A Panzer soldier and his Fallschirmjäger friend in tropical uniforms, perhaps on their way to the movies. The photo is probably taken in 1942, location unknown.
There’s been many hundreds of movies made about World War 2, both during the war and after it. Most of them feature American and/or British good guys fighting evil Nazis, but in recent years there’s also been an increase in Russian-made war movies. It’s easy to tire of Brad Pitt fight half the Third Reich, or Russian movies that only make Putin happy. Those of us who like a more varied fare look for other perspectives. As the theme for this blog is the German Wehrmacht, I’ll take a look at some of the best movies from a German viewpoint. I’m afraid the list won’t be terribly original, but that’s a consequence of the lack of good movies about the German wartime experience. So, in chronological order as the events unfolded in the war, here’s my list of five war movies with a German point of view that are worth (re-)watching.
First out is “Das Boot“ from 1981. Regarded as the best submarine movie of all time, it tells the story of a combat tour with U-96. Set in 1941, it covers the successes and terrors experienced by the young crew. Based on the novel by former war correspondent Lothar-Günther Buchheim, who in turn based it on a combat tour with the real U-96, the movie became an international success, paving the way for the Hollywood careers of director Wolfgang Petersen and leading man Jürgen Prochnow. While some of the special effects are dated (the destroyer model wasn’t convincing even in 1981), it’s still a powerful movie. Long periods of tedium are interrupted by moments of terror, when the U-96 has to dodge attacks by enemy ships and aircraft. It has been released in three versions: the theatrical cut at 149 minutes, the director’s cut at 209 minutes, and the full mini-series at 293 minutes. The longer versions allow for more character development and exposition, and I recommend either of them. The theatrical cut isn’t available, anyway. A new mini-series based on the same story will be released in 2018.
Avoid: “U-571″, a sub-standard (pun intended) Hollywood movie that managed to insult the British by claiming that Americans captured an Enigma code machine before the Brits did.
The producers of “Das Boot” wanted to make another movie/mini-series about the German war experience, and opted for the Battle of Stalingrad. For some reason, the plans for the mini-series were scrapped, and a 134-minute movie was released in 1993. It tells the story of a combat engineer company which is sent to Stalingrad after a stint in North Africa. We follow some soldiers in a platoon commanded by Lieutenant von Witzleben (Thomas Kretschmann in his second role as a German officer; he’s played officers in at least ten movies). They descend into the hell known as Stalingrad, and the losses mount in the fierce fighting in the ruins. Things take a turn for the (even) worse when the men are sent to a penal battalion. A memorable fight against T-34 tanks sees them rehabilitated, but not without losses. As the 6th Army is surrounded, the winter growing harsher and supplies dwindle, the situation gets desperate, and one by one the soldiers meet their untimely ends. The last two try to break out of the encirclement, leading to one of the most depressing movie endings ever. While “Stalingrad” isn’t perfect, it’s still one of the best Eastern Front movies.
Avoid: the Russian “Stalingrad” (2013), which is so bad that even Russians didn’t like it.
Before “Stalingrad” there was “Cross of Iron” (1977). Based on the novel “The Willing Flesh” by Eastern Front veteran Willi Heinrich, it was one of the first non-German post-war movies to show an entirely German perspective. It was directed by Sam Peckinpah and featured a cast of American, German, British and Yugoslavian actors. Set in 1943, it tells the story of a squad led by Sergeant Steiner (James Coburn; almost twice as old as one would expect, but still great in that role). Their new company commander, Captain Stransky, arrives to the front. He’s a martinet and glory-hound, out for an Iron Cross, which he couldn’t get in his previous cushy posting in France. The two men clash, and as the Soviets assault their positions, things come to a head. Cynical and realistic, “Cross of Iron” still stands out. Peckinpah’s trademark bloody slow motion scenes have been parodied, but they work in this context. The ending, which was rewritten due to budget constraints, might not be to everyone’s taste, but it works.
Avoid: “Breakthrough”, the sequel to “Cross of Iron”, which was just an attempt to cash in on the first movie. Steiner and Stransky aren’t even played by the same actors.
How do you manage to make an exciting thriller about an event with an ending just slightly less predictable than that of “Titanic“? You let Bryan Singer direct it. “Valkyrie” from 2008 works. Even though you know Hitler will survive and the conspirators fail, Singer managed to create a movie that moves along at a steady clip, somehow managing to make it feel like the bomb plot will work. There was much criticism when Tom Cruise was picked to play Stauffenberg, but I think he did a really good job, working together with a great cast without hogging the limelight. While this movie is about officers in the highest echelons, plotting away in headquarters, there are some scenes from the front in North Africa that puts Stauffenberg in the line of fire, and not just as a smartly dressed staff officer. The art direction is great, presenting a time and place in a rich, convincing manner. It also reminds us of the other failed attempts on Hitler’s life, showing that there was opposition to him even before the war was about to be lost.
See also: “Operation Valkyrie“, a German TV movie from 2004. It covers most of the same events, but differently and in my opinion not as exciting. Appreciated by people with a fetish for dialogue in German.
“Valkyrie” sort of sets the stage for “Downfall” (2004), the excellent retelling of the last weeks of the Thousand-Years Reich. Bruno Ganz delivers the best and most convincing movie Hitler ever, and it’s a pity that most people are only familiar with the movie through the innumerable “Hitler rant” clips on YouTube. It could easily have become a set piece in the bunker, but by following some of the defenders of Berlin, it recreates the final battle through the eyes of the kids and old men tasked with the defense. The desperation and sense of doom pervades the movie, and there are some strong scenes that will hit people who are parents especially hard. Told from the perspective of one of Hitler’s secretaries, Traudl Junge, it is probably the definite retelling of those final days.
For laughs: “Fall of Berlin“, a Soviet propaganda movie from 1949. It turns Hitler’s bunker into a freakshow, and features the perhaps most over-acting movie Hitler ever.
Somehow, this list doesn’t feel complete. While the movies are among the best war movies of all time, none of them really tells about the German war experience in a broader context, in part because a movie rarely can tell a story about a subject in depth over a longer period of time. In 2013, a German mini-series caused much discussion as it was the first real attempt in years to tell about the effect of the war on young Germans. In three 90-minutes episodes, “Generation War” (original title: “Unsere Mutter, unsere Väter“), we follow brothers Wilhelm and Friedhelm and their friends Charlotte, Greta and Viktor during the years 1941-45. Wilhelm is a lieutenant whose patriotism and idealism is put to the test, while his younger brother Friedhelm goes from being an unwilling soldier to hardened cynic. Charlotte serves as a nurse on the Eastern Front, while Greta is a singer, using her connections with a Gestapo officer to further her career while protecting her secret boyfriend Viktor, who is a Jew. While the mini-series drew some criticism for simplifying some events, as well as portraying the Polish resistance as anti-Semitic, it’s still the best treatment of the subject I’ve seen. It doesn’t shy away from the brutalization of the war on the Eastern Front, or the moral challenge of living in the Third Reich. If you haven’t watched “Generation War“, do yourself a service and do that.