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5 movies that show the power of nonviolent resistance during World War II

A still from the 2003 film Rosenstrasse, which depicts a protest led by German women against the Nazis.

A still from the 2003 film Rosenstrasse, which depicts a protest led by German women against the Nazis.

Hardly a year goes by without at least one Hollywood film that takes place during World War II. And when Hollywood isn’t making them, other countries are. In fact, there hasn’t been a year since the war ended without several movies featuring events from that period. And it’s hard to imagine a time when that will change. After all, who doesn’t like a good story of resistance in the face of evil?

Yet in their pursuit of showing us the good in human nature — our capacity for courage and sacrifice, and our ability to work together for a common, higher purpose — most of these films have also taken historical shortcuts that offer only a very narrow view of World War II. For instance, we forget that Germans during this period, including Nazi soldiers, were not unanimously in support of Hitler. We forget that there were those who even engaged in resistance, and that more violence wasn’t the only way to challenge the Nazis.

Every so often, however, there is a film that shows this other side of history. Most recently, it was The Book Thief, which was released in November. Based on the best-selling novel by the same name, The Book Thief tells the story of a little girl, who is adopted by a middle-aged German couple because her real parents were persecuted for being communists. The girl’s new parents — despite appearing to want nothing more than a normal, safe family life — then take in a young Jewish man and hide him in their basement. Overall, it is a quiet story of resistance — involving the preservation of literature, love and life during incredibly hard times — that challenges the notion of a “good” war.

While Hollywood may have taken a refreshing turn in the World War II genre with The Book Thief, the film is still largely fiction. As a result, it will hardly be able to overturn the mainstream narrative of World War II, which so greatly overlooks the prevalence and importance of nonviolent resistance. There are, however, a small number of minor films which have addressed this overlooked history.

Rosenstrasse is a 2003 German film, which depicts the 1943 protest by non-Jewish German women outside a building in Berlin, where their Jewish husbands were being detained. Over the course of one week, their vocal and visible opposition became too much and Joseph Goebbels — with Hitler’s approval — was forced to release the nearly 2,000 Jewish prisoners.

Sophie Scholl – The Final Days is a 2005 German film about a young woman, who — along with her brother and another member of the anti-Nazi student group the White Rose — was found guilty of high treason in 1943 for distributing leaflets that called for opposition to Hitler. Although they were quickly executed, their legacy looms large in Germany. The film is a testament to that — as well as the many voices on both sides who saw the futility of war and pushed for another form of resistance and justice.

A more positive story of nonviolent resistance is featured in the 1998 made-for-TV Disney film Miracle at Midnight, which tells the story of how the Danes openly defied the Nazi occupation and saved over 7,000 Jews by transporting them to neutral Sweden. Other acts of sabotage against the Nazi war machine, as well as a massive general strike, completely stymied the occupiers and rendered their presence in the country completely untenable.

A similar story can be found (although not easily since it never made it to DVD) in the 1989 documentary Weapons of the Spirit. This film details how the small French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon — which was under Vichy control — managed to save upwards of 5,000 refugees, over 3,000 of whom were Jews. Every time the Nazi patrols came to Le Chambon, the citizens disobeyed orders and hid their refugees in the countryside. Unlike neighboring villages which were burned to the ground for housing armed French resistance members, Le Chambon survived the war unscathed. As military historian Basil Lidell Hart noted after conducting extensive interviews with German generals in the post-war years, “[Nazis] were experts in violence, and had been trained to deal with opponents who used that method… other forms of resistance baffled them.”

Several more surprising stories of nonviolent resistance to the Nazis took place in North Africa and are covered in the 2010 PBS documentary Among the Righteous. As the film shows, there are several cases where Arabs helped protect Jews during the Holocaust. Yet, it wasn’t until this year that an Arab was recognized by a Holocaust memorial institution — further showing the exclusion of certain stories from the mainstream World War II narrative. It’s certainly not for lack of drama. After all, Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List — one of the most famous World War II movies, and a real exception to the mainstream narrative — treads a similar territory. Yet, instead of highlighting more of these overlooked stories of nonviolent resistance, Spielberg went on to make the ultimate homage to the notion of a “good” war in Saving Private Ryan.

Such a notion will be hard to overturn, but there are many more amazing stories of people power during the second world war just waiting to be produced. We can only hope that some will even catch the eye of Hollywood.