Film writer David Thomson argued that, “Sooner or later, most war films become recruiting material”. It’s too easy to make something glorious out of war on the big screen: heroic actions, desperate times, rousing speeches, bravery and valour – these all attract us and entertain us too easily. How many films manage to avoid the shot of the steely jaw of the protagonist as he takes on the might of the enemy? How many don’t give us a score that makes us sit up straighter and brings a tear to our eye? Not many.
But there are some truly amazing films out there that manage to show a different side of war. The bleakness, the absurdity, shine through in these films. They’re not always a pleasant experience but they use the language of film brilliantly – not to attract us, but to make us think again. So here’s an alphabetical list of ten foreign-language films that achieve the rare feat of making us look at war with fresh eyes.
Bruno Ganz is the face that launched a thousand memes, which is really great, because it means a lot of people know about Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall. But that makes it easy to forget just how brilliant it is. So here’s a reminder.
Hitler appears in lots of films. He’s a monster, the thing we are most afraid of. In Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, for instance, or in Valkyrie. And often that means we’re watching the actor’s performance of Hitler, and judging it. We know this monster as a caricature, and we’re looking for certain things: the spitting, the staring, the rants.
Downfall is radically different. Within minutes of watching we forget the caricature and become involved with the last days of Hitler’s life on a new level. He’s still a monster. But he’s not the monster we thought we knew. His self-assurance, his belief in being profoundly, unassailably right, is chilling. He is beyond communication. Hitler cries in his bunker, detached, morose, obsessed with purity and victory when defeat is hours away. When a film manages to make us reassess Hitler as a human being, it makes us re-examine the nature of war itself.
Fires On The Plain (1959)
Often in war films we watch people overcome terrible events. They walk for hundreds of miles on a handful of rice, or they take severe beatings, all without losing their essential human dignity. Fires On The Plain is not that kind of war film.
Private Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) has consumption. His commanding officer has sent him to the hospital, and the hospital has sent him back to his unit. Nobody wants him at a time when World War Two is drawing to a close, and the battle for the island of Leyte has been lost. His officer gives Tamura a grenade and tells him to commit suicide. Instead he wanders away, all honour gone, through a setting detached from any reality other than desperation. He sees deprivation, theft, murder, cannibalism. All humanity is ripped away.
Fires On The Plain has a reputation for being one of the bleakest anti-war films ever made. There is something so repellent about the filthy, jerking stick-figures of the soldiers, beyond caring, laughing in the face of starvation. It’s a film that gives us no hope of redemption, and the enigmatic ending offers no solutions. It’s impossible to watch it without despairing of how low we can go.
La Grande Illusion (1937)
The movie starts with a German Captain, Von Rauffenstein (played by Erich Von Stroheim) striding into the mess, and telling his men to go and find the pilot of a French plane he’s just shot down. He wants to invite him to lunch. They share a pleasant meal, and realise they have an acquaintance in common. Then they go their separate ways. Their paths will cross again.
This is World War One with the class divide taking centre stage. The officers from aristocratic backgrounds trust each other even when they are on opposing sides, but who trusts the middle class man, or the Jewish man? Von Rauffenstein embodies this attitude to his core, even though he knows his time as the ruling elite is over. It’s a surprisingly moving performance.
Maybe it’s a trick of time that makes this film seem so prescient. It was made two years before the outbreak of World War Two, and it feels like a warning. The final third of the film is mysterious territory, and it becomes impossible to guess what’s going to happen to the brave, jokey characters we’ve come to love. But we hope they’re going to find a way to work together.
But it’s not just about timing. La Grande Illusion does so much in a single movement of the camera, making and breaking apart social strictures, strengthening hope in the viewer or destroying it. And it has the best potted plant in cinema history.
Grave Of The Fireflies (1988)
This movie was first released in the cinema by Studio Ghibli as a double feature with My Neighbour Totoro, designed to appeal to families with young children. Maybe the overwhelming rage you feel when you watch it wouldn’t affect the very young. But this is a film that, for adults, demands a visceral response.
The action is set in Japan during World War II. Seita is fourteen. His father is in the Imperial Navy, so Seita helps his mother with his younger sister, Setsuko. When their city is bombed, their mother is badly burned, and eventually dies from her injuries. Seita tries to feed himself and his sister. He counts on relatives, and sells the few possessions he has. But it’s not enough. They slip through the cracks of society, and nobody cares.
The use of animation makes the story more immediate. If living actors had played the starving children, it would have removed us from the tragedy; we could have said – look at the performance, amazing, or – is it right to make a child act that? But there is no morality, and no performance. There’s only the careful drawing of two children slowly dying, and that means we can’t rationalise it. We can only be angry.
In August 1944 the resistance army of Poland began the Warsaw Uprising. They fought for 63 days before defeat. By January 1945 roughly 85 percent of Warsaw was in ruins.
Kanal documents the attempt of a company of fighters and a few civilians to flee the city through the sewer system. The writer, Jerzy Stefan Stawiński, was a member of the resistance army, so there is a real feeling of truth to the film in the recreation of the city and in the soldiers’ attitudes. It’s obvious on their faces that they are expecting to die, and yet they keep struggling forward. A weary acceptance permeates the film, and becomes unbearable.
Lieutenant Zadra (Wieńczysław Gliński) leads his band down into the sewers. They get separated, lose each other, fear the sounds and smells and darkness, succumb to self-doubt and madness. Something beyond despair takes them over, and changes them all. As we watch we feel the power of war, and accept its ability to take everything from us.
Another thing – Kanal has two of the best female characters of any war film I’ve ever seen.
The Pioneer’s Violin (1971)
A Soviet propaganda cartoon, The Pioneer’s Violin is very short and very beautiful. Other cartoons made for the same purpose often show characters with jerky movements, enormous expressions, and jokey physical violence (a good example is another short film based on the Soviet youth movement, The Adventures Of The Young Pioneers) but the aim was the same: to make children into new men and women, living their lives according to the State’s principles.
The expressiveness of The Pioneer’s Violin, with its dark shadows and arching shapes, is affecting. Animator Boris Stepantsev shows us the destruction of a Russian town by Nazi bombers. Only a boy is left. He picks up his one remaining possession – a violin – and walks through the ruins. The German tanks arrive, and a jolly soldier pops up. He wants the boy to play a happy tune. The boy faces a stark choice.
We know this is designed to educate us in the dangers of Fascism, but the artist doesn’t use caricatures. The German soldier is not menacing in a traditional way, and the boy’s expressions are haunting. It’s not a surprising film, but it is very interesting to watch a piece of art that transcends the subject matter. It’s easy to see the manipulation when the delivery is crude; when it is as beautiful as this, emotional involvement becomes impossible to resist.
Rome, Open City (1945)
Open City was made by Roberto Rossellini on whatever film stock he could get in a city attempting to recover from occupation that ended only months earlier. It’s based on a true story – a priest aids the partisans and is shot by the Nazis. Because of the setting and the realism, it feels like a documentary. Non-actors are used, and Rossellini had a system of tying strings to their toes in order to pull them when it was their turn to deliver dialogue. Having said that, there are two amazing performances in this film by professional actors Aldo Fabrizi and Anna Magnani.
In fact the film is far from a documentary. There’s great skill in the way the story unfolds of Don Pietro Pellegrini, who clings to grace through terrible events. During the key sequence at the end of the film the priest waits quietly, passively, under German orders, and the sense of tension builds. Then the camera tracks to where we see what we’ve been dreading – a scene of utter brutality. We witness it along with Don Pietro, and we are changed by it, but not for the worse. It’s ennobling, memorable and masterful.
The Round-Up (1966)
This is a film about the dehumanisation that grows from incarceration. Or maybe it’s a film about shapes. It’s difficult to be sure what it’s about, as most British viewers would, I think, come to it without knowing much about Hungarian history, and that gives Miklós Jancsó’s film a surreal quality. We don’t know why the local men have been rounded up and placed in a stockade by smartly dressed soldiers. We only begin to understand as the film progresses that the authorities are looking for a ringleader of a group of partisans, and psychological games are being played to root him out of the crowd.
Here’s where the shapes come in. Every shot is meticulously clean, and sharp, and precise. The men line up in rows. The soldiers march in squares. The cavalry officers ride in circles. Everything is an exercise in geometry, giving us the sense that all that matters here is order. There are few names used, and even less emotion. One man is singled out to act as a spy, and the other men close up tight against him, their faces schooled to show nothing.
So when the film finally steps over the line into physical torture, all hell breaks loose. The men break ranks, flail and scream and give way to terror and despair, just for a minute, until order is restored once more. These moments are truly terrible. They show us that this elaborate game is still a reality, no matter how well we play along.
A Man Escaped (1956)
On the surface this film might seem to have a lot in common with The Shawshank Redemption. In these films a prisoner slowly, so slowly, makes his plans to be a free man. He uses the few tools he can find to escape from his cell. He gets a little further every day. At key points both films even use the music of Mozart (A Man Escaped uses the Mass in C Minor while Shawshank Redemption opts for The Marriage of Figaro).
But there’s a huge difference between Frank Darabont and Robert Bresson as directors. In A Man Escaped we’re not getting an emotional rollercoaster. This isn’t a triumph of hope over captivity. We’re watching a French resistance fighter (François Leterrier) who is waiting to be questioned and then shot by the Nazis. He has nothing left, not even hope. His attempts to escape are automatic actions; nothing shows on his face as the camera stays perfectly still, concentrating on him scraping at his door with a spoon again, again, again. It’s not his expression or determination that changes – it’s our feelings about his actions. We suffer impatience, anger, desperation, hopelessness. It’s an electrifying and painful experience, but the last minutes of this film can reward you in a way that few films manage.
Welcome To Dongmakgol (2005)
Most of the films on this list are really bleak. Welcome To Dongmakgol is a good film to end on, because it’s the opposite. It’s uplifting and fantastical, and really funny.
Through strange circumstances, a US pilot, three North Korean soldiers and two South Korean soldiers end up living together in an untouched village. The locals don’t know it’s 1950, or that the Korean war is taking place; initially the soldiers think of them as idiots, but as time passes their perspective changes. The soldiers begin to re-evaluate who is the enemy, and who are the fools.
There’s magic in this film. Not everything is explicable. Sometimes things are beyond our understanding or control, such as the natural world. Director Kwang-Hyun Park gives us moments of fire and rain and, skies filled with popcorn (you’ll have to see the movie to find out why). It’s easy to fall in love with the village of Dongmakgol; it reminds us of paradise. And when violence finds it, it doesn’t cease to exist. The soldiers find a different solution. There’s another way to survive. And that’s a great thought to end on.
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