Fortress of War aka Brestskaya krepost (2010) or The Best War Movie in 20 Years?

People who have seen this movie have called it “The best war movie ever” or “The best European war movie in 20 years” or simply “Superior”, “A masterpiece, “Brilliant”. Needless to say that I couldn’t wait to watch Fortress of War aka Brestskaya krepost. What did I think? It is an absolutely stunning movie. Beautifully filmed and acted. A really great achievement on more than one level. It’s complex, dense and intense and calls for a second watching as you can hardly absorb it all in a first viewing. Is it the best? It sure is one of them.

The story of Fortress of War reminded me of the Nanjing massacre in which Japanese forces butchered Chinese civilians. In this case German soldiers butcher Russian soldiers and civilians. The Brest Fortress, located near the city of Brest, housed soldiers and their families. The narrator of the movie is a little boy. We hear his voice in the off at first, it’s the voice of an old man who remembers the most horrible days of his life. Life at the Fortress is deceivingly peaceful. It’s 1941 and there are rumours of war but nobody believes them. The superior officers even go as far as punishing those who spread these rumours.

How lucky for the Germans. Their surprise attack is succesful and shatters in a few minutes all the false hopes and pre-conceived ideas of war. After the initial 10-15 minutes of quiet storytelling, the next two hours are combat intense like I haven’t seen it often. The effects and battles are extremely convincing and well-done. There are only very few CGI moments (aviation-related) that aren’t 100% convincing, all the other effects are very authentic looking. The fights and battles are fought on three sides and the story moves between these groups of soldiers and their commanders. The little  boy of the beginning moves between the parties and links the stories. He carries water and messages from one group to the other. While they are fighting off the Germans and try to break out of the fortress, the Germans also attack them by air and drop bombs. The devastation and casualties are huge.

The fights last a few days in which water is scarce and the morale gets lower and lower. A Russian bomber pilot manages to land in the fortress and brings the most demoralizing news. The Germans have not only taken Brest but are marching towards Minsk. There will be no reinforcements who will help them defend the fortress. As the families were also in the fortress there are a number of side stories told. As it becomes more and more obvious that they will not escape this trap, soldiers and officers start to kill themselves and their loved ones. A few send them out of the fortress hoping that they will survive as prisoners of the Germans. They will all have different fates as the movie tells us. Some will be shot, a few survive.

The directors have been accused of propaganda. It is true that the Germans are shown as treacherous and evil. I didn’t mind this. This movie tries to give an insider’s perspective, the view of someone who was there that day. Do you honestly think that anyone present there seeing the mass of dead bodies, humans and horses, the constant shelling and bombing, rape and violence would have for one second thought about the fact that not all Germans are evil? Those who call this movie propaganda should think about the fact, that they are watching it now, 70 years after the massacre took place, sitting either in a comfortable cinema chair or on the couch or sofa at home.

How do you like your war movies? Combat intense? – You will love this one. Not too much CGI? – You will adore this movie. Convincing effects? – You will be very pleased. Historically accurate? – You will be satisfied. With beautiful pictures? You will be thrilled. Complex characters? – Yeah well, that’s  a little flaw but it stems from the fact that there are so many independent groups fighting in parallel.  The characters  are still interesting and endearing. Watch this beautiful and intense movie as soon as you can!

Fortress of War does belong on the Children in War Movies: A List.

The whole movie can be watched on YouTube. This is just a little teaser.

Europa Europa aka Hitlerjunge Salomon (1990) The Story of a Jewish Boy Hiding Among Nazis

Agnieszka Holland’s movie Europa, Europa is based on the true story of Salomon Perel. It is frequently mentioned as one of the top 100 war movies. It’s a harrowing and quite unbelievable story, still I have to confess that I did not like it.

The Perels are a Jewish family living in Germany at the beginning of the war. When anti-Jewish acts become more and more frequent, they are attacked and the daughter is killed. Salomon’s parents send the young boy and his brother to Poland where he should try to survive at any cost. He looses his brother early in the movie and ends in a Russian communist orphanage. Here he is given a passport and has to undergo some serious communist re-education. When the Germans invade Russia, the orphanage is attacked. They all flee and Salomon gets captured on the way by a Nazi patrol. All the Jews are shot immediately and it is only thanks to an extreme presence of mind that Salomon manages to make them belive that he is a true German and that he can be extremely useful as interpreter since he speaks Russian fluently. The soldiers take him along and he fights with them, helps them as a translator. He has to be super careful that no one sees him naked and this will stay a constant topic throughout the movie. The fact that he is circumcised would give his identity away.

A German officer hears of the young boy and that he is an orphan. He likes the bright boy and thinks of adopting him but first he sends him to one of the Nazi elite schools where he will be educated and trained. Here again, he has to be careful in order to not be found out. There are a few incredible scenes in the school. In one scene a teacher shows that one can see unmistakably, that, despite his dark hair, Salomon is of pure Aryan breed. The pupils are taught to hate the Jews and how to detect them. The absurdity of such scenes is incredible and Nazi madness made apparent.

Salomon is barely 16 years old and falls in love for the first time. Although the girl is willing “to do it”, he has to say no. The danger of being detected is too big.

It is incredible to think that he got away with it for so long. He blended in so perfectly, was such a good actor and so cold-blooded that they never even suspected him to be Jewish.

After the war Salomon finds out that his whole family died in a ghetto in Poland. He leaves Europe and settles in Palestine. At the end of the movie we catch a glimpse of the real Salomon Perel.

It took me a while to figure out why I didn’t like this movie. I didn’t like it because I didn’t like Salomon. I suspect that I found his behaviour cowardly. He isn’t much better than a collaborator. It disgusted me to see him act and talk like a Nazi. Sure, he was only a boy, he wanted to survive, he lost his family… I think sometimes it’s better to die than to sell out. Bit harsh, I know, but surviving is not everything.

I’d be really interested to know what others think of this movie.

Europa, Europa is part of the Children in War Movies List

Under the Bombs aka Sous les Bombes (2007) A French/Lebanese Movie on the War in Lebanon


How many times was there a war between Israel and Lebanon? Let me tell you, many, many times. Some were longer, some were shorter. The war in 2006 lasted 33 days and cost, as always, the lives of many civilians.  The Lebanese/French movie Under the Bombs has a close look at what a war like this does to civilians.

Under the Bombs tells the story of a young mother who was in Dubai while her son stayed in the South of Lebanon when the war broke out. At the beginning of the movie she arrives in Lebanon and tries to find a taxi that will drive her to the South. None of the taxi drivers is willing to take her there. It is much to risky. The Hezbollah is still bombing Israel and Israel fights back. Or the other way around. At this point in time it isn’t exactly clear who is doing the fighting. The movie doesn’t really tell us why this war broke out or who is the culprit, it really is only interested in the innocent victims.

One taxi driver who fancies the good-looking woman finally decides to take her South. His own family lives there and he thinks he may have a look and find out about them.

The moment they leave Beirut the devastation can be seen. The movie was filmed right after the war and feels like a documentary. Those houses have so obviously been bombed, the cities and villages look desolate.

The trip South is a nightmare. Many bridges have been damaged and they have  a hard time to find the way. Whenever they arrive at  a destination they encounter people in distress but neither her son nor her sister can be found. The people tell them what they have been through and mostly have news of her son and indicate where he could be found.

During their trip, the taxi driver and the mother start to talk. They are an unlikely couple, and would never have met under normal circumstances. He is a simple man who dreams of leaving Lebanon and living in Germany while she is the wife of  a famous architect and has seen the whole world.

After a day or two they both start to reveal their fears and talk about the things that went wrong in their lives.

When they arrive in the South where the family used to live the only thing they find is a heap of rubble and confusing stories. It seems that her sister has died under the bombs but her son has been taken away by French journalists. Once more they chase after him.

This is a tragic, sad and very touching movie. The friendship between the mother and the taxi driver is quite moving. Both actors, Nada Abou Farhat and Georges Khabbaz are excellent. There are no easy answers in the movie, no taking sides, just the illustration of what misery the bombing of villages and cities brings to the inhabitants.

I can really recommend this.

I also included it in on my Children in War Movies List.

Spike Lee’s Miracle at St.Anna (2008) The Story of the Buffalo Soldiers and the Massacre at St. Anna

I would say that Miracle at St.Anna is one of the best American war movies and the best American WWII movie of the last ten years. I was surprised to see how good it is, as critics and public have been equally harsh. I assume they are biased because of its director. The end is corny but overall it is absolutely excellent and tells a lesser known story in a very engaging way.

The movie starts somewhat surprisingly in 1982 New York. A modest post-office worker kills a man who buys stamps from him. He shoots him with a German Luger. The incident attracts a lot of attention, even more so when they discover the head of an Italian Renaissance statue in his apartment.

Next we are in Italy, in 1944. The 92nd company, the so-called Buffalo soldiers, a company consisting almost only of African-American soldiers gets under heavy German fire. A small group is separated from the rest and makes their way to a little mountain village that is surrounded by Germans.

One of the soldiers, a huge man, saves a little boy who seems to be ill and slightly crazy. He takes the disturbed little kid with him, all together they find refuge in the house of some Italians, one of them a Fascist. The Germans aren’t really looking for the Buffalo soldiers, they are hunting Italian partisans. And the partisans are hunting them. The Italians know, and so it seems does the little boy, that there is a traitor among them.

While they stay at the village, some of the soldiers realize that the Italians treat them much better than the white people back home. And they also treat them better than some of the white American civilians living in Italy. There is a particularly infuriating scene with an American bar owner who doesn’t want to serve black people. They fight for their country but their country doesn’t appreciate them.

The core scene of the movie is the massacre at St. Anna, a true story, in which hundreds of Italian civilians got killed by the Nazis because the Partisans have killed some of the Germans. The Germans have been told by their command that they have to shoot 10 Italians for one dead German.

Miracle at St. Anna is very rich. It combines a multitude of elements and many stories that circle around different relationships but still feels like a whole. It’s sad, it’s moving and it is very suspenseful as it also works like a thriller. We really want to know why the guy killed the other one. There aren’t many good WWII movies showing the African-American participation and there aren’t many good ones on Italy during WWII. This covers both. And there is also some fighting, for those who want this from their war movies.

Miracle at St. Anna is also part of the Children in War Movies List and African-American Soldiers in war movies.

For those of you who like to watch TV series, the actor who played Shane in The Shield and the guy called “Omar” in The Wire are in this movie.

This is a highly watchable and very original movie that can be named together with other great WWII movies like Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line. 5/5

Roma, Città Aperta aka Rome, Open City (1945) Roberto Rossellini’s Neorealist Masterpiece

Rome, Open City, which is part of Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy, was first meant to be a documentary. It eventually  became a movie which incorporated a lot of original footage, in part due to the shortage of film. The black and white movie Rome, Open City is one of the most important movies of the Italian Neorealist movement. Apart from a famous cast, including Aldo Fabrizi and the great and talented Anna Magnani in one of her best roles, Rossellini hired many people from the streets to enhance the authentic feel.

It’s a fantastic movie and one of the most important movies of European film making. Furthermore it’s another one on my list Children in War Movies as children play an important role.

Roma, città aperta takes place towards the end off WWII. At the core of the story are the Priest Don Pietro Pellegrini, the widow Pina who is about to get married to Franceso, her little son Marcello and Giorgio Manfredi, the head of the resistance. Because Giorgio almost gets caught he hides and the priest and his friend Francesco try to help him and organize his escape. Francesco has a girlfriend, Marina, but he keeps her at arm’s length knowing very well that he is about to leave. Marina, a vain and weak woman, gives away his hiding place to the Gestapo. On the one hand she wants to take revenge, on the other she is venal. Since the war began she regularly sells her body to all sorts of people, also Germans. When bribed by a sleek German commander and his lesbian assistant she gives in. In exchange she gets drugs.

When the Gestapo arrests Giorgio, Pina runs after him into the street and is shot by the Germans. This is an extremely famous scene, one that stays with you for a long time. What follows Giorgio’s and his friends’ arrest is similar to all the other Resistance movies I have seen. The men are tortured. The priest isn’t tortured but also questioned and when he doesn’t say anything, he is executed. The children of the street, among them Pina’s little son, witness the execution of the beloved gentle priest with horror.

Rome, Open City is gritty and realistic. It shows many details of the life in Rome during WWII. How the people lived in close quarters, how they struggled to provide themselves with food. It also shows how many people were active in the Resistance. All the main characters are part of it, also the priest which is an important detail that wants to show how unified the Italians were in their fight against the Germans.

Rome, Open City is a classic. It has many memorable scenes and dialogues. It also analyses the deeper meaning of war and guilt. The priest states more than once that maybe the war happened for a reason. With a central character being a Catholic priest it’s obvious that the movie is saturated by Catholicism. The church  takes an active part in fighting evil.

This movie is a must for cinephiles and people interested in war movies alike. If you need the subtitles it will be a bit difficult to follow this movie. Although I speak Italian I had to watch with subtitles as they can’t be turned off and noticed that far over 50% of the dialogue, which is very fas,t is missing.

Voces Inocentes aka Innocent Voices (2004) Children as Soldiers in the Civil War in El Salvador

Based on a true story, Luis Mandoki’s Voces Inocentes aka Innocent Voices is going directly on my list of all time favourites, regardless of the genre. This Mexico/US/Puerto Rico co-production is an astonishingly beautiful movie despite the atrocities it depicts. It is simply awesome and as good as Army of Crime about which I raved last year. It is one of the movies on my Children in War Movies List and a s such worth watching in any case.

What makes this movie so incredible is the fact that it works on many levels. It is as much the story of a childhood and a little boy, as an in-depth look at a way of life we are less than familiar with and a civil war we have almost forgotten about. Last but not least it shows the portrait of a mother (Leonor Varela) whose spirited fight and love for her children makes her one of the most memorable and dignified characters I have seen in any movie.

The war, that started in 1980 and lasted 12 years, was initially a conflict between the army and the campesinos, the land owners, over land rights. When they didn’t come to an arrangement the campesinos formed a guerilla, the FMLN, to defend their rights. The war escalated into a bloody civil war. On top of that the US felt the urge to provide the Army with weapons and heir assisstance, fearing that the guerrilleros would be supported by the USSR. The war cost 75’000 lives and over 1 Mio people fled the country. Lacking men, the Army recruited young boys who were barely 12 years old. Oscar Torres, who wrote the script, is the model for Chava, the little boy, whose story we see.

The movie starts with soldiers escorting little boys holding their hands over their heads, to an execution place. They walk in the pouring rain and we hear Chava’s voice in the off. It’s a beautifully filmed scene that immediately sets the tone for the whole movie. We will see many scenes that take place in the pouring rain and are of great beauty despite the fact that they show horrors.

Chava (Carlos Padilla) lives alone with his mother and his little brother and sister. The father has fled the country and gone to the US. Chava’s young and beautiful mother, Kella, is truly a memorable character. Tender and fierce at the same time, she defends her children and fights for their survival. These are the poorest of the poor, their houses are only shacks with cardboard roofs. Kella tries to make a living as a seamstress. Imagine living in a shack when at night there is fighting in the roads. Bullets easily enter the walls of the houses and come flying past your head, there is hardly any cover apart from mattresses that are build up against those thinnest of walls. It is hard to imagine that people not only lived in such poverty but had to endure a war like this that threatened their lives on a daily basis. Many got killed like this, in their own house.

Young Chava is a cheerful and funny little boy. Despite the war, he plays with his friends, falls in love with a little girl, fights with his mother, finds a means to earn money. Even though they have nothing, live precariously, his childhood seems almost enchanted. The tiniest things amuse him, he lives with great intensity, knows no boredom.

The main theme of the movie is the threat that the soldiers will come and get Chava and his friends. We see many scenes in which little boys are recruited by force. The procedures are quite upsetting. Some of the boys around Chava finally decide to join the guerilla in order to avoid the military. And that is what little Chava does in the end as well. The final scene of the movie brings us back to the beginning. Chava and his friends have joined the guerilla and were caught by the Army. Unless they get help, they will most probably be executed.

The actors are amazing, especially the children. They are really awesome. The movie is full of beautiful scenes that allow us to have a look at these precarious lives in poverty. They convey a melancholic beauty that is quite special. There are a few songs that are important in the movie. They had been forbidden by the army but were listened to anyway.

The movie manages to mix a lot of different tones. At times it is sad and melancholic, at times it is thoughtful almost meditative, then again it’s funny or just downright tragic. Innocent voices is a gem, a must-see.

One final word: the people from El Salvador were apparently not entirely happy about this movie because none of the actors is from El Salvador and it has been filmed in Mexico.

Silent Night (2002) Christmas in War Movies I

This review is part of a sequence of reviews of war movies that have Christmas as their main theme. There are many war movies in which a part takes place during Christmas or in which it is evoked but that are not the ones I’d like to focus on. I want to focus on those that really center on it.

The first one I’m reviewing is, as you can see, Silent Night, A  Midnight Clear, Joyeux Noël and maybe one or two older ones will follow.

The TV drama Silent Night is based on true facts. It is set on Christmas Eve 1944, just after the Battle of the Bulge. A mother and her young son are seeking refuge in the family’s hunting lodge in the middle of the Ardennes Forest. They walk through the war-torn woods, approach the front line and pass dead bodies, troops of soldiers and tanks.

They have just arrived at the lodge when two American soldiers arrive, carrying one of their wounded. The woman lets them stay reluctantly but makes them leave their weapons in front of the house. Elisabeth Vincken (Linda Hamilton) is not what you would call a patriot. She has lost her eldest son at Stalingrad, her husband is probably dead as well and the youngest, Fritz, would like to join the Hitler Youth which she wants to prevent at all costs.

While they are looking after the badly wounded soldier, a group of three German soldiers arrives at the hut and the encounter almost ends in mutual shooting. Elisabeth is a very strong woman, very determined and persuasive. After some initial discussions and negotiations they agree to leave their weapons behind, enter the house and spend the night there in peace.

I don’t think that anyone present during this Christmas dinner was likely to ever forget it. It would certainly be the most memorable Christmas of their lives. They sit around the table, share their food and stories, talk about the way in which this and the former war affected them. Still,  tensions do not subside completely. The German lieutenant has a particularly hard time to stay peaceful. He is bitter and aggressive, however, after a moment of escalation, he starts to see how absurd this all is and gives in as well. There is a final test that will show if these men have truly become friends in one evening. And if so, will they stay friends later on?

One  thing, as often, that truly bothered me were the bad accents. Americans speaking German with heavy American accents and then fake English accents. But cheer up, I have been assured that it doesn’t bother you if you don’t speak German.

The movie has a few very sentimental moments but it is overall not bad at all, no it is quite a pleasant movie that achieves to capture the spirit of Christmas. Recommended Sunday afternoon viewing with loads of snow, drama and some genuinely heartfelt moments.

I also included Silent Night in my update Children in War Movies List.