Grave of the Fireflies aka Hotaru no haka (1988) An Anime War Movie

Thanks to Novroz who mentioned Grave of the Fireflies pointing out I should review it on this site I finally watched this very beautiful anime last night.

Animes are maybe not everybody’s cup of tea and I am far from being an expert having only seen the other Studio Ghibli treasure Princess Mononoke aka Mononoke-hime still I know when I see a masterpiece. And Grave of the Fireflies is a masterpiece and should have been added on my Children in War Movies List before. This is an artfully drawn anime with a very moving story. It is a must-see for anime fans and people interested in war movies alike.

War does affect people in different ways. Some fight in it and die in it. Some get injured and are sent home. Others return suffering from post-traumatic shock. But many stay at home. All the old people, the children and the women. What about those people on the homefront? What happens to them? How do they cope with constant air raids, lack of food and other supplies? How do children cope? This is what Grave of the Fireflies shows us. You have to watch the first five minutes very carefully or you might not get the full meaning of the movie. It is quite subtle and could be missed.

Seita and Setsuko, a brother and his little sister, are two Japanese children whose lives are profoundly affected by the war. Their mother dies in an air raid while their father, an officer of the Japanese Royal Navy, is at war. The two children find refuge at the house of their aunt. But close quarters and lack of food doesn’t help and they are soon not welcome any more. Left with some money the children leave the house of their realtives and live in a shelter outside of town. The brother who is ten years older cares touchingly for his little sister but he can hardly find anything to eat. He tries to buy something but no one sells anything. He tries to steal and gets beaten up. The little girl gets weaker and weaker and finally falls very ill. When Japan surrenders Seita hears from someone that the Navy has been completely destroyed. His father is very probably dead as well.

The end of this movie is particularly good. It’s very sad and I can understand that people who are less familiar with war movies in general might be very shaken. I don’t think it is advisable to watch it with little children although it is not gruesome but the way death and war are treated is very emotional. The little girl is absolutely amazing. So realistic.

Even though this is a war movie it is also a meditation on life’s fragility and fugacity. A very poetical and emotional movie with wonderful pictures.

10 German War Movies You Must See Before You Die

In the last years Germany has made quite a few very good war movies but there are also some older ones that have stood the test of time. I am sure I have forgotten some and left out many that are co-productions with the exception of Joyeux Noël aka Merry Christmas because it is one of my Top 10. I will very probably mention it again when I will make a post on 10 French war movies you must see before you die.

Let´s stick to Germany for the time being.

Die Brücke aka The Bridge (1959): WWII, Germany. One of the best anti-war films ever. Shows how senseless some orders are. Young people fight for a bridge although the war can´t be won anymore. It is one of the movies on my list Children in War Movies.

Hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben aka Dogs, do you want to live forever – Stalingrad (1959): WWII, Russia. A German classic. A grim look at the battle in Stalingrad.

Das Boot (1981): THE U-Boot movie. Conveys brilliantly what it is like to be helpless under water. Claustrophobic feel. Superb acting. Marvellous cast. Especially noteworthy the singer Herbert Grönemeyer.

Stalingrad (1993): WWII, grim infantry combat. German POV. One of the best war movies  ever, one of my Top 10 as well. The setting, the character portraits, the acting, the combat, the snow, the cold, the despair. A fabulous movie that gives an insight in one of the worst chapters of WWII. Another marvellous cast. Thomas Kretschmann (King Kong, Resident Evil, The Downfall, The Young Victoria) is in it. He is one of those German actors that are known far beyond Germany and Europe. (see my post on Stalingrad)

NaPolA aka Before the Fall (2004): WWII, Germany. Interesting look at the Hitler Youth. How they recruited their elite, how they brainwashed them. Poisonous Pedagogy. See my review for more details. This movie is also on the Children in War Movies list.

Der Untergang aka The Downfall (2004): WWII, Berlin. The final days of Hitler. Astonishing acting from the very great Bruno Ganz. A fascinating portrait. Eerie. Creepy.  An outstanding movie and a must see even for those who don’t watch war movies. (see my post on The Downfall)

Joyeux Noël aka Merry Christmas (2005): WWI, France. Especially noteworthy as it is about WWI. The movie depicts the so-called “Little peace”. It is Christmas and something strange is happening. The war stands still. The enemy soldiers prefer football over fighting and get to know and like each other. Based on a true story. You get a good feel for the differences of the trenches and the characteristics of the parties involved.

Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage aka Sophie Scholl (2005): WWII, Germany. German Resistance. One of the leaders of The White Rose, Sophie Scholl´s final days. I have hardly ever seen a movie like this. After watching it I did solemnly swear to become a better person (I am not too successful yet. It is an ongoing process. A work in progress). No, honestly, this woman or girl´s guts… So much selfless idealism and courage. I was awed.

Anonyma – Eine Frau n Berlin aka Anonyma – The Downfall of Berlin (2008) : WWII, Berlin. One of the movies I reviewed recently. I included it as it tackles a lesser known and very painful subject. The mass rape of German women by the Red Army. See my post of Anonyma.

Der rote Baron aka The Red Baron (2008): WWI, Germany. The romanticized story of Baron von Richthofen the famous German fighter pilot. Beautifully filmed, good-looking cast, very intense air combat. See my post of the Red Baron.

Any movies you would add?

As I think Sophie Scholl is not known enough I added the trailer for you.

La vita è bella aka Life is Beautiful (1997) A Thought-Provoking Italian Holocaust Movie

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La vita è bella is a very unusual movie that you will hardly ever forget should you watch it. It is touching, at times funny, tragic and sentimental. It shows one man’s attempt to protect his child from the horrors of the concentration camp and how he fails in the end. It is one of the movies on my Children in War Movies List.

Roberto Benigni, the Italian main actor, writer  and director of La vita è bella is mainly known as a comedian. People were quite surprised when they heard he had done a movie on the Holocaust. I remember that I had mixed feelings but was really surprised how well this combination works. Other critics however felt offended as they stated it was in poor taste to attempt to combine a comedy with the topic of the Holocaust. But the comedy pretty much stops when the war begins. The movie has really two parts that are strikingly different which was obviously wanted. The beautiful before and the horrible after.

The Jewish man Guido Orefice (Roberto Benigni) is not a good-looking guy. He is not even very intelligent. He is clumsy and silly but also very funny and charming and has an eye for poetical and beautiful things. This is how he wins the heart of the attractive Dora even though she is already engaged to a future fascist leader.

The second part starts a few years after their marriage. They have a little boy named Guisoué. Anti-Jewish laws have been implemented in Italy and Guido tries to hide their meaning from his son by turning them into a game. When they know they will be deported, Dora, even though she is not Jewish, accompanies them to the concentration camp. Once arrived Guido pretends that this is all a game, some sort of summer camp for children and grown-ups alike. He makes his son believe that they have to follow all the orders strictly if they want to win.

I must admit that I did not totally approve of Benigni’s approach, but it is not a movie that is easily forgotten. And it is thought-provoking and will give ample material for discussion of various questions. Are we allowed to tell the Holocaust through comedy? Should a movie about the Holocaust be this sentimental? Wouldn’t it be better to tell it in a more sober manner? La vita è bella is also problematic when it comes to the historical facts. Children were not kept alive in the camps. Still the first part is a touching and funny story of an impossible courtship while the second is the story of a fathers attempt at keeping the horror at bay.

Did you see it? Did it work for you? And if you haven’t, would you want to watch it? Do you mind a Holocaust comedy?


The Ogre aka Der Unhold (1996) or Nazism, Symbolism and the Erlking

Volker Schlöndorff’s The Ogre aka Der Unhold (France/Germany/UK) is based on Michel Tournier’s novel Le Roi des Aulnes aka The Ogre. The Ogre is a highly symbolical, original and complex  movie that attempts nothing less than to explore Nazi symbolism and ideology, German culture and mythology by telling the incredible story of Abel Tiffauges, a man who loves children and animals and who makes himself believe he is more than just human. The movie is filmed in English, French and German.

Plot

Abel Tiffauge’s story has five very distinct parts. Part I. Childhood. The French boy Abel grows up in a Catholic private school for boys. He is the outsider, the odd one, the one others pick on, the one the priests punish whenever someone has done something. Especially a very fat boy exploits Abel whenever possible. But he is also his only friend. When Abel is wronged again he wishes a catastrophe upon everybody. And it happens. From now on he believes he is invincible and powerful. Part II. Grown-up. Abel is still odd and a loner but he is also an auto mechanic with a flourishing business. Abel is also an amateur photographer and likes to take pictures of kids. There is nothing he loves more than kids. This very innocent fondness is mistaken for child molesting. Instead of being sent to prison, the falsely accused is sent to war. Part III. POW. Abel is captured together with his officers and sent to a German camp, somewhere near the Polish (?) border. During the day when everybody works he sneaks off to an abandoned hut and befriends a moose. One day he meets Goering’s forester. Part IV. Goering. If Goering was anything like the Goering portrayed in this part, then he was one of the most revolting beings to have ever walked this Earth. Abel is to help on his hunting lodge and gets a close look at the way the Nazis and their friends spend their leisure time. Drinking, eating, hunting. Very vulgar. Part V. The Erlking. Abel is sent to Kaltenborn Castle an elite training camp for German boys. He is happy like never before and loves to be able to take care of these boys but he also takes an active part in their training. Soon he starts to collect the boys from the neighbourhood and the people who are afraid of him call him the ogre. He doesn’t realize that he is doing wrong. When the Russians approach and people from concentrations camps are liberated, he starts to understand what he has been part of. He tries to help a Jewish boy and almost gets killed.

Meaning

So much for the content of The Ogre. But that is only one part. The movie shows us in stunning pictures what it must have been like to face Nazi ideology. The power of the imagines they created by using potent symbols is amazing. The visualization of this ideology is fantastic. Just take a look at the trailer and you see some of it. The boys standing in the form of a giant Swastika holding burning torches in the night. But then there is also the undercurrent of German culture, of everything that was good about Germany and was perverted by the Nazis. The love of the forest, love of animals, children, poetry.  Goethe’s famous ballad The Erlking is quoted and put into pictures in a very spooky way. Without knowing this poem a great part of the movie’s meaning stays hidden.

Who’s riding so late through th’ endless wild?
The father ‘t is with his infant child;
He thinks the boy ‘s well off in his arm,
He grasps him tightly, he keeps him warm.

My son, say why are you hiding your face ?
Oh father, the Erlking ‘s coming apace,
The Erlking ‘s here with his train and crown!
My son, the fog moves up and down. –

Be good, my child, come, go with me!
I know nice games, will play them with thee,
And flowers thou ‘It find near by where
I live, pretty dress my mother will give.”

Dear father, oh father, and do you not hear
What th’ Erlking whispers so close to my ear?
Be quiet, do be quiet, my son,
Through leaves the wind is rustling anon.

Do come, my darling, oh come with me!
Good care my daughters will take of thee,
My daughters will dance about thee in a ring,
Will rock thee to sleep and will prettily sing.”

Dear father, oh father, and do you not see
The Erlking’s daughters so near to me?
My son, my son, no one ‘s in our way,
The willows are looking unusually gray.

I love thee, thy beauty I covet and choose,
Be willing, my darling, or force I shall use!
“Dear father, oh father, he seizes my arm!
The Erlking, father, has done me harm.

The father shudders, he darts through the wild;
With agony fill him the groans of his child.
He reached his farm with fear and dread;
The infant son in his arms was dead.

The Cast

John Malkovich as Abel Tiffauges is astonishing. I think it is one of his best roles. He is such a weird-looking actor and that is perfect for this role. I particularly like the three German actors Heino Ferch, Armin Müller-Stahl and Gottfried John. But everybody else, especially those many little boys and girls, are very convincing.

The Director

Volker Schlöndorff can look back on a career with many an important movie. He is not just any director but one of the very great. He has done the war movies The Tin Drum and The Ninth Day and the movies Swann in Love, The Handmaid’s Tale and Ulzhan.

The Score

Michael Nyman is one of my favourite composers. He is foremost famous for the scores he wrote for Peter Greenaway and Jane Campion. This one here is OK but not as outstanding as his other work like Draughtman’s contract, Gattaca and The Piano to name but a few.

For me this is a 5/5 star movie. It has incredible pictures, is dense and complex and invites you to rethink Nazi ideology and symbolism like not many others. It is better than the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas that is for sure. But not as good as Pan’s Labyrinth.

Other war movies with children as main characters can be found on my list  Children in War Movies.

Winter in Wartime aka Oorlogswinter (2008) Resistance in Occupied Holland

Winter in Wartime is a Dutch-Belgian co-production filmed in three languages, German, Dutch and English. The same producers who did the outstanding movie Zwart Boek aka Black Book did also this one. There are some resemblances picture wise but apart from that the two movies are very different. Winter in Wartime is to be classified among the long list of Children in War Movies (please see my post Children in War Movies).

Michiel, a young boy of 14 years, gets drawn into the Dutch Resistance after one of his older friends, an active member of the Resistance, gets shot. Michiel takes it upon himself to help a young RAF pilot who has been shot down in the woods near his village. As young as he is Michiel has a strong sense of right and wrong and despises his father whom he accuses of collaborating with the Germans. He idealizes his uncle Ben who thinks his brother is a coward.

Occupied Holland is swarming with Germans. It is extremely dangerous for Michiel to help the young injured British soldier and he has to let his sister who is a nurse in on his secret. After a German soldier is found shot in the woods the Germans arrest Michiel’s father. Although his uncle says he can help him, the father is shot.

Michiel’s only mission from then on is to save his the young pilot. The ywill attempt to flee several times. Michiel will learn a few important lessons and come out wizened of this experience.

The movie is very beautiful as we see long takes on the snow-covered Dutch countryside. Snow flakes fall softly in many a scene, the whiteness of the woods builds a stark contrast to the dark uniforms of the Germans. Michiel is a wonderful character. Such a young boy with such an incredible idealism and courage. The young actor, Martijn Lakemeier, did a great job. So did  Jamie Campbell Bower as the pilot Jack. I also liked the relationship between the boy and his father or rather how the opinion the boy is change through the events. Apart from that I’m not too sure about this movie. You could watch it with very young people or children to teach them something about the war and values but I think it is too much of a purely invented story and does lack realism. If you watch it you will understand what I mean. There are a few things that just seem extremely farfetched.

Don’t get me wrong, it is watchable. Just not great. If you have never seen a movie on Dutch Resistance, go for Black Book. If you’d like to watch something on Nordic Resistance, try Max Manus or Flame & Citron. All three are great. This one is probably a 3.5-4.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008) or An unusual look at the Holocaust

The movie The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is based on a novel by John Boyne.

The movie tells the story of Bruno, an eight year old boy, whose father is a high ranking Nazi officer newly appointed to be in charge of a concentration camp.

The family leaves Berlin (shot in Budapest, by the way) for a place somewhere in the country, near a concentration camp. The story is purely seen through the eyes of the little boy which creates some very uneasy moments.

I believe that the major theme of this movie is knowing and knowledge. We do know what happened during the third Reich. We know what Endlösung – The Final Solution – means. We know about concentration camps and extermination camps. Watching this movie with all this background information makes for a lot of discomforting moments. All the signs, the chimneys and the smoke, the people in the striped pyjamas… We know what to make of them. Bruno does not. And neither does his mother as it would seem.

The crucial moment is when Bruno meets the boy behind the barbed wire, the boy in the striped pyjamas, Shmuel. An impossible friendship begins. Bruno understands after a while that this boy is a Jew; at the same time he is taught by a fanatic private tutor that Jews are vermin.

Boyne says in an interview that he wanted to tell a different story, add something new to a topic that has been taken up so many times. He is very successful. One thing is for sure, no one who watches The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is going to forget it easily. The whole way it is told plus the more than atrocious end is by far too unusual to be forgotten.

I am sure it is one of the best movies to teach children the Holocaust.

To be honest, I am still a bit speechless. The whole film and especially the ending are like being kicked in the gut. I am quite awed by the little actors. Asa Butterfield, who plays Bruno, is amazing. This little kid has a way of talking with his eyes that is rarely found in grown up actors. To cut a long story short: Watch it!

See also Children in War Movies: A List

Children in War Movies: A List

In this post I would like to focus on war  movies in which children have leading roles and are not just supporting actors like in The Hurt Locker to name but one example.

There are many movies whose sole focus are children. They come from different countries, show different conflicts and times but they have one thing in common: they are all good, very good or outstanding. This is quite remarkable. It is as if those film directors who aim for entertainment only would shy away from showing children in war movies. All the movies listed below are very different in tone. Some are light and almost playful, like Hope and Glory, some are depressing and raw like Come and See, others have the quality of a fairytale like Pan´s Labyrinth.

I am sure my list is not exhaustive. If you know of any others, let me know. I will try and review most of them in later posts,  like I already did with Hope and Glory (see post), Welcome to Sarajevo (link to post), The Children of Huang Shi (see post) and Savior (see post). I am stating the name and the year and country in brackets. The conflict and where the war takes place follow behind. I did include a few movies with teenagers in it like The Bridge or Napola, but most of the others focus on much smaller children. I did also  include Savior as the newborn is central to the story.

I am sure you will discover many you did not know yet as I did.

The Drum (GB, 1938): India

Mrs Miniver (US 1942): WWII, British Homefront

Since You Went Away (US, 1944): WWII, American Homefront (here is my review)

Roma, Città Aperta aka Rome, Open City (Italy, 1945): WWII, Italy

Kim (US, 1950): India

Forbidden Games aka Jeux interdits (1952, France): WWII, France

The Bridge aka Die Brücke (1959, Germany): WWII, Germany

Two Women aka La ciociara (1960, Italy/France): WWII, Italy

Ivan’s Childhood aka Ivanovo detstvo (1962, Soviet Union): WWII, Russia

Hornet´s Nest (1970, USA): WWII, Italy

Lacombe Lucien (1974, France): WWII, France

The Tin Drum aka Die Blechtrommel (Germany, 1979): WWII, Germany

Hope and Glory (1987, UK): WWII, Blitz  (Here is my review)

Empire of the Sun (1987, USA) : Chinese-Japanese War WWII

Au-revoir les enfants aka Goodbye, Children (1987, France/Germany): WWII, Holocaust,France

Grave of the Fireflies aka Hotaru no haka (1988, Japan): WWII, Japan. Anime. (See my post)

Europa, Europa aka Hitlerjunge Salomon (1990 Germany/France/Poland): WWII, Germany (See my review)

Come and See aka Idi i smotri(1985, Soviet Union): WWII, Byelorussia

The Ogre aka Der Unhold (1996, France/Germany/UK): WWII, Nazi Germany

Welcome to Sarajevo (1997, USA) : Bosnia

Life is beautiful aka La vita è bella (1997, Italy): WWII, Holocaust (see post on La vita è bella)

Savior (1998, USA ): Bosnia

Silent Night (2002, USA): WWII, Germany (see my post on Silent Night)

Innocent Voices aka Voces inocentes (2004, Mexico/USA/Puerto Rico): El Salvador (see my post on Innocent Voices)

Turtles can fly aka Lakposhtha parvaz mikonand (2004, Iran/France/Iraq): Iraq

Before the Fall aka Napola (2004, Germany): WWII, Germany (see my review of NaPola)

Pan´s Labyrinth aka El laberinto del fauno (2006, Spain): WWII Franco´s Spain

Under the Bombs aka Sous les Bombes (2007, France/Lebanon): 2006, Lebanon (see my review of Under the Bombs)

Miracle at St. Anna (2008, US): WWII, Italy (here is my review)

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008, UK/USA): WWII, Holocaust (see my review)

Escape from Huang Shi aka The Children of Huang Shi (2008, Australia, China, Germany, USA): Japanese occupation of China

Winter in Wartime aka Oorlogswinter (2008, Netherlans, Belgium): WWII, occupied Hollad in Winter, 1945 (here is the link to my post)

The Fortress of War aka Brestskaya krepost (2010, Russia): WWII, Russia 1941. Germans attack the Brest Fortress (here is the link to my post).

The Round-Up – La Rafle (2010, FR/GE/HU): WWII, Paris, the round-up of 13000 Jews in the Vel d’Hiv (here is my review)

This list is being updated regularly.