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Essential watching: The standout WWII films of 2017

The Second World War continues to be a rich source of material for history-based drama, offering an array of conflicts, heroism, political scheming, and personal tragedy amenable to film. Last year was particularly rich in this category.
Some of the most impressive dramas of 2017 were based on wartime events. In case you missed them the first time around, here are a few of the best.

13 Minutes

“We make the truth.”
This straightforward German film, made in 2015 but only released in some areas last year, tells the story of the belatedly discovered hero of the resistance movement, Georg Elser. Because details of his actions were suppressed by the Third Reich, records of his efforts were only discovered decades after the fact; but he is now widely admired in Germany. The original title of the film was simply Elser
Beginning with the key event of Georg Elser’s life, the film opens on the sound of mechanical ticking, as a man works in the semi-darkness on a crude clockwork mechanism. A Nazi flag in the background sets the scene and the period. Later, in the same building during daylight hours, a Nazi party rally takes place; Adolf Hitler is speaking to a crowd. The man placing the clockwork device is found outside the building, detained and jailed. He repeatedly checks his watch, as the site of the rally erupts in a massive explosion.
In 1939, Georg Elser attempted to assassinate Hitler by placing a bomb under the lectern where he would be speaking. His plan failed, as Hitler left the building early, thirteen minutes before the bomb detonated. The story does not dwell on the assassination attempt itself, which is concluded a few minutes into the movie. Instead, we see Elser’s arrest and interrogation, complicated by the Gestapo’s insistence on finding political backing for Elser’s actions. The film moves from scenes of Elser’s incarceration, questioning, and torture, to flashbacks of his early life.
It is in the scenes from Elser’s past that we gradually learn of his character, and understand his motivations for the attempt on Hitler’s life. He was an ordinary man with a strong sense of responsibility and a hatred of injustice, which at first acts on minor examples of unfairness in his personal life, then eventually expands to take in the excesses of Nazism. Like others in his home town, he witnessed the growth of the National Socialist Party, its increasing aggressiveness, and its mistreatment and persecution of local residents. Elser had no taste for political affiliations; despite the Nazis’ later suspicions, everything he did was alone and without the aid of any revolutionary faction.
Many of Elser’s associates were horrified by the actions of the Nazis; but Elser combined an overdeveloped conscience with a random set of skills at his disposal. As we follow his early career, we see Elser apprentice to a clockmaker, then work in various factories using metal, explosives, electrical wiring. It finally becomes apparent that Elser has, in a piecemeal fashion, learned all the skills necessary to design and construct a bomb. 

The alternating scenes of Elser’s earlier life and his time imprisoned by the Gestapo gradually tell the story of his decision to act against Hitler; and also paint a portrait of a deeply moral man, one who hated violence and deeply regretted the several spectators killed by his bomb, but who felt unable to refrain from action under a depraved government. The film captures the popular appeal of the National Socialists, as well as the sometimes ridiculous flaws in the party’s thinking; but its most effective work is in portraying the unassuming courage of this minor player in the resistance effort.


“You’ll always be the man who led us through this.”

Churchill may have been slightly overshadowed by Gary Oldman’s widely acclaimed performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, released a few months earlier, but this dramatisation of a specific period in British history, and an important figure in that history, is still worth a look.

As the title suggests, this film is not about historical events but the man at the centre of them. It is intended as an intimate portrait of Winston Churchill himself, taken during the few weeks in 1944 leading up to D-Day. The script was written by professional historian Alex vonTunzelmann, whose minor specialty is correcting historical inaccuracies in period films. She took pains to base the plot on fact, although many of the details revealed about Churchill may be surprising – for example, his strong opposition to the D-Day invasion plan. She assisted the filmmakers in providing an accurate, close-up picture of the man as a former hero who had become somewhat marginalised in the war effort as younger strategists displaced him. The film is described by vonTunzelmann as “something of a coming-of-age story” in which Churchill, at seventy, deals with his apparent obsolescence and finds a new place for himself – one he continued to occupy for another ten years.

Brian Cox, an extremely prolific actor who has played everything from MacBeth to one of the Oods on Doctor Who, does a remarkable job as Winston Churchill, forcefully expressing the inner turmoil of the man, and making his character’s voice and manner recognisable without becoming a caricature. The film’s makeup artist describes in interview the efforts taken to avoid overdoing the transformation of Cox’s appearance, capturing details to give the impression of the familiar figure without masking the actor beneath or inhibiting his performance. The effort was successful; the character is recognisable but real.

The story begins at a crucial moment in the Second World War. Winston Churchill is in constant despair over the course of the war, plagued with memories of his experiences in WWI, and deeply concerned about the wisdom of the proposed attack on German forces occupying France. He debates the D-Day plan strenuously with American military, including General Eisenhower (John Slattery) but is largely ignored, and his understanding of modern warfare questioned. The film focuses on the personal struggles of Churchill as a great man feeling overruled and unappreciated, and that his most effective years may be behind him.

Churchill’s personal conflicts are offset by the calm, implacable Clementine Churchill (Miranda Richardson), who supports her husband but is free with helpful criticism. She provides the character with a sounding board against which to defend his policies and explain his thinking, to the audience by way of his wife. She also provides a commentary on the issues being dealt with, offering clarity to the viewer without needless extra dialogue. But her vital intelligence, and her key role in guiding her prominent husband through both political conflicts and painful self-doubt, are made clear through Richardson’s colourful and sensitive portrayal.

The portrait of Churchill is by no means flattering. He comes across at times as petulant and self-absorbed, inclined to indulge in what General Eisenhower calls “amateur theatrics.” Churchill is presented as a passionately loyal, concerned, sincere man, but one with human failings, including a penchant for petty rivalry, childish jealousy of younger and more powerful men, and, as the war brings back painful memories of past wrong decisions, a terror of repeating fatal mistakes.

Churchill also suffered from bouts of depression, one of which struck him just before the D-Day invasion took place. He found himself lost in memories of a similar attack, at Gallipoli, and in guilt about the men lost there. In this case, he is drawn out of his black mood by the distress of his young secretary, who is concerned about her fiancé, a young soldier on his way to France. Churchill revives himself in order to comfort her and take the trouble to locate her fiancé and assure her of his safety. As one of the film’s producers commented, the young woman allows Churchill to re-connect with the people, and thereby leave his inertia behind.  The story’s dénouement is the famous radio speech following D-Day – “We shall never surrender” – and Churchill’s newfound determination to move on at a personal and professional level.

A striking feature of this film is the camera work, which is unusual, purposely foggy and dreamlike at times, taking on odd perspectives to express the mood of the scene. At times it gives the viewer a strange sense of peeking through cracks and keyholes in order to catch a glimpse of clandestine events; in other scenes it uses a sweeping panoramic view of the action. The visual tone of each scene continues to change, keeping step with the mood of the film at the time. Creative use of technical details such as this one add to a solid script to provide a compelling portrait of both a great man and a key point in 20th century history.



“All we did is survive.”

This is a film with the best imaginable pedigree, and every possible prospect of success: it was written and directed by successful, multi-award-winning director Christopher Nolan (Inception, Dark Knight, Interstellar); it deals with one of the most famous and dramatic wartime situations of the 20th century; and it was granted a $100 million budget by its production companies. It was a critical and commercial success, and lives up to its widespread praise.

The subject of the film, the 1940 evacuation of 400,000 British and French troops from the shores of Dunkirk, was not a military victory, or even a battle. If anything, it was a failure, described by the newly-elected Winston Churchill as “a colossal military disaster.” It is nevertheless both a moving example of determination, collaboration, and bravery; an essential step in eventually winning the war; and also, from the filmmakers point of view, a terrific story.

As the film begins, Allied forces, mostly British and French, have been pushed back by the Germans until they are trapped between the approaching German army and the sea.  There are not enough military ships to evacuate them all in time, and civilian boats, anything from yachts to fishing boats, are requested or commandeered to rescue the stranded men before the Germans arrive. The film alternates its attention among three scenarios: the doomed group of men awaiting rescue; the progress of the civilian volunteer fleet crossing the channel to retrieve them, mainly represented by one small boat piloted by a man and his two young sons; and the Allied pilots circling the area, attempting to hold back German aerial attacks on the troops at Dunkirk.

The action is evenly paced and naturalistic, rather than hectic and melodramatic. It is shot in an intimate, closed-in way that places the viewer in the middle of events as they unfold, and focuses on the individuals behind even routine military actions. The actions is always realistic, overlapping intense scenes of battle or life-and-death rescue attempts with snatches of conversation, glimpses of work or idle activity, giving the action an inescapable human face. A few key characters stand out, especially those chosen to represent a larger group: Tom Hardy plays one of the RAF pilots engaging German aircraft in precarious one-on-one skirmishes; Kenneth Branagh, a commander managing the evacuation from across the channel; Mark Rylance, the owner of one of the rescue boats. However, this is very much an ensemble piece, in which no one character takes on much more importance than the others, perhaps an important part of the story as well.

The film’s restraint is one of its best features. Even the most intense situations are not milked for emotion. Deaths, including some ghastly battlefield deaths, are shown clearly but without emphasising the gruesome for the sake of shock value. The story does not avoid pathos and tragedy, but also does not overplay it. The script wisely forgoes war-film fireworks, and instead focuses on the small sacrifices, quiet bravery, and dogged effort that made the event possible, skilfully drawing the viewer into the story, and the reality behind it.


More WWII Coming In 2018…

Darkest Hour
Gary Oldman’s striking performance as Winston Churchill is the most often mentioned quality in this Oscar, BAFTA, AACTA, and Screen Actors’ Guild- nominated historical drama by talented director Joe Wright. Screenplay by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) and an all-star supporting cast including Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, and Ben Mendelsohn.

Pegasus Bridge
A dramatisation of Operation Deadstick, a difficult and dramatic mission that was part of the Normandy landings of June 1944, and essential to their success.

Lancaster Skies
A drama following a spitfire ace involved in aerial warfare over Berlin in 1943, his military and personal struggles.

In The Time of Locusts
A less well known wartime experience, revealed through recently recovered historical records, is portrayed in this Chinese drama, which deals with the conflicts between the Japanese military and Chinese civilians, who were the objects of brutal retaliation after rescuing crashed Allied pilots.

Flags Over Berlin
The story of Operation Alsos, an undercover mission ordered by Churchill, in which a British commander poses as a newspaper reporter in order to obtain German documents on the development of nuclear weapons.