Why cinema can't get enough of the Nazis

Valkyrie, Inglourious Basterds, Defiance, The Reader – more than six decades on, the Second World War is still taking Hollywood by storm. Why? It's got more to do with the modern psyche than history, argues Geoffrey Macnab

Wednesday 07 January 2009 01:00 GMT

Who wants to go and see a movie about a war that finished more than 60 years ago? Judging by recent box-office results, Second World War films are back in vogue in a way that has left some analysts scratching their heads.

Bryan Singer's Valkyrie, starring Tom Cruise as would-be Hitler assassin Col Claus Von Stauffenberg, has opened strongly in the US despite its lengthy and troubled gestation. (It has already made over $60m at the US box-office.) Ed Zwick's Defiance, about four Jewish brothers fighting against the Nazis, has likewise performed well on limited release in the US, overcoming mixed reviews. Meanwhile, Stephen Daldry's The Reader, starring Kate Winslet as a former SS guard, is a leading awards contender.

It's not only the Americans and Brits who've been making, and lapping up, Second World War movies in recent months. The Germans have co-financed several Hollywood productions, including The Reader, Valkyrie and Quentin Tarantino's forthcoming Inglourious Basterds. They've also been making Second World War movies of their own.

Downfall, about Hitler in his bunker days, was a runaway success in 2004. An even more harrowing war movie, Anonyma – A Woman In Berlin, in which Nina Hoss stars as one of the victims of the mass rape of German women by Soviet soldiers, was recently completed in Germany.

The biggest box-office hit in Denmark last year was Flame & Citron, about the Danish resistance against Nazi occupation. The Dutch have likewise done roaring business with Second World War movies, first with Paul Verhoeven's Black Book (2006) and now with Winter In Wartime, about a teenage boy protecting a British soldier in hiding during the last winter of the conflict.

We've had films about Japanese Emperor Hirohito (Alexander Sokurov's The Sun); about French Africans fighting against the Nazis (Days of Glory) and about black American soldiers fighting in the US army in Italy (Spike Lee's Miracle at St Anna). Steven Spielberg seems obsessed by the war (Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan all deal with different aspects of the conflict).

In 2006, Clint Eastwood made two Second World War films back to back – Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima which depicted the same battle from, respectively, American and Japanese viewpoints. Some of the most feted literary adaptations of recent times, whether Anthony Minghella's The English Patient or Joe Wright's Atonement, have the war as their main backcloth.

Second World War movies come in every shape and guise. At the Sundance Film Festival this month, audiences will be confronted by Tommy Wirkola's Dead Snow, which is billed as the first Norwegian Nazi zombie-slasher-feelgood movie.

Peter Jackson has long been linked with a remake of The Dam Busters. British director Stuart Urban is raising finance for his new comedy, I Was Hitler's Weatherman, in which Lee Evans will star as a Jewish waiter who takes on the identity of the Führer's chief meteorologist.

Amazon Prime logo

Access unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows with Amazon Prime Video

Sign up now for a 30-day free trial

Sign up
Amazon Prime logo

Access unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows with Amazon Prime Video

Sign up now for a 30-day free trial

Sign up

On one level, audiences' enthusiasm for films about Second World War seems perplexing. The same spectators who gave the recent batch of Iraq war movies (Paul Haggis's In the Valley of Elah, Brian De Palma's Redacted, etc) a very wide berth are – it seems – only too willing to watch Tom Cruise with an eye patch in Valkyrie. Twenty years ago, the Second World War movie seemed almost extinct as a genre. Vietnam movies such as Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and Platoon had a topicality and delirious feel about them that no stiff-upper-lipped yarn about sinking The Bismark or dropping bouncing bombs could hope to match. The Dam Busters, The Wooden Horse and The Colditz Story seemed old-fashioned and even disingenuous in the light of a film like Alain Resnais' Night and Fog (1956), which dispassionately showed the horror of the concentration camps. The sheer formal brilliance of Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers, about the Algerian war of independence, left most movies about the Second World War looking leaden-footed.

For film-makers today, however, the period is seemingly an acceptable pretext for both nostalgia and escapism. Unlike Iraq or Vietnam, it seemed a "just" war. As Michael Apted told me when he was making Enigma (his thriller celebrating the work of the "boffins" of Bletchley Park), "I've always loved the Second World War. It just makes me feel proud to be British. It was the one moment of staggering heroism, when the British stood up against the Germans: against the Nazis. You go around Europe and you look at all the wonderful cities and you think 'why are they so beautiful?' And you realise they weren't fucking bombed because the countries gave in... most wars are a complete fucking muddle, but this seems to have been a clear war."

Revisionist historians might take issue with Apted's characterisation of the Second World War, but his remarks hint at why this remains such an attractive subject, for contemporary British and US film-makers alike.

For a start, there are obvious villains. No amount of special pleading is going to turn Hitler or Himmler into anything other than embodiments of evil. The war is also safely in the past. For younger cinemagoers, the Nazi-occupied France that Tarantino is likely to show in Inglourious Basterds will seem as remote and fantastical as the evil Galactic Empire in Star Wars.

The Brits feel nostalgia for the Second World War on many, often contradictory, levels. The conflict may have been a time of austerity and rationing, but it saw the loosening of the British class system. There was sexual liberation, too. "People think that the Sixties were so sexually open, but it was much more so during the war – there was this sense that this might be your last opportunity. That heightened people not just sexually but artistically, too. People felt there was a reason to really push themselves," notes film-maker Kevin Macdonald, whose grandfather, Emeric Pressburger, scripted such wartime classics as A Canterbury Tale and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. For British kids, as films like John Boorman's Hope and Glory and Spielberg's Empire of the Sun have shown, the war was exhilarating as well as terrifying. This was also a golden era for British cinema. Powell and Pressburger, David Lean and Launder and Gilliat did some of their best work during the war years. Documentaries such as London Can Take It and Fires Were Started fixed an image of the Brits as stoical and resilient under fire. Ealing Studios emerged as a British company celebrating the everyman icon. Perhaps an added attraction of the era was that this was a time before teen culture – Elvis, James Dean, rock'n'roll – and there was less evident generational tension.

Italian cinema also thrived partly as a consequence of the Second World War. Neorealist movies such as Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisa (1946), made in the aftermath of the war, had a roughness and vitality that studio-set films conspicuously lacked. They were shot on the streets. One of the reasons they are looked back on so fondly is that they were engaged with experiences that ordinary Italians knew at first hand.

In the US likewise, the Second World War years have taken on a roseate hue, and not only in hindsight. Read the journalism of the great wartime American foreign correspondent Ernie Pyle (played by Burgess Meredith in William Wellman's 1945 film, The Story Of GI Joe) and you are transported into a world as far removed from Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay as it is possible to imagine. Pyle celebrated the optimism and resourcefulness of the American foot soldiers. As John Steinbeck wrote, Pyle's journalism was about a "war of the homesick, weary, funny, violent common men who wash their socks in their helmets, complain about the food, whistle at Arab girls, or any girls for that matter, and bring themselves through as dirty a business as the world has ever seen and do it with humour and dignity and courage".

Pyle was killed by Japanese machine-gun fire in April 1945. The image of American GIs he provided has fed into countless war films, from The Longest Day to Saving Private Ryan. It's the idea of the soldiers as resourceful, courageous and optimistic. They may be womanisers who excite unholy passions in the civilians whose countries they help liberate, but their decency is never in question. Even the renegades – for example, the misfits under Lee Marvin's charge in Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen – retain the basic qualities that Pyle idealised.

Like Pyle, the film-maker Sam Fuller also served in the war. He was on Omaha Beach in June 1944. It is instructive to read his thoughts about war movies. "To make a real war movie would be to occasionally fire at the audience from behind the screen during the battle scenes," he once suggested. His war movies, especially his late masterpiece The Big Red One, are rough and inchoate. They don't have a tidy narrative structure. Battle scenes always seem to feature abandoned children on the sidelines. Boredom, squalor, terror and cowardice are his themes. To his detractors, his films seem like B-movies. Nonetheless, The Big Red One has an authenticity that the far slicker Saving Private Ryan lacks. After all, Fuller was there. He was showing on camera what he had experienced at first hand, not relying on newsreels, or juddering camerawork or the testimony of others. Nor did he feel any yearning to gloss over his experiences.

It wasn't only Fuller who had served in the war. Lee Marvin, the star of The Big Red One and several other war films (including The Dirty Dozen), had also seen combat. "Lee, who had horrendous experiences of war as a combat marine in World War Two, felt very much as Sam [Fuller] did: war is hell, surviving is paramount. But Lee was left with an enormous feeling of guilt that deeply affected him. He had lived while so many others died – in front of him and on top of him. Although he felt that the Second World War had to be fought, he was very anti-war thereafter," Pam Marvin (the actor's widow) told me when The Big Red One was re-released four years ago.

There was something touching and forlorn about the way the Brits, in particular, clung on to the Second World War movie, even as the years passed. All those John Mills, Kenneth More and Jack Hawkins films of the 1950s set during the conflict evoked a period when the Brits still seemed to have dignity, purpose and status. Films such as They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), The Ship That Died of Shame (1955) in which ex-servicemen were drawn into crime, suggested how much some former war heroes struggled to adjust to the drudgery of civilian life in a country that was rapidly losing influence.

By the early 1980s, Second World War films seemed as archaic as old John Wayne westerns. However, they were still being made. This, it turned out, was a genre that could take endless different forms and could be reinvented by each new generation.

Soviet director Elem Klimov's Come and See (1985) was an astonishingly brutal and lyrical account of a teenage boy in Belarus whose family was massacred by the Nazis. Terrence Malick's adaptation of James Jones's novel The Thin Red Line (1999) was poetical and philosophical in a way that few earlier Second World War movies had been.

Over the years, the Second World War movie has undergone many metamorphoses. There have been Home Front melodramas such as William Wyler's Mrs Miniver (1942), in which Greer Garson played a British housewife with such glamour and fortitude that some credited her with helping rally the US to Britain's aid. There have also been many comedies, for example the films of Ernst Lubitsch, Mel Brooks's version of To Be or Not To Be and Chaplin's The Great Dictator, that relished mocking the comic absurdity of the Nazis. Luchino Visconti's The Damned (1969) portrayed a German industrialist family in the Nazi era as if they were counterparts to the Borgias. Some of the best Second World War movies weren't about the war at all, but about the experiences of ex-soliders trying to resume civilian life, for example William Wyler's The Best Years of our Lives (1946). Meanwhile, documentary makers continue to turn to the war. Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary, Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, K, The Last Days and My Enemy's Enemy are just some of the many recent feature docs exploring aspects of the 1939-1945 conflict.

It is no coincidence that so many countries are making Second World War films now. At a time when governments seem powerless in the face of a global financial crisis, it is reassuring to celebrate the camaraderie and heroism of an earlier generation. (Tellingly, the films made in countries that were once occupied by the Nazis are invariably about the resistance fighters and not the collaborators.) Some current Second World War films seem based not so much on the historical events that they purport to show, as on earlier movies about the war. Tarantino, for example, has openly stated that Inglourious Basterds is his version of The Dirty Dozen or a Where Eagles Dare. He is clearly more interested in Robert Aldrich-style cynicism and spaghetti western-style shoot-em up action than in making a documentary-style drama exploring the origins of the war.

One prediction can safely be made: if audiences around the world like movies the last world war, film-makers will continue making them. This is one subject that will never be exhausted.

'Valkyrie' is released on 23 January

All heil! The actors who've filled Hitler's shoes

'Downfall': Bruno Ganz

Actors seemingly relish playing Adolf Hitler, regarding the chance of portraying one of history's ultimate bogeymen as an intriguing formal challenge – a bit like playing Shakespeare's humpbacked Richard III. He lends himself to comedy as well as dark, brooding drama. Some have played him as an arm-twitching, yelling demagogue. Others have tried to show the man behind the monster. "He is a human being not a psychopath," stated Bernd Eichinger, writer and producer of 'Downfall' (in which Hitler was played by Swiss actor Bruno Ganz as a tormented, introspective figure in the grips of paranoia.)

'Hitler: The Last Ten Days': Alec Guinness

Filmmakers are especially fascinated with Hitler in his final days, when the Third Reich was crumbling around him. British cinema's resident chameleon Alec Guinness had a stab at playing Hitler with mixed results this 1973 movie. Many critics felt that he lurched too close toward parody.

'Hitler: The Rise Of Evil': Robert Carlyle

No doubt drawing on his experience terrorising pub drinkers in Leith as Begbie in 'Trainspotting', Scottish actor Robert Carlyle was cast as Hitler in this 2003 movie, a sprawling biopic that followed the Austrian's rise to power.

'Mein Fuhrer': Helge Schneider

In 2007, German director Dani Levy sparked a national debate by satirising Hitler in 'Mein Führer', which starred Helge Schneider as a petulant, brattish and incontinent Hitler. Other countries had been lampooning Hitler for years, but Levy was the first to German to mock the Führer in a screen comedy.

'Valkyrie': David Bamber

Here David Bamber is the latest in a long line of British actors to tackle Hitler. "A low-toned portrait of a paranoiac" is how 'The New Yorker' characterised his performance. In other words, Bamber isn't a Hitler in pantomime villain mode – and that is probably a relief.

'Moloch': Leonid Mozgovoy

Russian director Alexander Sokurov, who has made a series of features about 20th-century "men of power" (Emperor Hirohito and Lenin among them), recruited Leonid Mozgovoy to play Hitler opposite Elena Rufanova's Eva Braun in 'Moloch' (1999), set in Bavaria over a weekend in 1942. "Murky" and "mind-numbing" complained some critics but David Cronenberg, president of that year's Cannes jury, was a big fan, making sure the film won Cannes' Best Screenplay award.

'The Bunker': Anthony Hopkins

In his pre-Hannibal Lecter and Richard Nixon days, Anthony Hopkins made an intriguing Hitler in this 1981 TV drama. He played the Führer as a schizophrenic figure who sounds measured and reasonable one moment, but then rages away like a madman the next.

'Max': Noah Taylor

"He [Hitler] wasn't born in a cloud of sulphur," agreed director Menno Meyjes who recruited Australian actor Noah Taylor to play Hitler as a young man in 'Max' (2003). Taylor's Hitler was a Bohemian would-be artist with the demeanour of a surly adolescent who has a grudge against a world that refuses to take him seriously.

Click here for Second World War film quiz

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in