny such things as the holocaust, does engaging dignify them, or does democracy and fairness mean we should? These are some of the big ideas here. Playing the holocaust writer Deborah Lipstadt is a fantastic Rachel Weisz and playing the holocaust denier is a charismatic and energetic Timothy Spall. 

I have to say, I'm fascinated by the implications of this story. One of the central aspects of dealing with the aftermath of a war is telling the story: who were the victors, who were the villains, what were the key decisions, moments, and events. The story of the German persecution and extermination of the Jewish people is a vital one to be told in the war's aftermath. Holocaust denier says it's just propaganda to get the state of Israel more funds and sympathy - it's the victors writing the story. How does a democratic society handle those, like Irving, who brashly and brutely deny such a vital and important part of the World War II story? A denial that spits on the tomb of every holocaust victim? I have to say, given our current world circumstances and the questions about election losses, these ideas are even more pressing

The trial itself is mostly a well executed affair. The dialogue is largely taken from straight from the transcripts and great care is taken to show the different legal strategies employed and the risks they all incur. One risk the film emphasizes is not bringing survivors in to testify, the thinking being that their strategy is to focus on Irving's lies, not on defending the entire Holocaust. Additionally, they don't want the spectacle of Irving trashing survivors, or their memory being incorrect, overlooked, or misremembered. It's smart and a brute reality. It's intelligent stuff that respects the viewers and engages us in the quandaries of the trial. In my holocaust category I quoted the holocaust survivor Elie Weisel, "For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time." This film demonstrates that the fight for truth is not a once and for all battle. It's a fight that every generation, every human brings up anew. GRADE: A-

16. Operation Finale (2018) IMDB
-  It should be mandatory that this film is always watched in combination with 2001's Conspiracy. In that film, we witness the Jan. 1942 Wannsee Conference overseen by Adolph Eichmann where the final solution to the Jewish question was officially endorsed and headed up by Reinhard Heydrich. This is where you see the central role played by Eichmann and after viewing that film - Operation Finale takes on an entirely new context. This film covers the hunt for Eichmann undertaken by Israeli agents. Oscar Isaac plays the head Mossad agent Peter Malkin and Ben Kingsley plays Adolph Eichmann. Mossad has tracked Eichmann to Buenos Aires and much of the film covers the daring (and dramatically embellished) operation to kidnap Eichmann and secretly take him back to Israel to stand trial.

These sequences are well directed by Chris Weitz and mostly played as a special operations thriller. As is standard for films of these kind, Kingsley's Eichmann takes on the nature of a mastermind who expertly tries to manipulate his captors - their sidetalk during capture become obvious stand-ins for the moral discussions that would later surround Eichmann's trial. This is a nice thriller that walks through the basics of spycraft to capture Eichmann while throwing a bone to the reflection on why it is important bring him to justice. GRADE: B

Thursday, October 7, 2021

WWII Film Guide: War Backdrop

7:32 PM 0
WWII Film Guide: War Backdrop

*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

Introduction: There are several films that use World War II as an influential setting, but primarily examine life on the homefront or use the setting as a background for a genre entry. While this category is largely dominated by romance films, there is much to be found here for fans of any genre. This broad category features family drama's like Mrs. Miniver; romances like The English Patient, Captain Corellis Mandolin (an English Patient wannabe), From Here to Eternity and Atonement; martial arts films like Ip Man; musicals like South Pacific; political dramas like The Darkest Hour; animated films like The Wind Rises; and the genre busting masterpiece Casablanca.

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 11 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: Best in this category belongs to...
  • Casablanca (1942): Shocked! I'm shocked to find the masterpiece of this category is 1942's Casablanca. 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. It was written and made in the middle of the war and it manages in the character of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) to capture the American attitude of an cynical idealist who has reason to be skeptical but eventually comes around to doing the right, scratch that, noble thing, by joining in the fight against the Nazi's. Remarkably, he's even able to begin a beautiful friendship with a (poor) corrupt French policeman by the end. Don't be misinformed, don't watch Casablanca for the waters, watch it because it's a classic story that deepens with repeated viewings. Okay, that's enough quote references for this short recommendation. Read the review below if you want more.

The Deep Dive: For those wanting a broader and richer journey...
  • Mrs. Miniver (1942): Have you ever wondered what an episode of Growing Pains or Family Ties might have looked like if they lived in Britain through World War II? If so, check out the delightful family tale Mrs. Miniver that covers a family living through the beginning events of the war. 
  • Atonement (2007): I think the best romance, albeit one with a lot of philosophical and meta-introspection, is the gorgeously produced Atonement.
  • Ip Man (2008): Finally, one of the greatest martial arts films of all-time uses the Japanese invasion of China during the war as its setting. You can't go wrong checking it out. 

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
1. Casablanca (1942) IMDB
- 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. GRADE: A+

2. Mrs. Miniver (1942) IMDB
- The opening sees Mrs. Miniver, played wonderfully by the Academy Award winning Greer Carson, buying a lovely hat from downtown London and then Mr. Miniver, played well here by Walter Pidgeon, buying a new car. They both know their purchases are a bit expensive and they have a bit of trouble telling each other about them. This sequence, played lightly and mostly for laughs, settles the film in as a well-balanced drama about an upper middle class British family just before the war. The tone, writing, and performances make it remarkably likable. There is a natural and organic feel here to the family scenes, reminded a bit of how homey and breezy 80's family sitcom way - think Family Ties or Growing Pains. The drama plays out with moments from the evacuation of Dunkirk to the Blitz and Battle of Britain going on in the background. It's easy to see why this became a favorite as a pro-Allies propaganda film as it's essentially a wealthy family happily and lovingly struggling through, giving what they can in different ways to the war effort. This are some faults here, but man this is an enjoyable film with laughs, heartwarming moments, and even a tear or two. Give it a watch. GRADE: A- 

3. Lifeboat (1944) IMDB
- The film opens with the sinking of an allied steamship by a German U-boat. A lone lifeboat remains and is picking up whatever survivors there are. It turns out before the ship went down, it was able to shell the U-boat and her crew jumped over either. As survivors populate the boat they get one more unexpected guest - a German U-boat survivor. Based on a story by John Steinbeck, this Alfred Hitchcock film plays out like a class drama and mystery thriller combined. As the eclectic group of survivors get to know each other and conflict over the German, their roles, the rescue plan, and various other things while they discover the German is sabotaging their rescue. 

As an examination of class and attitudes toward "enemies" the film is interesting and fairly successful. It does, however, get a little long in the tooth. Despite strong production values, especially for the time, that get everything they can out of the one setting - by the last twenty minutes or so of the film I'm wishing it would just end already. When it does, it is pretty underwhelming stuff. GRADE: B

4. From Here to Eternity (1953) IMDB
- Set in Hawaii before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the film a newly transferred soldier Robert E. Lee Prewitt, played by Montgomery Clift, who refuses to box for his company and therefore suffers the hazing of his fellow soldiers. Sgt. Warden, played by Burt Lancaster, of the company is a by the books guy who falls in love with the Captain's wife and they have an affair. That's the basic outline of the conflicts, but the film becomes so much richer than its basic plot. It's a story about broken people and the ways our broken lives crash into the brokenness of others. The brokenness is embodied by several well-drawn characters and stellar performances. At the center is the dogged, but persistent Montgomery Clift who is willing to take all the unjust punishment because he's drawn a moral line. 

The two central heavies in the film are Lancaster's Warden and the Captain. While the Captain is pretty much just a louse, Lancaster is able to draw in some light to his role giving it some earned sympathy. The supporting roles from Frank Sinatra, Deborah Kerr, and Donna Reed are also uniformly great. It's a fantastic ensemble playing memorable characters. This is great news because the drama/romance stuff can be hampered by the conventions of the time period and come off too melodramatic. There's also a turn or to in the plot that feels a bit too manipulative. Otherwise, the film is engrossing, intelligently written, and deserving of is reputation. For a 1950's film, it is quite surprising how willing this film is to depict infidelity, soldiers being hazed, drunk, unhappy, and visiting brothel-like establishments. There's a sadness that hangs over the film. Also hanging over the film is the impending Pearl Harbor attack which comes near the end of the film. It's an interest event that trivializes all the great plans and desires our characters have.  GRADE: B

5. South Pacific (1958) IMDB
- I've never really connected strongly with a Rodgers & Hammerstein production and this musical proves no different. In fact, this might be one of the most overrated "classic" musicals I've ever crossed. Let's start with the story, 30 minutes into this 2.5 hour musical and the only thing they've established is that a bunch of horny soldiers want to get over to this mythical island of Bali Ha'i where they think a bunch of French women are. We then learn a newly arrived Marine wants to get a rich French planter, named Emile, to help him setup an observation post on a nearby Japanese occupied island. This is ostensibly the plot, but only takes up a few minutes of the screen time in the first two hours. This transitions to the second main story - the love relationship between Emile and a young nurse from Arkansas. Emile, an older sophisticated and wealthy Frenchman on the island with a majestic estate with a stunning view of the South Pacific wonders in song if he has a chance with a young nurse from Arkansas. Gonna go out on a limb here - is he an idiot?

Eventually, an hour and a half into the film, they finally go to that island they want to go to, find the most stereotypical "islander" layout ever set to film and "Bloody Mary" pimps out her possibly underage daughter to the Marine commander. He falls in love, but has to go. All of these love relationships are shot through a color filter that looks godawful and must have been a unique trend at the time that has not aged well at all. Along the way, there's really only one been one number I thought was any good "There is Nothin' Like a Dame" - everything else is pretty standard stuff.

Honestly, I'm not sure how this one has become a classic. The plot is not that engaging, with the main stories not that well tied together, filled with pretty offensive depictions of the Islander natives, and with not a lot of great musical numbers. Aside from the beautiful location shooting, there's very little to like here. GRADE: D+

6. The English Patient (1996) IMDB
-  This film seems to have produced a love/hate relationship between viewers. On one hand it won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture. On the other, it produced a passionate fanbase of people who didn't like the film - leading to pop culture moments like this episode of Seinfeld. I myself, landed (no pun intended) somewhere in the middle. This is a pretty engaging prestige World War II romance film. A man mysteriously crashes his plane in the Egyptian desert and can't quite remember his past. As the film progresses we begin to learn of his past - which includes archaeological digs, love affairs, and possibly some espionage. His past eventually catches up to him where he is being cared for by a nurse in Italy before the end of the war. I won't say much more about the plot. While I don't quite find myself enraptured in the love story, it's hard not to admit the tone/atmosphere/setting of the film draws you in and does keep you wondering for most of its runtime. It's fairly successful and I think it garners its hate mostly because it's a decent film that is overpraised rather than an outright bad film. GRADE: B 

7. Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001) IMDB
-  A Greek woman, played by Penelope Cruz, is caught in a love triangle between a cultured Italian officer, played by Nicholas Cage, who has occupied her island during World War II and a local man, played by Christian Bale, who has returned from war in rough condition. Unfortunately, this well-produced movie is torpedoed by a glacial pace and the horrendous acting (including an all-time worst accent from Cage) and characterization of Captain Corelli. Once Corelli enters the film it all feels like a farce (when it is played seriously), not just for the misplaced acting, but because the character makes little to no sense the way he is portrayed. He's a walking stereotype that seems to not exist in the real world setting of World War II. It's a miscalculation that essentially sinks the entire film because it makes no sense for Cruz to fall in love with him. This is another prime example that Cage is one our best and worst actors of all-time. This film was likely greenlit with the success of The English Patient in the minds of the producers. For those who dislike that film, this film is pretty much a demonstration of how poorly that one could of gone in different hands. GRADE: D+

8. Atonement (2007) IMDB
- Atonement begins like a Jane Austen novel about young upper class English aristocrats set in the 1930's and interrupted by a crime...A crime in which through a serious of misunderstandings and misremembering's of a young girl, the wrong person, James McAvoy's Robbie Turner, is imprisoned. In this sequence we also meet the wealthy Cecilia Tallis, played by Keira Knightley, who has finally come around to show her love for Robbie Turner, despite their class differences. 

In the second act, Robbie has been drafted out of prison to take part in the British Expeditionary Force in France to defend against Germany. Robbie and a couple other soldiers are separated from their division and trying to make their way back to the main forces across the French countryside and the devastation it has seen. Eventually they make their way on the BEF and French forces on the beaches at Dunkirk. It's here we get the famous one-shot take tour of the massive recreation. It's an overwhelming sequence that lives up to its reputation and sells the desperation and hopelessness better than I ever felt in Nolan's Dunkirk. It's a gut punch of a sequence, a grounded fever dream, to our lead who wants to get home and start his life back over. 

The final phase of the film shifts to Briony Tallis, the young girl (played by Saoirse Ronan) who makes the fatal accusation that seals Robbie's fate, who is now an eighteen year old nurse (played by Romola Garai) and trying to atone and assuage the guilt she feels for her actions as a young girl. I won't give away the ending here except to say I didn't care for it much when I originally saw it in 2008, but was greatly moved by it upon re-watch. Director Joe Wright has always been interested in framing his dramas as more than just dramas and the way he plays with the film as a novel (making perspective, memory, and fictions by the author a thing we must deal with) mirrors the plot and the themes that play out. It ends up becoming an intellectual and emotional journey that quite surprised me. GRADE: A-

9. Ip Man (2009) IMDB
- In the the 1930's city of Foshan in South China, Martial Arts Clubs were popular and thriving. Foremost among the martial arts masters in the city is Ip Man, who fights using a system known as Wing Chun, but does not take on students. As newcomers arrive to the city and setup rival Martial Arts Clubs, they seek to challenge Ip Man, but all challengers find themselves completely overmatched. This is the setting when the Japanese army invades and closes down all schools, police the population, and food becomes scarce. 

Hard times fall on Foshan and the population is starving, even Ip Man's family, whose home is confiscated. To put food on the table, Ip Man is forced to manual labor. Word spreads that the occupying general is a Japanese martial artist and will pay Chinese masters to fight him. It's in this dramatic section where this martial arts film sets itself apart from others in the martial arts genre. You see, Ip Man is the best martial artist in the film - it's never even in doubt. There's never a fight where he's in genuine danger. This is unusual for a martial arts film because the main character's skill is where the arc comes in for most fight films. The last fight typically is when a character's skill peaks. So if Ip Man starts the best and ends the best, where is his arc? The arc and character growth comes in the sacrifices he is forced to make to put food on the table. Later, when he is forced to train factory workers against bandits, to fight to put food on the table, and fight to bring pride to his countrymen, he learns to see his martial skill with new importance. It's not about growing in skill, it's about growing in perspective. These sequences work well and are executed with unusually high production values. It's odd because the drama is normally the worst parts of these kind of films. 

The drama alone would mark this as a standout film, but the action and central character manage to upstage it and become the true icon of the picture. The quiet and understated Ip Man (loosely based on the real Ip Man) is played by Donnie Yen, one of cinema's greatest martial artists, and in this character he finds a perfect match - a character he would become most known for. In another case of the stars aligning, the director is Yip Wilson (who honed his action chops with previous Yen films) and legendary action choreographer Sammo Hung. Together, these three manage to put together several iconic action sequences that are able to take the Wing Chun form and make it into a cinematic delight. Instead of big and showy moves, Yen stays largely in one place, rarely leaving a basic center line, making rapid but detailed strikes and blocks. This style is showcased throughout, but is never more memorable than when Ip Man takes on ten Japanese fighters single-handedly. It's a short but brutal sequence featuring the now infamous Ip Man rabbit punches. The war backdrop provides the setting here, but the character and action sequences shine brightest. This is a martial arts masterpiece that so happens to take place during World War II. GRADE: A-

10. The Wind Rises (2013) IMDB
- A heavily fictionalized account of Jiro Horikoshi, one of the main designers of Japanese fighter aircraft used during World War II; most famously the Mitsubishi Zero. The story begins with Hiro as a young boy, a kind a thoughtful boy, but given to daydreaming about airplanes - especially planes by Italian designer Gianni Caproni. We follow Jiro's journey through his life (school, relationships, earthquakes, depression, tuberculosis pandemics) leading up to his work on fighter planes. This animated film, adapted and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, is filled with all the great hallmarks of Studi Ghibli work: excellent animation, sensitive supporting music, an unusual eye for insight into human behavior and the beautiful little things about life. At the core of this story is something seen in other Ghibli stories that focus on nature vs industrial technology as well, that's the irony of using the plane, something Jiro finds so fundamentally beautiful and inspiring, for something evil like war. I won't so much more about how the film goes on telling this part of the story. I will say that my usual admiration for Ghibli films, but ultimately a slight disconnect has continued on with this one. Check it out. GRADE: B

11. Darkest Hour (2017) IMDB
- The political situation for Britain in May 1940 is dire. Germany's invasion of France, which was thought to at least result in a stalemate, has surprised everyone in how quickly and swiftly they have pushed back the Allies. The political situation has suddenly favored the installment of a new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill onto the scene. With the disaster of Dunkirk in the air, Churchill must decide whether to sue for peace (as France, Denmark, and Norway would all later do) or to go on with the fight. The film follows the political machinations and back and forth during that tumultuous period.

Like most of Joe Wright's films (including the Atonement earlier on this list), the plot becomes largely an excuse for some other symbol or theme on his mind. In the case of Atonement it was how our perspectives can mislead us and how our words play vital roles in telling lies that can both ruin and restore. Similarly, The Darkest Hour is ostensibly about Churchill's historic moment, but it's moreso about the power of words - with great care given to how his words (rightly or wrongly) were the galvanizing instrument of the hour - even if they were often divorced (in ideals) from reality. The real key to the interests of the writer and director here are in the last words of Lord Halifax, "He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle." As a bravura performance from Oldman and an examination of how language is used in wartime this film shines. As a historical film covering those moments fairly, it's not so great. GRADE: B

Sunday, September 26, 2021

WWII Film Guide: Espionage

11:54 AM 0
WWII Film Guide: Espionage

 *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

Introduction: Who doesn't love a good spy story? While the Cold War and James Bond have largely defined the spy genre, the Second World War saw its fair share of espionage stories. The spy films of WWII tend to shy away from the more bombastic action of war films for somewhat more basic stories of subterfuge that emphasize drama and tension over visceral thrills. Perhaps this is because many of the best WWII spy films were early British productions - which tended to focus on "procedures" and "details" than action and romance. The earliest spy films I viewed for this category were pretty uneven and came from Alfred Hitchcock. The first gem comes in 1943 from Billy Wilder's adaptation of a stage play in 1943's Five Graves to Cairo. From there the 1950 and 60's saw some solid entries, but the category would essentially go dark until 1992's really bad Shining Through was released. In the shadow of 1998's Saving Private Ryan's spotlight on WWII, the 2000's saw a small re-emergence of films with mixed results. 

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 15 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: Best in this category belongs to...
  • The Five Fingers (1952): One of the joys of doing this film guide is discovering classic films that have been largely forgotten. While it's a joy to share my love for films like Saving Private Ryan or the mini-series Band of Brothers it's not like they are suffering from a lack of popularity or press. This is why I'm happy to share the most underrated and forgotten spy gem I've come across - 1952's The Five Fingers. Set in Ankara, Turkey this espionage story takes place from 1943-1944 and is based on a real-life story of one of the most effective spies of the entire war. 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 the master spy writer Le Carre would have loved this story - with its attention to detail, real life parallels, and final existential irony. 

The Deep Dive: For those wanting a broader and richer journey...
  • Five Graves to Cairo (1943): Start with 1943's Five Graves to Cairo. It won't take long to recognize that this was adapted from a play, but you'll relish the geographical constraints (it all takes place in a hotel), witty dialogue, and clockwork plot. 
  • The Man Who Never Was (1956): From there you can enjoy 1956's dramatization of real-life WWII Operation Mincemeat in The Man Who Never Was. I love that this film cares to share every step of this operation in detail, respecting that the viewer doesn't need love stories or extraneous action shoehorned into it. Watch this film to learn of a fairly successful British deception to trick Hitler on the location of the southern invasion.
  • Circle of Deception (1960): 1960's Circle of Deception explores the inherent immorality in spying. Like The Man Who Never Was, the British are looking to give the Germans misinformation and in this case they give their spy the wrong information (unknowingly to the spy) on the D-Day landings knowing he would be captured, tortured, and give up the info. It's twisted stuff.
  • The Imitation Game (2014): Finally, the recent The Imitation Game does a good job showing the technological espionage the British carried out at Bletchley park and the moral quandaries that came with their work. 

    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
    1. Foreign Correspondent (1940) IMDB
    - It's 1939 and World War II has not kicked off yet. The world wonders, will there be war or will there be peace? To help read the tea leaves, the New York Globe sends John Jones, played by Joel McCrea, to London as a foreign correspondent, hence the title. Jones attends a peace conference in London and then heads to Amsterdam for another. The film really gets going in a superlative sequence that sees dignitaries entering the conference hotel in the rain when one of the central peace figures, Van Meer, is murdered. Jones chases the murderer to the countryside and finds him in particular a windmill where he happens upon a wider conspiracy. I won't say more about the plot except that it includes a ring of spies and individuals looking to bring one side or another into a general war.

    This film is directed by Alfred Hitchcock, a director with whom I've a love/hate relationship. Hitchcock certainly has some great films, but just as often he produces boring, plodding, and repetitive features. This films ends up somewhere in the middle. After a great first act and the inciting incident of the assassination, the film gets bogged down in too many inconsequential sequences. First, the central love story that doesn't make much sense, second an attempt on Jones' life by an assassin that just never quite clicks the way it should, and the final strike is Jones' general passivity and naivete. As the plot unfolds and conspiracy becomes clear, Jones continues to not suspect obvious foul players and is generally just carried along by others making decisions. It's a strange decision that neuters the character. Thankfully, the climax of the film is strong and worth finishing the film for. Ultimately, this is another middling Hitchcock film with a couple great set pieces surrounded by rather mediocre and plodding drama. GRADE: C+

    2. Saboteur (1942) IMDB
    - One of the great fears during wartime is the sabotage of essential industries behind the front lines. America feared Japanese and German sympathizers would take out vital power, water, and transportation hubs causing disruption and panic. This panic is one of the causes for the shameful Japanese internment. In Saboteur, Hitchcock mixes this fear with his usual "wrong man" storyline. In this case, after a local plant is sabotaged the wrong man is blamed and the main characters travel across the country to escape the authorities and find the real saboteur. Despite the famous "Statue of Liberty" ending (that I got to recreate in one of the original Universal Studios Florida attractions in the 90's!), this is a pretty static and boring affair. Hitchcock would go on to do much better with this formula in future movies (think 1956''s The Man Who Knew Too Much or 1959's North by Northwest). GRADE: C-

    3. Five Graves to Cairo (1943) IMDB
    - The near dead British Corporal John J Bramble opens the film walking through the desert after his tank division was beaten in Tobruk. Bramble happens upon a small desert town in Egypt between Tobruk and Alexandria. Suffering from heat stroke, Bramble stumbles into the town's hotel. The Egyptian owner Farid wants to help him, but the French maid Mouche wants to let him die so the incoming Germans won't suspect them of being friendly to the British. The German high command roll into town, occupy the hotel, and through a series of happenstance, the British Corporal is taken for the waiter from the hotel who had died in a bombing the day before. It turns out, through some clever writing and luck, that the waiter so happened to be a German spy known to the high command, who include Field Marshal Rommel. This means the Germans think the hotel waiter is their spy, but in reality he is now a British double agent. With Rommel in the hotel is the secret to the German planned advance on Cairo - a secret rolled up into the title "Five Graves to Cairo". Will Bramble discover the secret, learn the German plans, and escape to the British without being discovered or getting any innocent civilians killed? That's as much as I'll say. It's intelligent, well-written, and engaging. As long as you accept the central conceit of the story, this plays out well and engages until the end. GRADE: B+

    4. Decision Before Dawn (1951) IMDB
    The field of espionage is loaded with "darned if you do, darned if you don't" propositions. One of the difficult and ethically tricky questions that confronted the American armed forces as they approached Germany was whether or not they would use and trust German soldiers willing to spy for them. On one hand, the more information and intelligence you get, the sooner you can end the war and save more American lives. On the other hand, to obtain that information you are likely employing people who are your enemy, could have committed atrocities, and might be feeding you false information as a double agent. When American intelligence hears a German general wants to surrender his troops, the Americans send out two German agents to meet the general and scout for a powerful Panzer division in the area.

    Most of the film follows Oscar Werner's German agent as he goes behind enemy lines and ambles from town to town looking for intelligence and bouncing between inconveniences. The feeling of being behind the lines as Germany is being bombed and in chaos is really well done here. Filming on location and some excellent art direction has helped the film tremendously. What doesn't help the film is the leisurely pace that the mission unfolds on and the fact it feels listless (even if it isn't) and ponderous until the final act which does pick up. This is one of those where the production is worth the view, but the story lets it down. GRADE: C 

    5. 5 Fingers (1952) IMDB
    - 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.

    The 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. GRADE: A-

    6. The Man Who Never Was (1956) IMDB
    - A British film adaptation of a novel based on a real-life quirky World War II espionage plot titled Operation Mincemeat. The goal of the operation is to try and convince the Germans that the main thrust of the Allied southern invasion would come in Greece and not in Sicily. Put in charge of the operation is Lt. Commander Ewen Montagu, played by Clifton Webb. Eventually Montagu hits on the idea of taking a dead body, making them seem like they were an important assistant carrying important documents on a plane that went down in the Atlantic. The body would then was ashore, with documents implicating an invasion of Greece, likely fall into German hands and hopefully become a successful deception.

    This is one of those "nuts and bolts" espionage films that eschews action and sensationalism for a grounded portrayal of real life intelligence subterfuge. There's a scene where Montagu and his assistant arrive in an underground morgue and begin to dress the body with item after item intended to sell the story. It's largely shot in one take and the decision to have the Germans bombing overhead during the sequence makes for a brilliant juxtaposition. It's fantastic stuff. Once the body is launched and found by authorities, we get to see a wonderful cat and mouse game of classic espionage - the Germans trying to validate the dead man's life and verify the documents and the British trying to make the whole game stick. While the final act cat and mouse stuff is largely all fictional, it is really the perfect dramatization cherry on top on what is a truly fascinating real life espionage operation. In order to view this film I had to buy a used copy from a thrift store in England and have it shipped over - it was worth it. GRADE: B+ 

    7. Circle of Deception (1960) IMDB
    It's 1944 and the German gestapo have just arrested a spy network in Northern France. The British were must about to drop a spy into the zone, but with the network exposed whoever they send will most certainly be picked up by the gestapo and made to talk. The British spy captain has an idea, what if they still sent someone, but they sent him with false information about the D-day landings. Once he talked, the Germans would think they'd stumbled on to great news when they really stumbled onto misinformation. There's only one snag in the plan, the British authorities would have to deliberately mislead their spy and essentially sacrifice him without him knowing. It's for a good cause though...would you do it?

    I love a good ethical dilemma and placing it within the confines of a spy film is extra gravy for me.  The agent picked for this tragic job is a man named Paul Raine - a confident man whose parents have passed and has little to tie him down. In charge of vetting Raine's quality is an assistant to Captain Rawlson, Lucy Bowen. As she vets him, knowing his fool's job, she falls in love with him. The British send him in and he's eventually picked up by the gestapo. They torture him and he holds out for a long time until his poison pill doesn't work. In a nice twist, the local French resistance bust into the gestapo prison and break out the prisoners, including Raine. It's never said explicitly if this was Captain Rawlson's plan all along. 

    A great premise, executed fairly well, but it is a bit by the numbers since once the plan is laid out everything kinda happens as expected until the final ten minutes. This is the kind of non-sensational spy stuff that feels ultra-realistic and grounded. It's a dirty business that weighs on all those who take part. It's about as close to a dedicated World War II Le Carre story as we've ever gotten. GRADE: B

    8. Operation Crossbow (1965) IMDB
    - A fictional account of the real life British WWII operation to gain intelligence on and subvert the German V1 and V2 rocket programs. The film largely opens with a procedural method, showing the German rocket preparations and the nuts and bolts of the intelligence operations of the British to locate and destroy the rocket bases. This stuff is all pretty good. Unfortunately, the British come across a base that is largely underground and will demand the use of on the ground spies. A group of three, including George Peppard the lead actor the rest of the way out, are drafted, parachuted behind enemy lines, and will attempt to infiltrate the German underground facility and get the intelligence back to Britain.

    Unfortunately, the smooth and methodical progression of the story is interrupted by complications with the stolen identities the spies used - including a 15-20 minute digression where the wife of the deceased cover figure shows up. It grinds the story to a halt and worse, this particular detour feels superfluous and written in just to get a larger female role in the film (a common issue with WWII films). There's a secondary mishap including a double agent and the German police that comes off much better. Once the rocket facility is infiltrated, the movie picks up a bit but I'd say it never fully recovers. The promise of the first act is met with mixed results in the second and a third act that becomes more Bond like than the rest of the film that tries to be grounded. GRADE: C+

    9. Triple Cross (1966) IMDB
    - Hot off directing the first three successful James Bond films, Terence Young directed this World War II spy film based on the real life story of double agent Eddie Chapman. Chapman was a British bank robber who was eventually arrested and imprisoned on the island of Jersey. The Germans took over the island in the war and Chapman offers himself to them to serve as a spy against Britain. Caught between the German and the British, Chapman offers his services to the British as well, this time as a double agent. This amoral, playing both sides, nature led to the codename "zig zag". Christopher Plummer plays Chapman as suave, high-class, determined, and willing to say and do anything to stay alive and free. As romantic and adventurous as this plot sounds, this film has a way of making it all seem rather boring and unsubstantial to be honest. It's decently plot heavy, but it all feels like run-up to something that never really happens. I don't think this is from a desire to keep it "real and grounded," rather, it seems they have struggled to really identify and dramatize Chapman's worth as a spy. What exactly did he do for the British? What great information or misinformation did he supply? It isn't until the last few minutes where it feels like something substantial happens, but by then it's all over. Interesting, with a Bond-esque performance from Plummer here, but ultimately this is pretty forgettable stuff. GRADE: C

    10. Shining Through (1992) IMDB
    - The first major World War II espionage film in nearly thirty years, Shining Through was adapted from a novel into a prestige romance/drama for the Oscars. Starring Michael Douglas and a hugely miscast Melanie Griffith. Douglas is a colonel and spymaster while Griffith, who was his intelligent and plucky secretary, turns out to be a good choice as an agent in Berlin. Griffith, who in America claimed to be a good cook and understand Berlin, screws up horrendously. Despite help from a fellow spy, she can't handle a message exchange, can't cook as a way to get in a key household, and is generally befuddled and bewildered it seems. Additionally her accent/voice stretches the audience's disbelief every time she opens her mouth.

    Griffith eventually lands on her feet as the domestic helper/nannie of a major Reich officer, played by Liam Neeson. When she begins looking for her Jewish relatives hiding out, rather than hoping she is able to rescue them, I couldn't help but just hope she didn't screw things up. The film takes goes through some eventual plot twists, but none of it ever really clicks. Douglas and Griffith don't have great chemistry, Griffith single handedly sinks the film, and the story itself never quite engages despite the prestige level production values. GRADE: D+ 

    11. Charlotte Gray (2001) IMDB
    - Young Charlotte is in London during the war and after getting connected with soldiers and others in the war effort wants to do something courageous and make a difference. Given her background of living in Paris and speaking fluent French, Charlotte becomes a spy for the British. She is trained, given a new identity, and parachuted behind enemy lines to be a courier. She quickly makes her contacts and gets involved in courier work, sabotage, and the protection of a couple of Jewish boys. There's some good traditional cynical (you can't trust anyone) spy moments here and a nice wearied and regretful Michael Gambon performance who becomes a nice scene stealer. However, beyond the beautiful cinematography and production values, this is pretty standard stuff for this kind of story. There's a feeling that somewhere along the way the film, which is a spy story, forgets to be a spy story and turns into something else entirely. It kinda becomes a mess. It's a shame since the novel the film is based on, is loosely on a real person who is one of the most exciting, adventurous, and interesting stories of the whole war. GRADE: C

    12. The Imitation Game (2014) IMDB
    -Dropping special operation teams behind enemy lines, running spy rings, and supporting resistance movements all had a great effect on shortening the war. However, many historians believe the operation that shortened the war the most is the deciphering efforts headed by a team of scientists at Bletchley Park in England. Codenamed Ultra, the program was determined to intercept and decipher as much Axis intelligence as possible. One of the best ways Germany kept their transmissions coded was through a machine called the enigma. It was extremely difficult to break. Breaking the enigma machine was the job of a team headed by Mathematician Alan Turing, played here by Benedict Cumberbatch in a performance not that dissimilar from his Sherlock Holmes. 

    Turing is quirky, obstinate, but also a genius. He is determined to break the enigma using a machine, the first of its kind - though it will be expensive and require overcoming many obstacles. There are also several subplots here: Turing's homosexuality, his wife, and a Russian mole. It all does come together pretty well to tell a focused story about what happened with the Ultra program and how essential Turing was in it. This stuff is all handsomely produced and well considered. However, there's a framing device of a police investigation later in Turing's life that feels like it belongs in a different movie with a different focus. GRADE: B

    13. Allied (2016) IMDB
    - Brad Pitt and Marion Cottillard play Allied undercover agents (or are they double agents?) in this Robert Zemeckis directed World War II spy film. They first meet in Casablanca on a job where they must play husband and wife who infiltrate the Nazi embassy and murder the ambassador. I have to admit, there's something romantic and nostalgic (perhaps because of my love for the film Casablanca? - in fact, there's a lot of Casablanca homages in this film) I find about this opening setup. It establishes the characters well and gives us a dashing/romantic first act story. Unfortunately, the movie never gets better than the promise of the first act. The two spies fall in love, marry, and settle in London. This is tough to believe since Cottillard exhibits incredible skills in the opening act - infiltrates embassies, speaks multiple languages, seems to have a history of operations, and can handle pressure and guns. It's never quite explained why Cottillard gives it all up for the domestic life exactly. Once the big twist of the film happens, the story bogs down a bit and never quite feels as satisfying as it should. It's a passable spy film with high production values and good performances. GRADE: B-

    14. The Catcher Was a Spy (2018) IMDB
    - This isn't a good film, but it was a pretty easy and enjoyable view nonetheless. Paul Rudd plays...well...the affable Paul Rudd (as he does in pretty much every role)...but he plays the titular catcher Moe Berg. Berg played many years for the Red Sox. He was an intellectual and had a knack for picking up languages - he spoke 7 fluently. After the war kicked off, Berg was recruited to join the newly formed OSS and became connected to the real life Operation Alsos - a mission to determine if Germany was developing or had developing a nuclear bomb. This role turned Berg and other scientists and army men in a kind of detective squad hunting down scientist associates and questioning them. The top dog on their list is Werner Heisenberg - the head of the German fission program. The final act of the film revolves around Berg setting up a lecture and meeting with Heisenberg to determine if they were close to building a bomb, if he was, then Berg would kill Heisenberg. There's issues with Berg's characterizations (including a somewhat random subplot about Berg being homosexual), but it's an easy to film to watch as they float between one historical person after another and tell a pretty straight forward and basic true story. GRADE: C+

    15. A Call to Spy (2020) IMDB
    - France has fallen to Hitler and Britain seems to stand alone against the Nazi threat. Like British army results in North France before Dunkirk, early Special Operation Executive spies were unprepared and unsuccessful. To compete, the British decide to draw on female spies, despite the "ungentlemanly" nature of doing so. The opening act of the film sees Vera Atkins, a high ranking female in the SOE, recruiting and training female spies. The female spy who takes the central role in the film is Virginia Hall, an American who lost the lower half of her leg (now wearing a fake wooden one) and wants to matter in the war effort. 

    She is stationed in Lyons wear she finds early success. What follows are a series of events and stories depict the development of spy networks across France. Frankly, the sequences are all kind of pedestrian for this genre. It's workmanlike, mostly unremarkable, and generally lacking some kind of distinctive story goal. Eventually, a Nazi heavy is revealed in Klaus Barbie that gives the film a personified central villain. Unfortunately, he's played so broad and one note that it does shift the tone of the film quite a bit. There's a decent thread about a double agent rolling up and exposing agents, but the film telegraphs who it is far too early for it to be much of a surprise when it happens. Unfortunately, once the heavy appears, the film turns incredibly passive and a bit to reflective for its own good. There are some interesting things they are doing here, but it never amounts to more than just a decent history dramatization. GRADE: C+