Nearly a century after the Second World War took millions of lives and forever altered the geopolitical landscape of the planet, Cinema still tries to capture the emotion and devastation of the era so that none are forgotten. Using the script and camera, writers and directors have reenacted battles and brought famous leaders into the spotlight for contemporary audiences.
They have recreated the hardships of daily life, the brutalities of the concentration camps, and the tragically short lives of so many soldiers who were killed in action and never returned. Some of the greatest films to ever grace the silver screen have been produced over the course of eight decades as a tribute to the World War II victors and victims.
10. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
The king of film mayhem Inglourious Basterds, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, is an alternate history story about two schemes to assassinate Nazi Germany’s leadership, one planned by a group of Jewish US soldiers and the other by a French Jewish theater owner. Tarantino worked on the script for over a decade and considered it his masterpiece-in-the-making and his best work to date. He described the men in the film as “not your typical hero types that are thrown into a big situation in WWII.”
The legendary director needed a native German-speaking actor to play Hans Landa, so he recruited Austrian Christoph Waltz, who “gave me my movie.” Tarantino was concerned that the job would be impossible to play, but Waltz gave an Oscar-winning phenomenal performance as the cruel SS officer. With a supporting cast that includes Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, and Michael Fassbender, it’s no surprise that the picture was a box office success.
09. Life is Beautiful (La Vita è Bella) (1997)
This Italian Holocaust drama centers on two prisoners in a German concentration camp, Guido Orefice (Roberto Benigni) and his son Giosuè (Giorgio Cantarini). Guido devotes himself to persuading his son that their lives as prisoners are one big game with a tank as the ultimate prize after the war stole their life as booksellers.
Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, Guido’s antics help his son get through their internment and even end up with a tank that is on its way to liberate the camp. With a son who will always be appreciative of his father’s sacrifices, Life is Beautiful offers a frail optimism that endures in the heart of a prisoner who is never broken by their circumstances.
08. Casablanca (1942)
Casablanca, the only film on this list made during the war, provides a distinct and poignant perspective. With a multicultural ensemble, many of whom were refugees from Europe’s conflict, players were able to apply their real-life challenges and experiences to the script, resulting in one of the best films of all time.
Set in the same city in Northern Africa, Casablanca follows Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) as he acquires letters of transit, which provide vital safe passage for refugees fleeing the conflict. When his estranged lover Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), enter his pub seeking refuge, Blaine sees the two to freedom and the end of their brief love affair.
07. Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s 2016 biographical war movie, is based on the World War II experiences of pacifist combat medic Desmond Doss, who, as a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, refused to use or carry any weapon or rifle. The film was based on the 2004 documentary The Conscientious Objector, and after originally declining the assignment twice, Gibson consented and was challenged with producing a blend of violence and faith. Andrew Garfield plays Doss convincingly, and the biopic also contains the talents of Sam Worthington, Teresa Palmer, and Vince Vaughn. Garfield claimed that he was moved to tears while reading the screenplay for the first time. to prepare, he spent a year studying to be a Jesuit priest, shed 40 pounds, and went on a silent retreat in Wales (all of which may have helped him for his role as a Christian missionary in Silence). When the Oscar-nominated drama was released, it received widespread appreciation for both Gibson’s directing and Garfield’s affecting performance.
06. Downfall (Der Untergang) (2004)
Downfall, a German-Austrian-Italian collaboration, shows the closing weeks of WWII in Germany from the perspective of Adolf Hitler. Oliver Hirschbiegel, the film’s director, and the production team worked hard to be as realistic and historically accurate as possible in order to ensure that this piece of history would not be forgotten.
Downfall is not a one-note caricature of Hitler, but is based on primary and secondary materials from those who were with him during his final days, such as Inside Hitler’s Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich by historian Joachim Fest and Until the Final Hour by Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge. Hitler transforms from a seemingly unchangeable historical entity to a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood individual. This choice is currently being debated. Critically, Downfall is a moving retrospective that bridges the gap between the “monster” that everyone can become.
05. The Pianist (2002)
The Pianist, a 2002 biographical war film directed by Roman Polanski, is based on the Holocaust memoir of Polish-Jewish pianist and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman, which depicts his battles to survive the devastation of the Warsaw ghetto during WWII. The film has a special meaning for Polanski because he escaped from the Kraków Ghetto after his mother died and ended up living in a Polish farmer’s barn until the war ended. Adrien Brody plays Szpilman poignantly, preparing for the Oscar-winning role by breaking up with his fiancée, selling his apartment and car, and isolating himself from the world by moving to Europe. The actor used the method approach to properly understand the man who lost everything, losing 30 pounds to heartbreakingly represent the musician who spent two years hiding in Warsaw’s ghetto.
04. Dunkirk (2017)
Christoper Nolan’s innovative mind wrote, produced, and directed the 2017 war film Dunkirk, which depicts the Dunkirk evacuation of World War II from the perspectives of land, sea, and air. The great ensemble cast includes some of cinema’s most talented actors, including Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, and Tom Hardy, and the drama was conveyed with relatively little language, as Nolan sought to generate tension through the gorgeous cinematography and music.
The filmmaker came up with the idea for the war picture in the mid-1990s while sailing across the English Channel with his wife, following the course of many small boats in the Dunkirk evacuation. Dunkirk was a box office breakthrough for Nolan, grossing over $500 million and earning three Academy Awards. It received acclaim for its narrative, direction, and musical score, and many consider Dunkirk to be one of the finest war pictures of all time.
03. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Steven Spielberg’s award-winning war picture is still considered one of the best representations of life on the battlefield. Captain Miller, played by Tom Hanks, leads a company of soldiers from the Omaha landings entrusted with locating the Ryan family’s lone surviving son. Saving Private Ryan is a bleak and unabashed tragedy that relentlessly kills off its characters.
Without glorifying spectacular fights or vilifying enemy soldiers as soulless drones, the film pushes viewers to confront the virtues and failings of a generation of young men sent to war, many of whom never returned.
02. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
The sad war picture from Studio Ghibli follows siblings Seita and Setsuko in the closing months of the war in Japan, as they struggle and finally fail to survive famine and frequent American air attacks. The film takes its title from the tragic and unintentional deaths of a jar of fireflies that the siblings had gathered and placed in their shelter while starving alongside the people of Japan.
Grave of the Fireflies lacks the customary silver lining of Western animation. It is one of the best depictions of the era because of its visceral realism and the cost of war that extends beyond those drafted and enlisted in the armies that fight them.
01. Schindler’s List (1993)
An adaption of a true story Oskar Schindler’s List, Spielberg’s other Best Picture winner from WWII, depicts the narrative of Oskar Schindler’s endeavor to safeguard and care for over a thousand persecuted Jews. Initially, a member of the Nazi party, Schindler swears to rescue as many lives as possible after witnessing the atrocities of the Jewish ghetto in Kraków.
Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley pay tribute to Schindler’s tragic bravery and others who made it to safety thanks to his assistance. Schindler’s List, another classic hailed as one of the best films of all time, is shot in black and white and scored with a hauntingly gloomy central theme.