Let’s go to the movies

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 isDas 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.

 

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Forging ahead

A lieutenant watches as horse-drawn wagons bring baggage and supplies to the front, using a pontoon bridge built by the Brückenkolonne of a Pionier (combat engineer) battalion. It’s probably during the first weeks of Operation Barbarossa. The retreating Soviets blew up any bridge they could, and those had to be replaced. In some cases, rivers were bridged in unexpected spots in order to make flanking attacks possible. The company-sized bridge-building unit could build longer or shorter bridges, depending on what load they were to handle. The pontoons could also be used when building ferries, as some rivers were simply too wide to be bridged in time. There were inflatable boats, too, which together with assault boats were used for attacks across rivers. Without the combat engineers, the armies would have a much harder time moving forward.

This is the last post in the five-part series about my WW2 interest and the ways it manifests itself. I will return to different aspects of it in future posts, elaborating on the themes that I find interesting.

In June 2014, I and some friends went to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. We spent a week looking at bunkers and tanks, walking invasion beaches and battlefields, and even had the good fortune to meet and talk to a couple of Allied D-Day veterans. Hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to make similar trips in the future. Over the years, I have met people who experienced WW2 first hand, and I hope to incorporate their stories in one way or other in my posts. I have a project brewing, where I plan to read and analyze the articles published in the German propaganda magazine ”Signal”, comparing how the Germans presented the fighting in Normandy with what really happened. Then I have this blog, which has turned my collecting of original German photos into a way of expressing myself through research and writing, presenting the photos together with capsule histories and trying to put them in a historical context. Hopefully it will broaden the readers’ understanding of the war just as it has broadened mine. That’s my excuse, anyway.

There are times when I get the question “Why waste time on dead people?” Well, the people in the photos are long gone (except perhaps the odd 90+ years old), but they lived during a tumultous period in our history. They would’ve been happier if they had been allowed to live their lives in peace, but that wasn’t to be. Their stories and fates are too often untold and forgotten; I’ve met people who lived through those years and who experienced things that they haven’t even told their own children. While most of the people in the photos I post here will remain anonymous, I want to put them in a context. In a way, if circumstances had been different, we could’ve been them. That alone makes it worth telling about the people and events all those years ago.

Dig our dugout

Three soldiers in their dugout, somewhere in Russia in 1941. The guy on the right is darning his socks, his comrade on the left is about to open a bottle of wine, while the third is just looking a bit bored. Their little bunker looks pretty snug. They have a stove, its chimney made from tin cans, and seem to enjoy relative comfort. The wine bottles indicate that they have arrived from France or Germany not too long ago. They could be artillerymen or combat engineers, or some other branch of the Army other than infantry (or recon, or signals), but it’s hard to tell the color of their Waffenfarbe piping. Their dugout is just temporary; they better find some thing good next time they move up. In a few months, the Russian winter will hit them.

Here’s the fourth and next to last post on aspects of my WW2 interest.

”So don’t you ever get tired of that war?” Well, while the war only lasted for six years, there are so many aspects of it to explore, that one could spend a lifetime reading about it and never be able to keep up with the new research. ”But all that death and destruction? How can someone like to read books and watch movies about that?” Okay, but some people watch crime shows, and most of them don’t like murders, and others watch hospital series but don’t get thrills from pain and suffering. To me, reading about WW2 is to learn what happened to people in extreme situations and how they coped with it. I don’t derive any pleasure from watching movies were soldiers are gunned down for cheap thrills, or even worse: laughs. As I served in an infantry company in 1986-87, I have way too easy to identify with the PBI (poor bloody infantry). I have a hard time watching movies like ”Inglorius Basterds” (which I’ve actually only seen some scenes from), where the war is an excuse for gory entertainment. Still, the war is intensely interesting. When it comes to drama, World War 2 has it all.

There are people who think that one probably harbors sympathy for Nazism just because of the interest in the German side of the war. Over the years, I’ve encountered war buffs who have an unhealthy fascination with the Third Reich. They fail to separate sympathy for the common men from making excuses for the evil system they were caught up in. A few deny the crimes of the Nazis, or try to rationalize them. Some are fascinated by the aesthetics of the uniforms and hardware design, thinking the Germans should’ve won because they had cooler tanks. Still, those people are in minority in the WW2-related hobbies. Most have a sound interest in history, and want to look behind the narratives of more general books, documentaries and movies. For my own part, it is impossible to ignore that the soldiers that I read about and feature in my blog posts were fighting for an evil regime, even if they had few options. Anyone who thinks becoming a Nazi is a good idea after reading about what transpired in 1933-45 is just plain stupid.

Next: the final part. Why bother with dead people?

Life is a mess

A young Luftwaffe second lieutenant, pilot’s badge on his chest, is surrounded by the mess staff at an airbase somewhere in Europe. Is there an occasion for celebration? A portrait of Adolf Hitler looms over them, one of countless mass-produced paintings hanging wherever there were German officers or officials. The Leader was ever present, a reminder that the soldiers and officers were oath-bound to obey him. Too many did that for too long…

Here’s the third part of my musings over my WW2 interest.

”Why this interest in the Germans? They were Nazis. Why not the Allies instead?” I guess there’s a psychological explanation behind that. Why are some more interested in the bad guys? That’s something that cuts across many genres. There are people who are fascinated by serial killers, gangsters, vampires, or the Empire in ”Star Wars”. The ”dark side” is often more interesting than the good guys, probably because one wants to know what makes it tick. In the case of the Third Reich and World War 2, we have a story of epic proportions, with consequences to this day (and probably for generations to come). The German war machine was the driving force in the conflict, going from the initial successes to a crushing defeat. People think that they could’ve won the war – those of us who know better wonder why they didn’t lose sooner.

Some people – the fanboys – are just attracted to the hardware and the myth of the invincible Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS. Others, like me, want to learn more about the people in the uniforms. What made basically decent men fight for an evil regime? What did the man in the frontline know? What was his part in it all? We have the full range from the war criminals of the Dirlewanger Brigade, to the police soldiers killing Jews described in Christopher Browning’s book “Ordinary Men”, to the men in the regular units who might have known about the atrocities, or were involved in them, to those who tried to resist. It’s complex and diverse, and far from the simplified stories of many war movies and novels.

Next: So why this interest in that old war? Is it really healthy?

Silly games

A squad of soldiers, probably recruits, goofing off for the camera. The sergeant stands above them, swinging a spade. My guess is that’s sometime late in 1943, judging by the NCO’s M1943 field cap. The soldiers are dressed in the M1935 Waffenrock, which was worn for more formal occasions. Production and issue of the Waffenrock was suspended in 1940. However, it remained authorized for walking out for those who had or could purchase it, and it was a widespread if unauthorized practice to loan a soldier a Waffenrock from regimental stocks to get married in, as evidenced by many wartime wedding photos, some of which I might post in the future. Some of them have tucked their spades in their belts, which was a practice to give some protection from the dreaded gut shot.

Here follows the second part of my exposé over my WW2 interest.

Indulging in other hobbies over the years, my WW2 interest was sometimes on the back burner, but about 20 years ago it flared up again. This time it was more mature (or so I would like to think). Reading histories of battles and campaigns as well as memoirs by veterans gave me a better understanding of the war. ”Saving Private Ryan” was impressive but flawed, but ”Band of Brothers” (2001) made me more interested in the Allied side of the war. Reading about the struggles of American, British, and Soviet soldiers against the armies of the Axis powers broadened my interest respect for the soldiers of the opposing sides. While I hadn’t been a German fanboy (the kind that gushes over Tiger tanks, Waffen-SS, and the exploits of Panzer aces like Michael Wittman – not that much, anyway), it put things in perspective. I hadn’t done any plastic modelling since my teens, but for some years I was active in the 1/6 scale community, assembling highly realistic soldier figures (or ”military Barbies” as some put it). The uniform, weapons, and medals trivia I accumulated in the process has been useful in for example analyzing photos of German soldiers. From the mid-90’s, I also began to game the period on my computer. ”Aces of the Deep”, ”Call of Duty”, ”Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault”, and online games like ”Heroes and Generals” and ”War Thunder” have been a way to immerse myself in WW2 settings.

In most movies and games, the German soldiers are portrayed as rather faceless enemies, whose main purpose in their short lives is to run into the machinegun fire of the Allied heroes. Their officers are either Prussian aristocrats who don’t hesitate to sacrifice their men for Führer and Fatherland, or as flawed anti-heroes who usually pay the ultimate price for their reluctant service to an evil cause. Then there’s of course the usual gaggle of SS officers and Gestapo agents who are unfailingly evil, and when they’re not torturing captured Allied heroes, they make life difficult for the flawed anti-hero German officer. The stereotypical portrayal of Germans has made more than one WW2 buff curious about the truth behind that image, one of them being yours truly. I will expand on this theme in a future post.

Next: Who in their right mind want to read about Nazis?

The Gateway

An undated photo with no location mentioned, but my guess is that it’s somewhere in France in 1940. What appears to be a large French farm has been turned into billets for German troops. The black-white-red guard box provides shelter for the guard post in bad weather. A lieutenant, looking rather dashing in his riding pants, stands next to a sergeant. Their unit will probably be replaced by a company with older soldiers the following year, while they will go east for the build-up of Operation Barbarossa.

What follows here is the first part of a series of posts on the origins of my interest in WW2, and how it has developed over the years.

I guess that most people who have an interest in World War 2 in general and the German side in particular get similar reactions from friends, family, and strangers. ”Why read so much about something that happened 75 years ago?”, ”Do you really like war?”, and the classic: ”Are you a Nazi?” I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but my interest in WW2 has been with me ever since I was a kid. Born 20 years after the war ended, one of my first contacts with the history of the war was the BBC documentary series ”The World at War” (1973-74), which was shown on Swedish television around 1975 or 1976. I built plastic models (preferably German and Japanese planes, but I wasn’t picky), got Airfix and Matchbox 1/76 scale plastic soldiers, read war comics, and read any book that caught my interest, like the Ballantine books on the war, many of which were available in Swedish translation. Swedish TV showed the odd war movie, like the Finnish classic ”Unknown Soldier”, the British ”The Dambusters”, ”Above Us the Waves”, or ”The Heroes of Telemark”. TV series like ”Holocaust” (Swedish TV premiere in 1979) and ”The Winds of War” (1982) were other sources for a teenage war buff, even if there was more drama than war action.

My interest in WW2 waxed and waned over the years, but it never went away. There was that awkward, embarrassing phase in one’s life when one finds books that aren’t really socially acceptable. They become a guilty pleasure, where one learns stuff that one couldn’t imagine knowing before. I’m talking about Sven Hassel’s war novels, of course. I read my first one when I was 17, if memory doesn’t fail me. Young and impressionable, I thought they were true, or at least true-ish, and the books were read and re-read. Much later, I revisited the books and began taking notes, and found out that they were not even true-ish… Fun fact: Hassel and friends are at times in three or four locations simultaneously, most notably both inside and outside Stalingrad, depending on which book you read. Around the same time, movies like ”Das Boot” and a matinee viewing of ”Cross of Iron” introduced a German perspective to a genre that usually treated Germans as either cruel brutes or brainless cannon-fodder (or both). I met new friends who played WW2-themed wargames, and there was usually a small fight over who would get to play which side. The loser got to play the Allies…

Next: Delving deeper into WW2, looking for the truth behind Germans in movies and games. Below is the opening titles of “Cross of Iron”, which brilliantly juxtasposes propaganda and grim reality, setting the scene for one of the first major English-language movies showing the German side.

Reaching out to younger generations

A soldier shows off his athletic skills on the bar while carrying a full combat load, schoolkids watching raptly. In many countries in the 1930’s, the reasons for the outbreak of the Great War (WW1) differed depending on who you asked. History was an important subject in school, where it mainly served to tell about a nation’s glorious past and to push a more or less nationalist agenda. In the 1960’s, the narrative began to change, and became less focused on kings and battles. Over the decades, the subject has deteriorated. In Swedish schools, the only thing they read about when it comes to WW2 is the Holocaust. That’s important, but considering what a decisive event WW2 was, and how it influences politics and life to this day, it should be taught a lot more, of course together with the rest of 20th century history.

A couple of weeks ago, I watched “Dunkirk” in the local cinema. Christopher Nolan’s latest movie is very stylish, but the non-linear, intersecting storylines can confuse the viewer. To make matters worse, there’s extremely little exposition on why the soldiers are where they are, what year it is, and even who the enemy is. The audience numbered perhaps 30-35 people, at least a dozen about 18 years old. I felt sorry for them, as they couldn’t possibly have enough knowledge of the background to fully appreciate the movie. Even someone with passing knowledge of WW2 would be probably be a bit confused, at least at first.

Given that many movies and TV series have historical themes, the poor public understanding of the periods portrayed probably helps productions with crappy historical accuracy to succeed more than they deserve. This is nothing new, though, and has left history buffs stewing in cinema seats and livingroom sofas for decades. My take on it is that the makers of such movies and series shouldn’t count on the audience needing to be clueless and ignorant in order to swallow the ludicrous plots.

I talked to a friend who is a teacher about the state of the history subject these days. He teaches young teenagers, all of them born after events like 9/11. To them, events two or three generations ago have a have an almost mythological air. They have only superficial knowledge of WW2, Hitler being reduced to a bogeyman like Darth Vader, or a ranting madman in countless “Downfall” YouTube clips spoofing some current trend. This sad state of affairs is common and surveys show a shocking lack of knowledge. Of course, it depends on who you ask… The problem has been around for decades, though, and the realist in me realise that it won’t go away.

Knowing about history, what caused this or that event, and what effect that had on other events, is essential to the understanding the world around us. If you have a sound schooling in history, you are less prone to fall for nationalist agendas or fake news. Also, it gives you a better appreciation of your own place in the chain of events that has led up to the world we live in today. We cannot know where we might be heading if we don’t know where we come from.