While filming The Flags of Our Fathers, out this Friday, on location in Iceland, director Clint Eastwood simultaneously shot a second picture, Letters from Iwo Jima, purporting to give a Japanese perspective on the same battle for the barren Pacific island. Though bound to rankle a handful of aging Jap-haters averse to other points of view, Letters from Iwo Jima will be fairly unusual among WWII movies as a collaboration between the winners and the losers, broadly speaking, 60 years after the fighting. Here is a short list of lesser-known movies offering other non-American perspectives on the war Hollywood would have you think we won single-handedly.
Come and See (Idi i smotri), 1985
Even with the American death toll in Iraq ticking incrementally into the low thousands, it’s sobering to recall that historians can’t agree to the nearest five million how many Soviet citizens lost their lives in the Great Patriotic War. Come and See, taking its title from a line in the book of Revelations, explores the liquidation of a single Byelorussian village by SS troops, and it packs more ghastliness than 10 Saving Private Ryans; Spielberg, incidentally, is said to have studied this film closely before making his own movie. Director Elem Klimov tried to shield the young actor portraying partisan fighter Florya from certain realities, but the terror is clearly etched in his face, which actually ages and falls apart as the movie progresses. For all the surreal horror explored by Ivan Tarkovsky and other Soviet directors, Come and See remains the definitive Soviet war movie.
Winter War (Talvisota), 1989
Finns are justly proud of the drubbing their tiny armed forces dealt an invading Red Army in 1939-40, staving off defeat for three and a half months before finally capitulating under terms which, though not that great, were still far more favorable than the complete occupation Stalin imposed upon Finland’s Baltic neighbors. Director Pekka Parikka’s Winter War, Finland’s most expensive movie production, faces up to the cowardice and bungling of the Finnish troops as well as the heroism and self-sacrifice, painting a grubby but mostly balanced picture of a cherished bit of national mythology.
Also known as “The German Platoon,” director Joseph Vilsmaier’s movie follows a group of German shock troops from sun-soaked furlough in southern Italy to baptism by fire in the rubble of the title city on the Volga, where more than a million men on both sides would eventually lose their lives to starvation, exposure, disease and pitiless street fighting. Relentlessly grim, but there’s kind of a love story, too.
The Bridge (Die Brucke), 1959
In 1945, with his armies in tatters and his enemies encroaching on all sides, Hitler prepared for the final assault on the Reich by pressing anti-tank weapons and lumps of concrete with crude detonators into the hands of old men and adolescent boys. Many fled. Others, still in short pants, were sent home to their mothers by sympathetic commanders and even by the invading soldiers themselves. But thousands more were killed upholding the Hitler Youth ideal or simply defending their homes; The Bridge, directed by Bernhard Wicki, is the story of high-school chums who die during the last weeks of the war trying to defend the bridge to their village. Unbeknownst to them, it’s slated to be sacrificed anyway. Real feel-good stuff, and a fun companion piece to Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2004 film), a grimly factual German account of Hitler’s last days ranting and raving about you-know-who before committing suicide in April, 1945, featuring a terrific performance by Bruno Ganz.
Doctor Akagi (Kanzo sensei), 1998
In which the titular “Doctor Liver,” smartly attired in a white Colonel Sanders-style suit, goes quietly about the business of finding a cure for hepatitis in a disease-ravaged prison camp while dreams of a Japanese empire crumble all around him. Ends with the most surreal mushroom-cloud scene ever, and it’s not just every war movie that also has a scene between a whale and a prostitute. Quite an unusual offering from director Shohei Imamura. Far more typical of Japanese war movies is the bleakly pessimistic Fires on the Plain, in which a starving mob of Japanese soldiers awaits inevitable destruction in the Philippines. To heighten the realism of Fires, director Kon Ichikawa kept his actors on a near-starvation diet for the duration of the shoot and forbade them to brush their teeth or clip their nails.
The Night Porter (Il portiere di notte), 1974
In stark contrast to the nihilism and collective guilt with which German and Japanese directors have treated their WWII movies, Italy is distinct among the former Axis combatants for transmuting its war experience almost into a creepy eroticism. And Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter is as creepy as they come: Twelve years after her release from a Nazi death-camp, Lucia (Charlotte Rampling) falls into the old S&M routine with her former guard (Dirk Bogarde), whom she runs into working as the night porter in a shabby Austrian hostel. In interviews, Rampling has noted that the scene in which she sings and dances topless in the porter’s old Nazi outfit was the first thing filmed. Daring for its time? Arguably. Still disturbing today? Positively.