Stephen Arnell

Ten films about the end of World War II

Ten films about the end of World War II
Image: Shutterstock
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The 76th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe will take place on the 8 May; although in fact the conflict continued for days (if not weeks) after this date with heavy fighting in parts of the former Eastern Front and areas newly occupied by Soviet forces. Indeed, anti-communist resistance groups in the Baltic states, Poland and other satellite countries continued to launch guerrilla attacks well into the 1950s.

The final months of the war in Europe were amongst the bloodiest in the struggle, as Hitler resolved to pull the ruins of the Third Reich down around him in a faux-Wagnerian exit from history.

Here, I’ll be looking at films that deal with the final phase of the war, passing over familiar WWII classics such as A Bridge Too Far (1977), The Battle of the Bulge (1965), Cross of Iron (1977), and The Bridge at Remagen (1969) in favour of more recent, lesser known titles.

In order of release – the most recent first:

The Catcher was a Spy (2018) - Amazon Prime

I caught this true-life biopic earlier this year on Amazon Prime and was both pleasantly surprised and intrigued by its subject, the genius level baseball player turned US espionage agent Moe Berg (played by Paul Rudd).

In the final months of the war in Europe, Berg is tasked to discover how far the Germans have progressed with the development of an atom bomb and to decide whether he should assassinate physicist Werner Heisenberg when the scientist visits a conference in neutral Switzerland.

We know that the Nazis plans never came to fruition, but the picture nonetheless manages to ratchet up the tension.

TCWAS interested me enough to read more about Berg, a unique character if ever there was one, an enigma to many who encountered him, possibly an undiagnosed example of someone ‘on the spectrum’. Or maybe simply a very singular prodigy.

Rudd is good in a rather underwritten role and is ably supported by a top-flight cast that includes Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Jeff Daniels, Tom Wilkinson, Giancarlo Giannini, Hiroyuki Sanada, Guy Pearce, and Paul Giamatti.

The Captain (2018) – Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

German director Robert Schwentke (RED, R.I.P.D., Flightplan, two movies in the Divergent series and The Time Traveler's Wife) took a break from his Hollywood career to helm the critically applauded The Captain, a sobering tale based on real life.

In April 1945, young Luftwaffe deserter Willi Herold (Max Hubacher) who, after donning an officer’s uniform he finds in an abandoned staff car, proceeds to lead a group of abandoned German soldiery in a bloodthirsty campaign of executing other deserters and intimidating local townsfolk.

Herold was executed in 1946 for war crimes, but the movie ends on a note of fantastical reverie, with the miscreant still alive (and bullying) in the present day.

The Captain resembles a far less jocular version of the true story of William Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt, the cobbler who in 1906 successfully impersonated a Prussian officer, becoming a semi-folk hero in the process. Who can say that Voight’s nonviolent exploits did not inspire Herold in some way?

Fury (2014) – Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

David Ayer’s (Suicide Squad) Fury sees First Sergeant Don 'Wardaddy' Collier (Brad Pitt) lead the crew of their M4 Sherman tank ‘Fury’ deep into the collapsing Third Reich.

The action scenes really pop in the movie, especially the streaking tracer and machine gun fire, which goes one further than Saving Private Ryan in what I assume is historical veracity.

Otherwise? The movie rolls out the familiar tropes – the rookie newcomer, hardened-but-trusty leader, PTSD affected comrades and the by now cliched sympathetic fräuleins which tend to drag in the wait for the next bullet-ridden encounter with the remaining SS holdouts.

Fury is kind of like Kelly’s Heroes (1970), but minus the heist. Or the laughs.

The Monuments Men (2014) – full movie free to watch on YouTube

As the war draws to its close, a group of allied art historians are selected to form a team of experts to save precious works of art purloined by the Nazis. George Clooney’s slackly paced movie plays like a more sedate version of The Dirty Dozen but despite this, it has a few pleasures if you don’t expect too much.

Clooney’s trusty contacts book paid off, as Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Cate Blanchett all signed on.

The Monuments Men could have benefited from more humour and action but the concept it still a smart one. Those of a more juvenile frame of mind may experience unprompted sniggers at echoes of the BBC sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo due to the frequent mentions of Michelangelo's missing Madonna of Bruges during the picture.

Black Book (2006) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Paul Verhoeven’s superb thriller concerns the Dutch Resistance in the final months of the German occupation of the starving rump of the Netherlands.

The director weaves a web of multiple betrayals as Dutch-Jewish singer Rachel Stein (Game of Throne’s ‘Red Woman’, Carice van Houten) is instructed by the resistance to seduce SS-Hauptsturmführer Ludwig Müntze, played by Van Houten’s then partner Sebastian Koch.

Müntze is in fact not that bad a chap, whilst some of the Dutch Resistance are less than lily white, which puts Stein in the middle when she falls for him, with dire consequences for all concerned. The chemistry between van Houten and Kock is palpable, which Verhoeven unsurprisingly utilises to no small effect in several of his trademark sex scenes.

Black Book is a tense, well-acted picture, well worth checking out.  Van Houten also played Nina Schenk, von Stauffenberg's wife in Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie (2008); in an instance of serendipity, Koch took the role of the German resistance leader in 2004’s Stauffenberg. For Game of Thrones fans, you’ll also see Michiel Huisman (Daario Naharis) in a small role.

Downfall (2004)

Adolf Hitler’s final weeks sojourned in his claustrophobic bunker under the crumbling Berlin Reich Chancellery have been the subject of movies and TV series, with Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins (The Bunker, 1981) and Alec Guinness (Hitler: The Last Ten Days, 1973) both essaying the role, as well as Frank (Bouquet of Barbed Wire) Finlay (The Death of Adolf Hitler, 1973).

But it’s Bruno Ganz’s portrait of the dictator in Downfall, which is generally taken to be definitive, although some felt it was a tad too sympathetic.

Downfall is a well-made, intense picture, one which makes director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s decline into the mediocrity of The Invasion (2007) and Diana (2013) a shame to those who expected greater things from him.

Inglorious Basterds (2009) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Quentin Tarantino’s WWII wish-fulfilment fantasy is long on dialogue and relatively short on actual action - where the director’s old school use of the camera can put him at a disadvantage compared to contemporaries.

But saying that, the movie has many fine moments, especially when bad guys Standartenführer Hans Landa, (Christoph Waltz) and ace Wehrmacht sniper Fredrick Zoller (Daniel ‘Baron Zemo’ Brühl) are onscreen.

I confess when I first saw the picture, I asked myself why Tarantino had chosen David Mitchell (Peep Show) for a cameo, but I discovered soon afterwards that General Ed Fenech was I fact played by lookalike Mike Myers, in a rare post-Austin Powers/Guru/Cat in the Hat screen appearance.

Hart’s War (2002) – Amazon Rent/Buy

This Agatha Christie-style whodunnit is set in during the Winter 1944 Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes.

This is one of the pictures Hollywood threw at a young Colin Farrell in a misguided attempt to propel him into superstardom. He plays incarcerated U.S. Army intelligence officer First Lieutenant Thomas Hart, a former law student tasked with defending a black pilot accused of the murder of a fellow prisoner, racist staff sergeant Vic Bedford (Cole Hauser).

But, as can be expected there are wheels within wheels as Hart butts heads with the higher ranking American officer, Colonel McNamara (Bruce Willis), who has his own agenda.

If you like the idea of a murder mystery set in WWII, you may enjoy the earlier Night of the Generals (1967), where Abwehr Major Grau (an oddly cast Omar Sharif) investigates the murder of prostitutes by a high-ranking German officer

Taking Sides (2001)

Taking Sides begins in the bombed-out Berlin (Vienna in real life) of January 1945, with maestro Wilhelm Furtwängler (a fine Stellan Skarsgård) conducting Beethoven's 5th Symphony when an Allied air raid unexpectedly concludes the performance.

On the advice of a Nazi minister (presumably Albert Speer) the conductor flees to Switzerland for the remaining months of the war, but, on his return, faces a de-Nazification investigation at the hands of the zealous US army Major Steve Arnold, played by an unsympathetic Harvey Keitel.

Based on the stage play and written for the screen by the late Ronald Harwood (The Dresser), Taking Sides retains enough ambiguity to wonder where Furtwängler’s loyalties really lay.

The picture was the final movie to feature the work of famed set designer Ken Adam (Barry Lyndon, Goldfinger).

Mother Night (1996) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Based on the Kurt Vonnegut novel of the same name, Mother Night is something of a hidden gem.

There are shades of the poet Ezra Pound, as Nick Nolte plays Howard W. Campbell, Jr, a bi-lingual American playwright recruited by the secret service to infiltrate the Third Reich propaganda ministry in order to relay coded messages via bombastic pro-Nazi broadcasts.

Things get tricky for Campbell, as at the end of the war, no-one will admit that he was a US agent for fear of revealing spy tradecraft; others posit that his vitriolic transmissions did more harm than any information secretly conveyed.

After living in obscurity for years in New York, Campbell’s identity is eventually discovered by Soviet spies; the hapless Nolte then is forced to seek refuge with a group of White Supremacists who assume that he’s one of them.

Mother Night denies the viewer the expected happy ending, even when the authorities finally relent and are prepared to reveal Campbell’s heroic wartime deeds.