What makes a great WWII film?

May 20, 2021

For as long as I know I’ve always been fascinated with the Second World War. It is, for a lack of a better word, my favorite war. And I can’t see how this could have been any different; growing up the war seemed to have been everywhere. It was something the whole world had to live through at the time. My vastly different grandparents had experienced this global event when they were still young. My mother’s parents lived in the south of the Netherlands and had endured the occupation by Nazi Germany, while on the other side of the world, in the Dutch East Indies, my father’s parents had suffered under the occupation of the Japanese Imperial Army. Their combined experiences had influenced the childhoods of my parents and to a lesser extent seeped into my childhood experience as well. Growing up, basically everybody’s grandparents had lived through the war. When we vacationed in France we visited cemeteries filled with dead soldiers and a monumental town whose inhabitants had been locked inside a burning church. The town had been left intact to convey the horrors that must have taken place back then, seeing the bullet riddled car of the town doctor used to haunt me, as my great-grandfather had also been a small town doctor during the war. Remnants of the era were specifically obvious in the city I grew up in: Amsterdam. Tiny brass tiles are found everywhere, bearing the names of Jewish people who became victims of the Nazis. As a kid I browsed through as many history books as I could lay my hands on, usually just taking in the black-and-white photos. At night, I’d lay in my bed and I would wonder if I would have been prosecuted for how I looked. I wondered if I could have found a good place to hide and where that would be. Who of the people I knew would be willing to help me if I had to hide? I wondered how much it would hurt to lose loved ones, or if I would have been brave enough to commit acts of resistance.

The most effective way to get through to me as a kid was to show me a movie. Through this medium World War II obviously didn’t escape me. Quite the contrary, perhaps more than all the other wars combined the Second World War has been widely and extensively portrayed in film. And so my fascination with the war has seemingly always been intertwined with my love for movies. To my first cinematic hero, Steven Spielberg, the war had been just as essential. His father served in the air force during the war and his mother’s family had been ravished by the holocaust. His first amateur short films in Arizona were war films; he would put helmets on local boys that looked like grownups to him and he made them run around while he employed all kinds of cheap tricks to make it look like they were in battle. And just as the Second World War remained a thread throughout Spielbergs work, the war remained a thread throughout my life and my love for film.

Our humble Dutch film industry always had a close affinity with the war too; a glance at a list of the few classic Dutch films shows a significant number of war films. But apart from the classics, this Dutch tradition of churning out war films on an almost annual basis in my opinion rarely results in something cinematically interesting. Dutch war films basically always come with a mold, that forces these usually large productions to be extremely repetitive, both thematically and stylistically. When I started studying to become a screenwriter at the Netherlands Film Academy I gradually developed my own World War 2-set feature film script, hoping that it would someday add something new to the national cinematic landscape. This set off my deep dive into World War 2-cinema from around the world, to see how people combined their love of cinema with the shared memory of the war, how they used their movies to challenge themselves artistically about the trauma and the uncomfortable truths the war left them to deal with.

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