Stephen Arnell

Ten films about the build up to the second world war

Ten films about the build up to the second world war
Munich: The Edge of War, Credit: Frederic Batier, Netflix
Text settings

Netflix’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ political thriller Munich – The Edge of War attempts in part to rehabilitate the reputation of former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (played by Jeremy Irons), popularly believed to be the architect of appeasement in relation to Hitler’s Germany.

Nick Cohen, in the pages of The Spectator attempted with some success to rebut the revisionist apologia for Chamberlain.

To my eyes, the crux of the matter is whether taking stronger measures against Hitler at the beginning of his dictatorship would have deterred him – or that Chamberlain’s accommodations with the Nazis provided vital time to build up Britain’s armed forces and acclimatise public opinion to conflict with Germany.

Whatever the merits of Harris’ case, the picture has received generally positive reviews, with Irons’ performance as Chamberlain attracting particular praise.

Previously Neville Chamberlain has been portrayed by variety of UK thespians of a certain age, including Ronald Pickup (The Darkest Hour), Michael Aldridge (Countdown to War), Jack Shepherd (Into the Storm), Eric Porter (Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years) and Rupert Frazer (Downton Abbey). Chamberlain once referred to Hitler as 'The commonest little dog I have ever seen' whilst the Führer dubbed opposing negotiators at the peace conference as 'little worms. I saw them at Munich'.

Hitler’s unvarnished opinion of Chamberlain himself was more succinct: 'arschloch'

Although most motion pictures dealing with WWII in Europe are set during the struggle itself, there are a fair few that focus on the months and years leading to September 3rd, 1939, and early days of the eight-month ‘Phoney War’ that followed.

13 Minutes (2015) Amazon Rent/Buy

Downfall (2004) director Oliver Hirschbiegel revisited Nazi Germany for his depiction of Georg Elser’s (Christian Friedel) failed November 1939 assassination attempt on Hitler in a Munich Bierkeller where the dictator was giving an annual speech.

When Esler is captured, he maintained that he acted alone, despite being tortured/drugged by the Gestapo and threats to his loved ones. Esler kept to this line throughout his imprisonment, until his execution in Dachau, just days before the US army liberated the concentration camp.

The title refers to the narrow margin by which he missed killing Hitler, who left the hall earlier than expected.

The movie represented a return to form of sorts for Hirschbiegel after Hollywood misfires Invasion (2007) and Diana (2013).

The Man Who Crossed Hitler (2011) Amazon Rent/Buy

Perhaps a warning from history for those attempting to see former President Trump testify in court.

1931: German Jewish lawyer, Hans Litten (Ed Stoppard, son of Tom) subpoenas Adolf Hitler as a witness in the trial of Nazi hooligans. Litten uses the opportunity to expose Hitler’s sham disavowal of political violence and extreme beliefs.

Not unexpectedly, the lawyer earned Hitler’s undying enmity, resulting in his later imprisonment in Dachau and subsequent suicide in 1938 aged just 34.

Of necessity a talky courtroom drama, The Man Who Crossed Hitler is nonetheless a fascinating watch, with a fine cast that also includes Ian Hart (Hitler), Bill Paterson (Kurt Ohnesorge) and Anton Lesser (Rudolf Olden).

Glorious 39 (2009) Acorn, Rent/Buy

I confess to finding writer/director Stephen Poliakoff an acquired taste, especially over recent years, finding it difficult to get past the frequent pretensions and laboured dialogue.

Research into family history (a familiar Poliakoff plot device) reveal past skulduggery, murder, and treason amongst Britain’s governing classes on the eve of war with Nazi Germany.

A game cast (including Bill Nighy, Romola Garai, Julie Christie, Jeremy Northam, Christopher Lee, Jenny Agutter, David Tennant, and Eddie Redmayne) attempt to breathe life into the script, with some success.

Good (2008) Amazon Rent/Buy

This adaptation of Cecil Philip Taylor’s sombre 1981 stage play shows the insidious moral corruption of Frankfurt literary professor John Halder (Viggo Mortensen) when the Nazis come to power.

Attracted by ideas in Halder’s pro-euthanasia novel, the Nazis find that an ostensibly ‘good’ man is surprisingly easy to co-opt if his ego is sufficiently stroked.

A similar portrait is to be found in Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg (1961), with Burt Lancaster as formerly principled Judge Dr. Ernst Janning, put on trial for enforcing Nazi racial laws, and having, in his own words, 'made his life excrement'.

The Counterfeiters (2007)

Imprisoned in 1936, Jewish counterfeiter, Salomon 'Sally' Sorowitsch (an excellent Karl Markovics) is forced by the Nazis after the outbreak of war into recruiting forgers to tank the UK and US economies by counterfeiting pound notes and dollars at Sachsenhausen concentration camp (Operation Bernhard).

In this he succeeds, but intentionally delays mass production to hinder the Nazis.

Markovics, whose performance in The Counterfeiters was a fictionalised version of real-life forger Adolf Burger (1917-2016), played Marcel Marceau’s (Jesse Eisenberg) father Charles Mangel in the WWII drama Resistance (2020).

The Gathering Storm (2002) free to watch on YouTube

Albert Finney won critical acclaim playing Winston Churchill in his 1930s ‘wilderness years’, ably supported by Vanessa Redgrave as his long-suffering wife Clemmie.

The TV movie is distinguished in highlighting the role of Foreign Office official Ralph Wigram (Linus Roache), who supplied Churchill with classified information relating to the expansion of Hitler’s Luftwaffe.

Ronnie Barker plays WC’s butler David Inches, who seems to have wandered in from his Two Ronnies ‘Nuts’ sketch.

The Remains of the Day (1993) BBC iPlayer, Amazon Rent/Buy

More butlering action, with Anthony Hopkins as über-inhibited manservant Mr James Stevens in James Ivory’s film version of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning novel.

Life outside the confines of his duties at stately Darlington Hall seems to pass Stevens by as he tends to the needs of his master, the Nazi-sympathising Earl of Darlington (James Fox), himself busy sucking up to German Ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop (Wolf Kahler).

When Darlington insists that two refugee German-Jewish maids are dismissed, Stevens complies, although apparently his conscience is greatly troubled.

Due to Hopkins’ restrained performance it’s difficult to tell.

The Rocketeer (1991) Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

Joe Johnston’s period action movie anticipates his Marvel feature Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) in a tale of a jet-packed young hero (Bill Campbell) fighting Nazi spies in pre-WWII Hollywood.

A flop at the time, The Rocketeer has since picked up a cult following. The picture’s stand out is Timothy Dalton turn as dashing movie star/Nazi agent Neville Sinclair, modelled on Errol Flynn, long the subject of rumours regarding his supposed Axis sympathies.

Dalton is very good in the role, demonstrating the flair for humour he was later to evidence in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007).

The idea of a Hollywood star as enemy spy also featured in the Coen brothers’ Hail Caesar! (2016), where Channing Tatum played Gene Kelly-esque hoofer-come-Soviet agent Burt Gurney. Pre-WWII Nazi scheming also features in two Indiana Jones movies – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and The Last Crusade (1989).

Countdown to War (1989) free to watch on YouTube

This Granada/PBS production was based on written records of the time - private letters, diaries, and minutes of meetings between the leading characters.

The drama details events between 15 March 1939, when the Germans invaded the rump of Czechoslovakia and 3 September 1939, when war was declared.

Hampered by a low budget and stagey sets, the production is buoyed by an experienced cast and the performance of Ian McKellen as Hitler, eschewing the ranting and raving/foaming at the mouth usually associated with depictions of the Nazi dictator.

Michael Aldridge (Last of the Summer Wine) plays Neville Chamberlain as a combination of astute politician, wishful thinker, and credulous old fool.

Mephisto (1981)

István Szabó’s classic movie follows the corruption of vain German actor Hendrik Hoefgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) when he becomes the darling of the Nazis in pre-WWII Germany due to his mesmerising turn as Mephistopheles in Goethe's Faust.

Hoefgen uses his position to help friends who are persona non grata under the Nazis, but soon finds his true role is as Faust to patron Göring’s (Rolf Hoppe) Mephisto.

Mephisto is based on the 1936 novel by Klaus Mann, a very thinly veiled account of his former lover, the actor Gustaf Gründgens, who played Mephistopheles to great acclaim during the Third Reich, later reprising the role in Peter Gorski’s Faust (1960).

If you still have an appetite for films set in pre-WWII Europe, you could do worse than check out the likes of Julia (1977), Voyage of the Damned (1976) and especially Rogue Male (1976 – free to watch on YouTube), where Peter O’Toole plays an aristocratic huntsman stalking Hitler.

Benedict Cumberbatch was said to be starring in a movie remake of Rogue Male, but little has been heard of this project since 2016.