21 January 2014

The challenges of making a historically accurate film about WWII

What does it take to make an entertaining, vibrant, thrilling, moving, suspenseful film about one or more aspects of the Second World War and not betray History?

Does it take unusual talent, a sense of vision unparalleled in the annals of filmmaking, a massive budget that would bankrupt Hollywood because, you know, truth HURTS?

Let’s take a quick run-through and see what we can dig up.

Rome, Open City
Source: BFI
There are literally hundreds of films, in black and white, sepia, and all sorts of color starting with Technicolor, which have riveted us since even before the ink dried on the Nazi surrender to Allied forces in May 1945.(Rome, Open City, by Roberto Rossellini, is one of those rare gems of a film, shot during and after the Liberation of the Eternal City…)

In fact, one could actually teach an entire course on the Second World War just by using film—it’s been done many time actually—without sacrificing the truth. Perhaps, the following list can serve as a core curriculum:

Mr. Klein (1976), by Joseph Losey, starring Alain Delon. One of the few French films that actually addresses the ethical and moral problematic of being an art dealer in wartime Paris and dealing with Jewish identity or not. Riveting? Yes. Well written? Yes. Acting? Splendid, especially from Alain Delon, who delivered one of his best career performances. Stark? Yes. All in all, it made the point powerfully and left us with some acrid back taste in our mouths.

The Black Book (2006), by Paul Verhoeven, starring Carice van Houten. A troubling
Black Book
Source: allaboutwarmovies
Dutch film about the Resistance, sex, and the boundary lines between love and hate, or what’s it like to fall in love with the chief SD officer in town, while running errands for the Dutch Resistance? Again, moral ambiguity, the savagery and cruelty of war and occupation where most tenets of “civilized behavior” go out the window and the people whom you thought were your friends turn out to be the worst kind of traitors and opportunists.

Closely Watched Trains
Source: Wikipedia
Closely watched trains (1966), by Jiri Menzel, starring Vaclav Neckar. A stark, expressionist film that focuses on the unsaid, the non-verbal about the trains, those trains, carrying victims to their deaths, while the stationmaster is desperately seeking love.

Forbidden Games (1952), by René Clément, starring Brigitte Fossey. Two children orphaned by an aerial strafing attack on a column of refugees and how the sudden loss of mother and father on a backdrop of war changes their lives forever.

Forbidden Games
Source: Wikipedia
The Train (1964), by John Frankenheimer, starring Burt Lancaster. The ultimate campy film about the August 1, 1944, train bound from Paris for the ERR depot of Nikolsburg which was intercepted by units of the French Resistance outside of Paris near Aulnay sous Bois. Although the film deviates from many aspects of the actual story, it uses the opportunity to celebrate the heroism of railroad workers against the German occupiers and French collaborators. Yes, we see crates stamped with the names of great artists inside box cars. Yes, Rose Valland makes an appearance and she is not spitting in a glass of champagne as you will see her do in the upcoming “Monuments Men” movie. It was a fun ride, an exciting film where one could suspend disbelief and still trust that History had been treated fairly well. Unlike Inglorious Bastards (2009), by Quentin Tarantino, which made no bones or scalps about shirking truth just to have a good time. Ironically, the SS officer played by Michael Fassbender who hunts down Jews was the most compelling and realistic character in this unethical romp through German-occupied France and for that reason, it barely survives the smell test.

The Longest Day, by Andrew Marton and Ken Annakin, starring John Wayne and Richard Burton, one of the best films about the Second World War. You walk out of that film understanding why Germany was on its last legs as a result of the invasion of France on June 6, 1944, better known as D-Day.

Historically accurate? Yes. Why? The filmmakers actually recruited as consultants veterans of D-Day who fought on all sides, including former German senior officers. They did not shy away from grandiosity but this epic film stands out a magisterial blend of humor, sarcasm, downright cruelty and surrealism that only war can deliver to you, cynicism, and strategic errors that cost the lives of countless men—the Saint-Lo incident, for one. One can bet anything that the total budget for the Longest Day did not exceed in real dollars the costs incurred to make the “Monuments Men”. It remains a classic, unlike this upcoming tragicomedy predicated on a historical falsehood, namely that the Nazis were about to blow up the world’s “cultural treasures.”

Say no more.

The jury is unfairly in.

Next time someone makes a movie about the Second World War, realize that it takes talent, good writing, and creativity to tell a tale anchored in TRUTH. And it also takes a tremendous amount of humility and an ego kept in check.

Let the public decide. As we all know, it can be truly fickle and still root for falsehood as long as eye candy is available on a large screen with surround sound and glitzy special effects.