• Sophie's Choice, Testament of Youth, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, Downfall (SBS)Source: SBS
Spanning the course of two earth-shattering confrontations, this collection of war movies explores everything from cataclysmic battler, to the rise and fall of leaders great and abominable and the small moments of intimacy played out in between.
By
Stephen A Russell

28 Feb 2020 - 8:43 AM  UPDATED 9 Mar 2020 - 11:04 AM

Churchill

Unfairly overlooked in the same year that brought a much showier rendition of the venerated British wartime Prime Minister from Best Actor-winner Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour, Succession star Brian Cox’ is the better performance. Directed by Australian Jonathan Teplitzky (The Railway Man), he elicits a wounded prevarication from the Scotsman who also played Nazi official Hermann Göring in Nuremberg. Haunted by past mistakes and doubting the plans for the D-Day landings, this sees a great man sinking into depression, with Miranda Richardson also magnificent as his rock, Clemmie Churchill.

 

Downfall

The late Wings of Desire star Bruno Ganz left an indelible mark on modern cinema. Thanks to his spectacular performance as the unravelling Fuhrer days before his suicide in a Berlin bunker, he also left an indelible mark on memes. Though many a joke has been made about his furiously spitting performance as the reviled Hitler in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Oscar-nominated masterpiece, it’s riveting.

Focusing on his final days in the bunker, supported by Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler), the Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch and Ulrich Matthes) and secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), on whose memoir it is based, it strays uncomfortably for some from the usual cartoonish monstrous depictions. But that is its power. One of the greatest depictions of the banality of evil ever made, it hits home hardest.

 

The Eagle Has Landed

Not content with helming The Great Escape, director John Sturges delivered another classic WWII true story with this take on the Nazi’s attempted kidnapping of Churchill. Adapted from the Jack Higgins novel by James Bond scribe Tom Mankiewicz, Donald Pleasence portrays Heinrich Himmler, with Robert Duvall as Colonel Radl and Michael Caine as Colonel Steiner. Donald Sutherland is a sympathetic, Berlin-based IRA member, rounding out a magnificent cast.

 

The Scarlet and The Black

Speaking of incredible casting, how’s about Gregory Peck, Christopher Plummer and Sir John Gielgud in this Vatican-set real life drama helmed by Hogan’s Heroes director Jerry London. Gielgud’s Pope Pius XII and Peck’s Monsignor resist calls from Plummer’s German Colonel in charge of occupied Rome to hand over Jewish refugees and escaped POWs. Locked into a cat and mouse game, you’ll be amazed by the final twist.

 

Das Boot

One of the most celebrated anti-war movies, writer/director Wolfgang Petersen’s gripping German submarine drama accrued six Oscar nominations though perplexingly failed to take any home. Recreating in minute detail and with some nifty camerawork the cramped working conditions of a U-Boat tasked with attacking a heavily-armoured Allied convoy, the ensuing real-time mission is gruelling. No one really wins amidst the brutality of war.

  

 

Sophie’s Choice

Meryl Streep towers at the centre of this ethical dilemma adapted from the William Styron novel by All the President’s Men writer/director Alan J. Pakula. Taking home her second Best Actress Oscar, she plays the eponymous Polish immigrant who shares a Brooklyn apartment with her lover (Kevin Kline) and an aspiring author (Peter MacNicol). When a dark past is unveiled, an impossible decision changes everything.

 

Female Agents

The magnetic Sophie Marceau plays a French Resistance leader tasked with assembling a crack team of women (including Julie Depardieu) in order to rescue a British agent

(Conrad Cecil) central to the D-Day landings plan from the clutches of the Germans.  Written and directed by Jean-Paul Salomé, this gutsy adventure soon sees the Marceau’s avengers upgraded to assassinating a key Nazi strategist. 

 

Testament of Youth

Ex Machina star Alicia Vikander glows as famous pacifist and First World War nurse Vera Brittain in this heart-swollen film adapted from her memoirs. Laying bare the horrors of war and the many men lost, it’s adapted by Juliette Towhidi, and helmed by The Aftermath director James Kent. They handle the aching drama with aplomb, with Game of Thrones star Kit Harrington compelling as Vera’s fiancé, Taron Egerton as her brother and Colin Morgan mooning over her from a distance.

 

Fog in August

Ivo Pietzcker plays smart but spiky young lad Ernst in this disturbing biopic exposing the Nazi euthanasia program. It saw countless children surrendered to mental institutions only to be murdered by the doctors who betrayed their oath and the trust of their patients. Directed by Kai Wessel, Homeland star Sebastian Koch will make your skin crawl as the dastardly doctor, with Karl Markovics (The Counterfeiters) is a harrowing cameo as Ernst’s father, unwilling to prevent the dark fate awaiting the kids who disappear in the night.

 

Land of Mine

Danish actor Roland Møller (Atomic Blonde) is magnetic as an understandably hate-filled Sergeant Carl Rasmussen. Placed in command of young German POWs who are sent out in the minefields sown by Hitler’s forces to defuse them, obliteration hangs over every mission. Writer/director Martin Zandvliet’s emotionally complex, disarming movie gradually sees Rasmussen thaw as slowly but surely as the boys who venture where angels fear to tread melt his hard heart.

 

Into the White

Harry Potter star Rupert Grint appears as one of two downed British airmen forced to shelter in an abandoned cabin during a blinding snowstorm alongside three Luftwaffe officers they just battled in the skies. A claustrophobic chamber piece from Norwegian Petter Næss, when faced with the ravages of Mother Nature, the men have to put enmity aside in favour of survival.

 

Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence       

A late-career offering from Japanese director Nagisa Ôshima (In the Realm of the Senses) this bilingual take on culture clash set in 1942 casts none other than David Bowie as a British POW held in a Javanese internment camp. Fellow pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also handled the BAFTA-winning score, runs the joint, and there’s a homoerotic frisson between them. Flanked by Tom Conti and Takeshi Kitano, the classic throws up interesting questions about honour and disgrace, friendship and hate.

 

Stalingrad

The bloodiest battlefield of WWII, the fight for Stalingrad stretched for almost half a year.Near its catastrophic end, with the city flattened, Nazi soldiers had the Russian forces on their knees by the banks of the Volga in 1942. With victory surely within their grasp, a startling turnaround occurred. Drawing from Vasily Grossman’s epic novel, director Fedor Bondarchuk’s big budget extravaganza follows the time-honoured formula of focusing on a small band of determined men. Winning a tonne of awards at home, it was also Russia’s biggest box office hit in 2013.

 

White Tiger

There’s a touch of Moby Dick to the obsessive, destructive quest at the centre of Russian filmmaker Karen Shakhnazarov’s gripping drama set at the tail end of WWII. Alexey Vertkov plays a badly burned and amnesiac tank driver who is the sole survivor after a German attack. This sparks a suicide mission to find and destroy the tank, dubbed the ‘White Tiger’, responsible, which has accrued an almost mythical, ghostly status amongst the Russians. Ste to Wagner, it’s as stirring mission.

 

 

 

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