The Best WWII Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen

Underground (1995); Emir Kusturica, director

Here’s where nit-pickers can have at me, because technically only the first section of Emir Kusturica’s epic Palme D’Or winner is set during the Second World War. But the entire film is informed by Yugoslavia’s reaction, response and recovery to the war, even if its story continues on until the early 1990s.

A darkly comic and at times surreal fable, Underground’s central premise concerns a group of people who hide in a cellar during a bombing raid, then stay there for decades without realizing that the war is actually over. Yeah, okay, subtle it ain’t, but the film has an alacrity that is almost unheard of for the “serious, European war picture.” Just check out the opening sequence linked above.

I’m no expert on Balkan history, so I’m not the guy to respond to claims some made that the film was an incendiary, nationalist and damaging text considering the atrocities in the area during the 1990s. All I can say is that the filmmaking on display is something all lovers of cinema deserve to see.

Ballad of a Soldier (1959); Grigori Chukrai, director

A masterpiece of simplicity. A farm boy leaves his single mother and goes off to war, vowing to return. At the front, he (perhaps inadvertently) commits an act of heroism which wins him a temporary furlough. Despite logistical nightmares, nothing will stop this good Russian boy from going getting home to kiss his Mama on the cheek. Along the way he falls in love, witnesses the horrors of war and the fellowship of a nation unified in struggle. The ending (no spoilers!) will tear your heart out.

Even at the height of the cold war this Soviet film got a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. That’s gotta mean something.

Have 85 minutes to kill? You can watch the whole thing for free right here.

Closely Watched Trains (1966); Jirí Menzel, director

This beloved picture from the height of the Czech New Wave is probably the only entry on this list that could also double should I ever write “Best Sex Comedies You Probably Haven’t Seen.”

A kinda-dopey, very horny young man begins work in a railway station during the Second World War. His chief goal is to lose his virginity, even if it means becoming a brave anti-Nazi partisan to do it.

Closely Watched Trains, apart from being engaging, hilarious and, indeed, quite erotic speaks to a larger truth: even in the midst of World War, life finds a way to go on.

The Thin Red Line – COMPLETE CUT (TBD); Terence Malick, director

Here’s one I know you haven’t seen because. . .no one has seen it!

Somewhere out there exists a five hour (or more!) version of Terence Malick’s beautiful tone poem on war, memory, regret, power, nature, beauty, death and. . .I dunno. . .whatever the hell The Thin Red Line is actually about. In addition to the cavalcade of stars in the released version the “full” version includes Viggo Mortensen, Gary Oldman, Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Haas, Jason Patric, Martin Sheen and Mickey Rourke.

I know, right?!?!?! Just think, voice over of Mickey Rourke rambling platitudes over images of soldiers and/or rare birds at magic hour may be out there somewhere. Crazy.

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