War is hell. Unless you’re an actor, that is. Characters driven to their limits and beyond in situations of life or death; it’s no wonder so many great performances have come out of war movies.
In a lot of ways, an actor can’t go over the top in a war movie (unless it’s set in World War I where the phrase “over the top” comes from). War is a condition so extreme that going big isn’t a flaw – it’s often vital to help convey the horrors of what the characters are going through.
War might be hell for the characters going through it, but the performances it inspires can be amazing to watch. Meryl Streep won an Academy Award for her role in Sophie’s Choice, playing Sophie, a Polish immigrant in post-WWII America who eventually reveals to her lover (Kevin Kline) that when she arrived at Auschwitz, she was forced to choose which one of her two children would go to a children’s camp and which one would be sent to the gas chambers.
With a raw power and depth of feeling that’s still startling to watch today, it’s a role that cemented Streep’s reputation as one of the finest actors of her generation.
Sophie’s Choice airs on SBS World Movies on Monday 2 March at midnight, is now streaming at SBS On Demand:
Sometimes less can be more when the “more” are the horrors of war. Take Das Boot, a film that’s notoriously stressful to watch thanks to lengthy stretches where the German submarine (or U-Boat) is under attack. But it wouldn’t be half as stressful without the performance of Jürgen Prochnow as the embittered war-weary captain, a man whose (relative) calm under fire manages to highlight and emphasise the stress they’re all operating under.
Das Boot airs on SBS World Movies on Tuesday 3 March at midday. It’s also streaming now at SBS On Demand:
Land of Mine
It’s hardly surprising that many of the most memorable performances in war films come from characters operating under the constant threat of imminent death.
In Land of Mine, when a group of German prisoners of war are used as living mine detectors to help clear a beach of thousands of mines, their reactions to the nightmare they’re living through only underline the intellectual horror we feel at their plight. They’re human beings; whatever their reaction to their lethal situation, the inhumanity of what they’re enduring is exposed.
Land of Mine airs on SBS World Movies on Wednesday 4 March at 9:30pm. It’s also streaming now at SBS On Demand:
Son of Saul
Other times an actor’s role is to give a human face to a situation that would otherwise be literally unimaginable. In Son of Saul, Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a prisoner at Auschwitz, working as a Sonderkommando – a member of a work crew helping the Germans dispose of the bodies from the gas chambers. They were given slightly better conditions in exchange for their labour, though as the movie progresses, it becomes clear this in no way gave them immunity from the fate of the other prisoners.
Much of the film is a tight close-up on Röhrig’s face, with the horrors around him glimpsed in the corners of the frame. Yet his performance (from an actor who hadn’t performed in decades) is utterly riveting, a mix of exhaustion and despair shot through with glimmers of hope as he tries to organise a proper Jewish burial inside the camp for a body he believes to be of his son.
Son of Saul airs on SBS World Movies on Friday 6 March at 9:55pm.
The extremity of war doesn’t always have to be so bluntly physical. In Valkyrie, Tom Cruise gives one of the best performances of his career as German Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, one of the men behind the 1944 plot to kill Hitler and instigate a coup against the Nazi regime.
The film itself is largely a thriller, and as we know the plot is doomed to fail, the suspense comes from our identification with the plotters and their desperate scheme. As their leader, Cruise has to give a performance suppressing his usual broad heroism, going against type as a man of planning rather than action – and the result is one of the sharpest performances he’s delivered.
Valkyrie airs on SBS World Movies on Saturday 7 March at 9:50pm.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
And then there are the times when the inhumanity of war turns out to be the best way for an actor to show off their humanity. In Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, David Bowie gives one of the great acting performances of his career as Major Jack Celliers, a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp run by the honourable Captain Yonoi (musician Ryuichi Sakamoto). Celliers is something of a rebel (much to the frustration of the prisoners’ official leader, played by Australia’s own Jack Thompson), and while Bowie’s charisma is an obvious strength, it’s his charm – and the sadness that underlies it – that makes his performance here so moving to watch.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence airs on SBS World Movies on Saturday 7 March at 7:30pm, and on Sunday 8 March at 11:15pm. It is coming soon to SBS On Demand.
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Drama set in 1942, during one of the most important battles of World War II, which stopped the progress of Nazi forces and turned the tide of war in favor of the Allies. The Soviet army mounts a counter-attack on the Nazi forces that occupy half of Stalingrad on the other side of the Volga, but the operation to cross the river is unsuccessful. A few soldiers who managed to get to the other side take refuge in a house on the bank of Volga. Here they find a girl who didn’t escape when the Germans came. While the whole might of the German army descends onto them, the heroes of Stalingrad experience love, loss, joy and the sense of ultimate freedom that can only be felt by those about to die. They defend the house at all costs while the Red Army prepares for another attack.