Sunday, November 12, 2006

The 1940 and 1950s in Central Europe: Film

The 1940s and 1950s in Central Europe (Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland) is a historically fascinating and tragic period marked by devastating war and totalitarianism. Below is an annotated list of films reviewed in SunnysideKitchen that are focused on this period.

Some of these films were made behind the Iron Curtain. There are a couple dates to keep in mind for these. Stalin died in 1953 after which there was a loosening of the restrictions on the kinds of films that could be made and filmmakers were no longer in the "socialist realism" straight-jacket. So these films span two different eras: before- and after- Stalin's death. The Hungarian films have another important date: 1956, the year of the Hungarian Uprising, after which hard Stalinism returns to Hungary. For the other Warsaw pact countries, 1968 is the more critical year. This is the year of the Prague Spring. After that is crushed, severe film censorship returns for all filmmakers behind the Iron Curtain and things don't get better until the late 1980s when the communist governments are overthrown.

Burnt by the Sun (1994) This film is set in the early 1930s, so a bit before the 1940s and it's set in Russia, which is not Central Europe. Nonetheless, it is about an important aspect of the tyranny of communism and Stalinism, in particular, that affected Central Europe in the 40s and 50s -- which was the capacity of the system to turn on it's own followers and use this unexpected violence to control. Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, one of the most famous modern Russian directors.

Ballad of a Solider (1959) Most Americans have no idea of the suffering and sacrifice Russians experienced in the war. This film gives you an air-brushed taste of that. It is a famous Russian film about a young soldier who travels home to help his mother in the midst of the war. Before 1953, all WWII films in Russia had to follow a "great Red soldier" script. After 1953, there are a series of films about the terrible human toll of WWII. This is one of the most famous of those.

Downfall (2004) Excellent film on the last few days of Hilter's life when he is in the bunker. Shows the downfall of Berlin. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

The Bridge (1959) An anti-war film made in the late 1950s in West Germany. Shows the home front situation and mentality as the Americans are pressing across Germany.

Eroica (1957)Two Polish films on "passive heroism". The first is about a man who is not at all interested in dying for his country, but ends up helping the partisans against the Germans none the less. The second is about a group of Polish POWs who are descending to madness and one who makes an unusual sacrifice to help the group morale.

Fateless (2005) Autobiographical film about the experiences of a 14-year old Hungarian Jewish boy who is rounded up and sent to the camps in Poland. Beautiful film.

Heimat Heimat episodes 1-7 follow a German family in a small German village through the end of WWI to the end of WWII. We see from their perspective the radical changes that happened: poverty and hardship after the end of WWI, followed by great infrastructure improvement (roads, electricity) and an increase in personal wealth, the rise of the Nazis and war, and then defeat and occupation by the Americans. I found it a bit slow, frankly.

Ivan's Childhood (1962) Beautiful yet searing indictment of the brutality of WWII. It follows a 10-year old boy, Ivan, who becomes a scout for the army.

Judgment at Nuremberg (1962) Excellent film that explores the culpability of German judges within the corrupt Nazi State and the manner in which people can become morally corrupt even though at each step they take what they believe is the most morally defensible position at the time.

LoveFilm (1970) This film is set in the 1960s in Hungary, but it has many flashbacks to WWII and the immediate post-war period in Budapest. By Hungarian director Istvan Szabo.

Mein Krieg A German documentary (in German with subtitles) using footage taken by soldiers fighting on the Eastern Front. Even if you can't understand German it is interesting because it shows really what it was like from the heady days at the beginning of the invasion as they moved at full speed to their depressing retreat back to Germany after brutal casualties. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Mephisto (1981) This movie is set in the late 1930s in Germany. Explores the role of artists (and by extension intellectuals) within a totalitarian state. It is a clear metaphor to the moral dilemmas faced by artists, such as the director, working behind the Iron Curtain.

The Murderers are Among Us (1945) This movies is set immediately after the war in Berlin. It is one of the most famous of the "Rubble Films". This film show you what Berlin looked like right after the war. Unfathomable. DEFA's first film -- the state film monopoly that started in the Soviet zone of Berlin and then became the GDR film monopoly.

NAPOLA (2004) German movie about a young poor man who goes (against his father's wishes) to a National Political Academy (NAPOLA), which were military schools run by the Nazis. The movie is kind of like "Dead Poet's Society" but at a Nazi military academy.

Shoah (1985) An impressive 8-hr documentary which interviews people who were in Poland and witnessed aspects of the Holocaust. It includes both people who survived the camps and people who saw the trains or saw the camps from the outside. This is a must see for anyone interested in the history of this period.

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days This is a film about one of the few resistance groups in Germany during the war. They were a group of Munich students who distributed fliers protesting the war. After Stalingrad, they produced a flier telling people about the huge casualties and arguing for armistace. They were caught and executed. The film focuses mainly on the trials and the resolve of the students to die for their beliefs. This movie illustrates one reason that there was not much resistance -- an effective police state combined with swift execution for those who dared to question the war.

Stalingrad (1993) This German movie covers the bloodiest battle in human history where 1.25 million soldiers were killed and another 1/2 million civilians perished. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Zelery (2003) A romantic epic set in 1945 in Czechoslovakia. A beautiful Czech film that is mostly about village life, but it also illustrates the mass rape and pillaging that Russian soldiers committed as they swept across Central Europe.