The Best WWII Movies You Probably Haven't Seen

This friday Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness opens in New York and Los Angeles. It ought to have a decent run at art houses in select cities after that, particularly if it wins the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this year. (If anything is poised to upset A Separation, it's this one.)

In In Darkness, Holland, director of Europa, Europa and a few key episodes of The Wire, tells a fascinating true story of a group of Polish Jews who survived for over one year in a city's sewer system. In the press notes she commented that, just when we thought we'd heard all the World War II stories, she discovered this one. It got me thinking that, yes, not only are there a number of great World War II stories out there that haven't been told, there are already so many that deserve to be rediscovered by a new audience.

So, with that, let's set the way-back machine to the madness of mid-century and check out some tremendous art that grew from tragedy.

More Movies You Probably Havent Seen:

The Grey Zone (2001); Tim Blake Nelson, director

We'll kick this one off with one of the most depressing and difficult to watch movies I've ever seen.

For those that felt Schindler's List candy-coated the horrors of the Nazi extermination camps, I offer The Grey Zone. No narrative film has more directly detailed the functions and living conditions at Auschwitz as Tim Blake Nelson's story of a rebellious group of Sonderkommando. The Sonderkommando, if you don't know, were the groups of healthy, young Jews who were kept alive and forced to aid the the machinery of death at the camp. Yeah, pretty bleak stuff.

The story of this impossible revolt (and there were others – check out Jean-Francois Steiner's book Treblinka for a similar tale) is a fascinating portrait of bravery in the face of insurmountable odds and absolute evil.

Hope and Glory (1987); John Boorman, director

Okay, we need to lighten up a little bit, and quick.

Hope and Glory is told from the point of view of a ten year old boy who, despite a vague understanding of distant suffering, thinks World War II is the greatest thing that ever happened to him. School is constantly cancelled, the London blitz offers new destroyed houses to stomp around in and he gets to spend some nights sleeping in the subway station.

It's hard to make the war seem fun without being flip but Boorman's quasi-autobiographical tale does the trick. It features a wide and wonderful cast of characters, the full tapestry of British society that held that country together. Among my favorites, the men rejected by the fighting army but relegated to the secretarial pool, puffing their chests and reminding themselves that "we're typing for England!"

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946); William Wyler, director

After the bullets fly and the flags are planted, the war still rages within the minds of the men who fought it.

Best Picture winner The Best Years of Our Lives was one of the first American films that showed the psychological damage done not only on the battlefield, but on the homefront as well.

Three men of different social classes meet after the war on their way back to a fictional midwestern city. Each finds it difficult to reintegrate into their previous lives. There's drinking, flashbacks, marital regret, love affairs and adjustments to physical handicaps. The Best Years of Our Lives is basically soap opera, but it is striking to see such issues framed in the conventions of 1940s cinema.

The Best Years of Our Lives won a whole slew of awards, including a Best Supporting nod for "non-actor" Harold Russell, a war veteran who lost both of his hands. Don't judge this movie too harshly by the clip shown above (one of the few I could find.) Once you get into it, it really is quite good.

Stalingrad (1993); Joseph Vilsmaier, director

Okay, back to the action.

It was Wolfgang Peterson's 1981 masterpiece Das Boot that made it "okay" to root for Germans in a World War II film provided that a) we were on the side of simple soldiers caught up in the larger machinations of war and b) lots of Germans died. Stalingrad takes this formula and runs it head-on into the ice cold hell that was the Battle of Stalingrad.

Joseph Vilsmaier's epic features sieges, tank battles, the horrors of penal colonies, assaults on civilians, survivalism and an examination of loyalty versus common sense. There were 260,000 men in Germany's 6th Army who went to Stalingrad. 6000 returned.

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.

More Movies You Probably Havent Seen: