To be called great, a film about war must portray the truth, so films that glorify war do not qualify. Despite the influences of propaganda, hate, and the dehumanisation through the mutual destruction of human beings, some participants retain their humanity, as some films have shown.
A possible list:
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque. Dir. Lewis Milestone, with Lew Ayres.
The American accents grate, and the viewer who does not know history might suppose that only in Germany were the youth fed lying nationalist propaganda. In fact, in England and France as well as in Germany, young men volunteered enthusiastically to enlist in August 1914. The virus of nationalism, widely spread by the horrors of the Napoleonic wars, had gathered strength in Europe throughout the nineteenth century and had infected all countries. It was a Serbian assassin whose bullet led to the catastrophe.
The film retains the strength of Remarque’s book in bringing us close to the experience of the war in the trenches, the disillusionment of the soldiers, the futility of war, and moments of tenderness – the German soldier stretching out his hand to a butterfly….
La Grande Illusion (1937), dir. Jean Renoir, with Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim.
An elegy for Europe – the Europe that existed before the first world war. “The lights are going out all over Europe”, Early Grey said, and he was right. And I remember my father saying, several times – “You cannot imagine what it was like before that war- you could travel everywhere you liked, without a passport – except Tsarist Russia and the Ottoman Empire. There was such a feeling of peace and security….”
That feeling turned out to be mistaken, but the feeling was strong and widespread – it is that which today we cannot imagine. Renoir’s greatest film gives a sense of that – the Kameraderie between the officers of French and German armies before the war, their mutual respect, speaking each other’s languages or dipping into another (English, of course).
Comes the war, and friends become enemies, they fight and do their duty, but do not degenerate into hate. The French officer (Fresnay) ends up as a prisoner-of-war in a camp commanded by his German friend (von Stroheim) who greets him as a friend when he arrives, and explains that he has been so wounded that he has been refused permission to continue fighting (he is excusing himself for having sunk so low as to be no more than a prisoner-of-war camp commander). They talk about the war but more about the changes taking place, and how things will be afterwards. Although not able to question their sense of duty or their patriotism, they have not become nationalists, and sense that the world that they were familiar with and appreciated will not return.
Gabin escapes from the same camp, and he is sheltered by a German woman…
An excellent review of what proved to be Kubrick’s best film was previously published here – worth rereading.
Le Silence de la Mer (1947), dir Jean-Pierre Melville, with Howard Vernon.
This film appears to be little known now. It is based on a novel clandestinely published during the Second World War in France, widely read and discussed there and then in England when a translation was published. It is in fact a subtle piece of propaganda.
The main character is a sympathetic, sensitive German officer (Howard) billeted on a Frenchman and his niece. The German, in a strange series of monologues to his silent unwilling hosts, speaks of his admiration for French culture (absurdly, of the greatness of French literature as compared to German), and of his hope of reconciliation and mutual respect after the war. But on visits to Paris, meeting his fellow officers, he is disillusioned by the Nazi attitudes to the French… confesses as much, and leaves. The French niece is moved by all this (beautifully and subtly portrayed) but neither she nor her uncle as much as say good-bye: they are good patriots, you see.
Joyeux Noel (2005), dir Christian Carion.
Unfortunately this film was little shown in England. A co-operative venture (GB, France, German), it tells the story, based on letters and recollections, of the truce on Christmas Eve, 1914, when a German’s singing of “Silent Night” was answered by music from a Scots piper, leading to meetings between combatants of the three nations and, the following day, a continued truce during which each side could retrieve their dead in order to be able to bury them. It is all told quietly, understated even – this little flower of compassion appearing in the trenches. When the commanders hear of it, it is ruthlessly suppressed.
Heimat, dir Edgar Reitz.
Is this long series of films- thirty two-hour films made for television – about war? It is all about the effects of war – the two world wars. It deserves a special review.