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2017: The Year We Embraced the Spectrum of WWII Films

Perhaps a result of the fear that WWIII would be announced via twitter, 2017 was a spectacular year to navigate World War II films. In no particular order, we look at the range of films focusing variously on Polish, French, American, German & British victims, heroes and villains, and those that defied categorisation.

From deceptively light and airy slop to visceral military engagement, we take a look at a year of World War 2 films.

Alone in Berlin

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A quiet tale of the crimes a German couple committed during Hitler’s reign: Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson are stoic, terse, and relatable as husband and wife in this film based on the non-fiction book by Hans Fallada. When their only son is killed in action, these proud German parents start to question the value of war being fought. Beginning an anonymous letter writing campaign, they soon come to the attention of the German military.

This is a slow-burning film. It asks, what would you do? And how much hatred and death is too much? It takes an ordinary couple to question what their lives mean. Daniel Brühl returns another fine performance as a Nazi agent. Brühl’s German lead investigator is nuanced and complex, though he may be sympathetic, his crimes remain without sympathy. These German dissenters opposition to Hitler did not begin against state sanctioned genocide. We feel that their opposition drew strength from their son’s death, the straw that broke the camel’s back. The subtle soundtrack, the dark browns and heavy greens, the detailed and luxurious costuming lend this tense thriller gravity and bravado.

Denial

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A brilliant Rachel Weisz portrays the Jewish historian, Deborah Lipstadt whose book, History on Trial, was the basis of this film. Infamous holocaust denier David Irving lies, that the Nazi perpetrated Holocaust did not occur, or was greatly exaggerated, remain infuriating. Lipstadt asserted Irving was lying and Irving sued for libel. In order to win the case, Lipstadt’s team needed to provide evidence the Holocaust occurred.

This dry courtroom drama should have been the movie of the year, alas it falls short. Denial’s exceptional value is that it provides Jewish agency. Survivors found the strength to contribute to this trial and their courage stands out across the years.

Their Finest

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Whilst the young men of the day were fighting World War II, women were being invited into the workplace in greater numbers than ever before. We meet the vivacious Gemma Arterton, her boyfriend’s intermittent artist’s income in need of supplementary provision. This unmarried (gasp) writer (sigh) living in sin with a divorced man (faint) is bright and gutsy, soon landing a writing gig with a film producer creating British propaganda content. Her learning curve is offset by the gruff old actor, Bill Nighy, and the brilliant yet snarky lead writer, Sam Clafin.

A female led story, created by females, it was directed by Lone Scherfig, adapted by Gabby Chiappe, based on Lissa Evan’s book. With an engaging cast, this is a go-get-em, sock it to them sorta film, slyly feminist, in the vein of a British, A League of Their Own. Perhaps also the first this year to discuss the events of Dunkirk…

Dunkirk

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War is horror. A war film with a horror movie soundtrack, this Christopher Nolan film should win Oscars, place bets on a winning a score or sound editing nomination at the very least.

Written, directed by, and starring white men, Dunkirk hit a nerve in small corners of the net when googling revealed, yes, there were men of other colour fighting on Dunkirk. A valuable consideration in a year when outgoing Doctor Who showrunner, Stephen Moffat was reluctant to cast men of colour in a British Victorian regiment on the MOON.

Strong actors focus this cleverly structured non-linear entity: A juxtaposition of three timelines running parallel with each other remained simple to follow. With breathtaking scenery shot from Tom Hardy’s spitfire perspective, theIMAX price is worthwhile.

Bag of Marbles (Un Sac de Billes)

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Based on the 1974 memoir of the same name, Bag of Marbles tells the true story of French Jewish brothers escaping the occupied France.

When films discuss the holocaust we often see brave escapes engineered by, and nuanced portrayals of these saviours. Their heroics will stand the test of time, their acts undiminished by other stories of the same time. Bag of Marbles focus is on these survivors. With agency given to survivors perhaps we may identify with them more closely, help to see how quickly, and without cause, the ‘other’ is demonised. This French language film’s sub-titling is visually appealing and relatively easy to navigate.

Churchill

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Three key reasons:

1. Brian Cox as Churchill in 1944 arguing against the Normandy landings is magnificent.
2. Miranda Richardson is a delight, providing a complex and refreshingly authentic portrayal of Churchill’s wife, Clemmy.
3. The opening dream sequence as Churchill’s famous hat (homburg) tumbles along a bloodied beach might be one of the most beautiful scenes released this year.

The Zookeeper’s Wife
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Polish couple, Antonina & Jan Zabinska, saved hundreds of Jewish, funnelling them through their Warsaw zoo. Zabinska’s determination, at first to save close friends, expanded into a much larger operation. Once again, Daniel Bruul plays the German lead investigator, complimented by the always enchanting Jessica Chastain, and Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh.

The film is told from Antonina’s perspective, based on Dianne Ackerman’s book, adapted by Angela Workman and  also directed by Niki Caro. Having the film led by the female perspective makes the film all that much better. Beginning lightly, the town is thrown into chaos after a bombing raid frees zoo animals. Later, we are delivered darker moments in the Warsaw Ghetto and and abusive power. One of the more gentle Holocaust films, it nonetheless does not hide the cruelty and difficult circumstances.


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