American and German World War II Movies:
The Post-War National Memory in Film

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History in movies is always a reflection on events that is shaped by the intention of the responsible people to display what happened in the past. By doing so, history movies can take the form of a drama, a romantic story, a movie with documentary elements or propaganda. The exposition itself matters a lot in conceptualizing historical films since history remains linked to political and social debates. This especially applies to war movies because they either deal with a glorious period or dark and humiliating time in the history of a nation.

However, that does not mean that a certain depiction of a war is static. It is rather subject to specific interests of the scriptwriters and changes just as political ideas emerge and cease within a society.
I decided to write this wiki chapter about various strategies of film making in post-war Germany and USA dealing with World War II. My idea was to draw a comparison between the storytelling of different German and American movies of different decades. Thereby, I wanted to draw the reader’s attention to what kind of perception the film makers possibly aimed to create.This final version also includes some historical background information on why this perception was intended.
This page is an approach to a topic that cannot be entirely covered using one wiki chapter. I would rather consider it as a mean to prompt ideas and start a conversation about that topic.


Contents:

  1. Calling the Past into Question

  2. Pilots, Cold War and Victory Culture

  3. Morality vs. Action

  4. The Intention fails

  5. Giving Credit

  6. Film as a Public Dialogue

  7. Conclusion



Calling the Past into Question


The 1959 West German movie Die Brücke (The Bridge) is considered the first German anti-war film after the end of World War 2. It takes places during the final stages of the war in 1945. A small unit of teenagers has to defend a bridge from the advancing American troops. The movie depicts the absurdity of dying for Hitler in a fight that is already lost. The grave pictures are emphasized by the black-and-white filming:



The film was the first approach in Germany to critically deal with the war and show its horrors in an unadulterated way. Since dealing with the war and Nazism was not present in 1950s German media on a large-scale, the movie can be interpreted as an attempt to make the public think and discuss the issues that were concealed by the majority of the people. Therefore, the film bears an uncanny resemblance to All Quiet on the Western Front.


Pilots, Cold War and Victory Culture

Der Stern von Afrika (Star of Africa), 1957
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This movie tells the story of the famous fighter-ace Hans Joachim Marseille. He gained fame because of his numerous victories against Western-allied pilots in the skies over North Africa and the fact that he died undefeated.
Although some characters use phrases that allegedly condemn the act of killing and dying, the pathos of the film contains a certain fascination for air combat. Furthermore, some sequences of the movie are shot in the manner of combat reports. Some parts make the audience feel that the battles in North Africa were a big adventure by switching from combat scenes to party scenes.

It is that combination that made movie critics think of a propaganda movie when seeing it the first time. Indeed, there is some evidence that the movie was part of the Cold War media machine that supported West German rearmament.


Twelve O’Clock High, 1949
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This American production pursues a similar goal. The plot is about the crews of the United States Eights Airforce's bombers that flew bombing missions against Nazi occupied Europe. In contrast to Der Stern von Afrika however, this film firstly is a celebration of the achievements of American pilots that were a key to success in winning the war instead of an indirect promotion for Cold War heroism. Basically, the “victory culture” of the intermediate post war years is expressed by addressing the women of the veterans:


Twelve O'clock High | Gregory Peck | Jeffrey Dean | Henry King | Movie Trailer | Review


Morality vs. Action

The Dirty Dozen, 1967
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In my point of view, the movie The Dirty Dozen is an example how comical the view on the war had become during the 60s. There is a group of criminals functioning as the main characters. They are turned into a commando unit which task it is to operate behind enemy lines. Their mission is to kill a bunch of high-ranking German officers who meet in a mansion in occupied France. The storytelling is mainly focused on action scenes that were considered very violent at that time. For instance, the movie starts with the protagonist witnessing the execution of a U.S. soldier who is hanged for murder:


Moreover, the storyline seems to be unimpeded by moral concerns since the killing of a large number of civilians that are among the German officers is not even questioned. The action scenes are shot in an unrealistic way such as firing from the hip or killing a group of enemies without reloading. The way the Germans act and the fact that they are easy to kill reminded me of the portrayal of Native Americans in B-Movie Westerns.
I picked this movie because it shows that war movies do not necessarily have to convey a message. They can simply be used to entertain as well.


The Intention fails

For this rubric I picked two German movies that were created to tell personal stories and ask questions but eventually could not fulfill their purpose.

I think it is necessary to inform my American readers that German WWII movies nowadays are watched closely by the press in order to prevent them from glorifying the German war effort or ignoring the brutal character of the Nazi regime. This originated from a political decision that was made at the end of the 60s. In order to demonstrate the world that the new Germany had changed, the crimes of the past were drawn into a public debate and made the subject of historical research. Furthermore, countries and minorities that were former victims of Nazi Germany received apologies and financial reparations. Since then, key figures of culture and politics regarded it as important to assess, if a movie or documentary harms the reputation of post-war Germany by whitewashing the past. My final heading will deal with the most recent debate regarding that matter as well.

Das Boot (The Boat), 1981
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One of the central conflicts of this movie is the disillusionment of a war correspondent sent on a German submarine. He eventually realizes the terrifying aspects of war that the propaganda avoids to mention.
Nevertheless, critics considered the movie’s intention as superficial since it could not compete with the novel it was based on in telling an “anti-heroic-epic”. The impressive combat scenes and the detailed equipment were blamed to distract from the real message of the film maker.



Stalingrad, 1993
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My second choice is the movie Stalingrad. The historical background is the Battle of Stalingrad that resulted in a decisive victory for the Red Army and a crushing Axis defeat. It is considered as one of the turning points of the war. The director’s intention was to portray the war from the perspective of the ordinary soldiers and make the role of the military leadership subject of a discussion. In the end, German film reviews claimed that the film failed due to an overall focus on epic battle scenes and a lack of depth concerning plot and characters.

Example for a battle scene:



Giving Credit

Windtalkers, 2002
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An interesting example of coming to terms with the past is definitely the movie Windtalkers. The task of Cpl. Joe Enders is to protect Ben Yhazee, a speaker of the Native-American language Navajo, which is used as a code that cannot be deciphered by the Japanese. Being dependent on each other, they develop a deep friendship. In the end, Enders even saves Yahzee’s life while he himself gets shot.
I think the movie is an approach of reconciliation between Whites and Native Americans. By stressing the importance of Navajo-speakers for the American war machine, the movie implies that WWII helped to incorporate Native Americans into the national community and honors their effort.


Film as a Public Dialogue

Generation War (Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter), 2013
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Generation War is actually a three part mini-series produced for German TV. It combines the different storylines of a group of five friends who get separated by the war. The opinions about this series were very ambivalent. Some historians praised the fact that the Wehrmacht’s (army) involvement in war crimes is shown, as opposed to movies were just the SS (special police) committed atrocities.
In contrast, other critics explained that they missed a realistic depiction of the average youth of that time. In fact, they said that the films do not explain how Nazism worked and that many people like those in the age of the friend group (early twenties) actively supported Nazism and saw Hitler as the preserver of Germany’s future. They criticized that the friends are depicted as rebels who befriended a Jew. Some of them even turn against the regime at the end of the movie. Although that might have been the case in certain conspiratorial circles, journalists and historians argued that this was certainly not the majority of the people.

One example for the criticism of the protagonists’ reluctant attitude is this scene: Wehrmacht soldiers (two of them part of the friend group) refuse to hand over a Jewish child to an SS officer.


Conclusion:
Thematically there is much more to discover since the number and variety of German and American war movies provides various ways of finding patterns that can tell us intentions of storytelling. After examining the listed films there remains the insight that by learning how to read war movies we can also draw links to current trends of reflecting the past. Regardless of any differences between the ways how Germany and the U.S. deal with their past, it is that insight that both have in common.