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 until the Germans fully occupied the country in 1942 — managed to save upwards of 5,000 refugees, around 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. While Le Chambon survived the war unscathed, other French villages in the region that housed armed French resistance members were not as fortunate, suffering greatly the effects of German retribution. 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.
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Thank you for the selection of movies on NVA in WWII. One more you could add is Silent Night, a 2002 Hallmark movie about a German Woman successfully confronting both American and German soldiers and convincing them to lay down their weapons for Christmas.
Thank you, John! I didn’t know about that one. Here’s some more info on it for folks who are interested:
My own family has such a story. My grandmother was married to a Jew and all my family were Socialists or Communists. Much of the family was wiped out. However, when the gestapo came to arrest my own family my grandmother’s “ex-husband” intervened and had them released. This ex-husband was a high ranking nazi officer, whom my grandmother had divorced when he became involved with the nazi party. It was not pure altruism though as he allowed them to take away “that Jew”, who disappeared somewhere in the camps.
My family was also involved in the German underground. One person they hid was a man who escaped from a prisoner of war camp. He later married my mother.
Thanks for sharing, RA. It must have been an incredibly brave and defiant act on your grandmother’s part to divorce her Nazi husband, knowing perhaps what kind of repercussions may follow. I haven’t heard many stories about how the politics of the era divided families in Germany, although thinking about it now I imagine it must have been somewhat common.
Another wonderful film: Perlaska. Belongs on your list.
Dear Brian Farrell,
Thank you and congratulations for your article “5 movies that show the power of nonviolent resistance during World War II”, which brings vividly to the forefront the memory of outstanding stories – – the evidence that solidarity can be expressed in the most difficult and dangerous circumstances.
I was impressed recently by the movie on John Rabe, who saved many Chinese people during the Japanese invasion of Nanking, and, some years ago, by a movie on Giorgio Perlasca, who saved thousands of Jews in Hungary during the Nazi occupation. If you have not seen them yet, I would suggest you not to miss them any longer.
I am trying to do my share to point out the positive behaviours of people and institutions. If you wished to receive the e-newsletter Good News Agency, that we distribute free of charge around the world, I would be happy to include you in our mailing list.
Editor, Good News Agency
Founder and president of the educational charity that publishes the newsletter
Thanks for this list. I didn’t know about the Miracle at Midnight film.
I want to mention a few more:
One excellent episode of a Force More Powerful focuses on Danish nonviolent resistance to the Nazis during WWII, especially but not exclusively the rescue of Danish Jews (there’s a version at http://www.viddler.com/v/597c5384, but I’m not sure if it’s with permission or not of the ICNC, http://www.aforcemorepowerful.org/films/afmp/stories/denmark.php.)
There’s a powerful movie about two Unitarians from the US who helped rescue refugees from Prague and helped escort Jewish escapees via France, called Two Who Dared: The Sharps’ War. I saw a rough cut of the film at the MA Peace Abbey. It’s now online at http://vimeo.com/55973321 and is distributed via http://www.twowhodared.com/film/.
Various filmed versions of the story of Anne Frank have been produced.
By the same filmmaker who made the excellent Weapons of the Spirit are a documentary I haven’t seen, Not Idly By, on Peter Bergson and the attempts to awaken US Jews and the US government to the unfolding slaughter, http://www.varianfry.org/not_idly_by1_en.htm, and another in in the works on the US rescuer, Varian Fry, And Crown Thy Good, http://www.varianfry.org/crown1_en.htm.
There’s a documentary on one of the most important Warsaw rescuers, Irena Sendler, called “In the Name of Their Mothers,” see http://www.pbs.org/programs/irena-sendler/, and another one I haven’t seen, called The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1010278/.
I haven’t seen the documentary on the Japanese diplomat who saved over 2000 Jews from Lithuania, Sugihara, but I’ve heard it’s quite good. See http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/sugihara/film/.
I haven’t seen it, but there’s at least one additional movie about the Scholls and the White Rose, called the White Rose, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084897/.
There are three movies about the Kindertransports described in Wikipedia, as follows:
“The first documentary film made on the subject of the Kindertransport was My Knees Were Jumping: Remembering the Kindertransports which was shown, and nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996 and released theatrically in 1998. The director, Melissa Hacker, is the daughter of the costume designer Ruth Morley who was a Kindertransport child. The film is narrated by Joanne Woodward
Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, narrated by Judi Dench and released by Warner Bros. Pictures, won the Academy Award in 2000 for best documentary feature. There is also a companion book by the same name. The film’s producer, Deborah Oppenheimer, is the daughter of a Kindertransport survivor. The director, Mark Jonathan Harris, is a three-time Oscar winner.
The Children Who Cheated the Nazis, narrated by Richard Attenborough is a British documentary film by Sue Read and Jim Goulding, first shown on Channel 4 in 2000. Attenborough’s parents were among those who responded to the appeal for families to foster the refugee children; they took in two girls.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kindertransport#In_popular_culture
Can other folks think of additional titles?
I forgot to mention films about Raoul Wallenberg, again which I haven’t seen, but are listed at Wikipedia as including:
“A number of films have been made of Wallenberg’s life, including the 1985 made-for-television movie Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story (1985), starring Richard Chamberlain, the 1990 Swedish production God afton, Herr Wallenberg (Good Afternoon, Mr. Wallenberg), featuring Stellan Skarsgård, and various documentaries, such as Raoul Wallenberg: Buried Alive (1984), the AFI Award winning Raoul Wallenberg, Between The Lines (1985) and Searching for Wallenberg (2003). He also appears in the Spanish television series El ángel de Budapest and is played by Iván Fenyő. In 2006, the film “Raoul Wallenberg-l’ange de Budapest” (translated by Nigel Spencer as “Raoul Wallenberg: the Angel of Budapest”), featuring relatives and the Winnipeg lawyer still piloting inquiries into his case, was released in Canada and broadcast on the Bravo! network.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raoul_Wallenberg#Films
I found a website listing resources on rescuers, including a number of short films which might be better for classroom use: http://www.hearthasreasons.com/nonprintresources.php.
There are a few more films that I just came across on the Danish resistance:
“The Danish Solution: The Rescue of the Jews of Denmark” is available in full (58 min.) at http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-danish-solution-the-rescue-of-the-jews-of-denmark/. “The Power of Conscience: The Danish Resistance and the Rescue of the Jews” was made in 1994, see this minimal imdb listing for it, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0308749/, and this series of films on Danish women in the resistance chronicles women in both violent and nonviolent roles, http://www.cphfilmcompany.dk/news/new-documentary-series-on-women-in-the-danish-resistance/?lang=en.
There was a documentary about Hans Litten, the left-wing Jewish lawyer that managed to cross-examine and flummox Hitler in court in 1931 as a result of a civil suit, exposing his and the Nazis violent tactics in open court, that aired on US public TV in 2013. Litten was jailed in 1933 (the night of the Reichstag fire as the Nazis seized power, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Litten), and continued to defy the Nazis in jail. One source says that when the prisoners were ordered to say something to celebrate Hitler’s birthday, Litten sang, “Thoughts are Free” instead (this scene is in the documentary I saw, and is mentioned on the wikipedia page about the song (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Die_Gedanken_sind_frei, which also says that Sophie Scholl played it on a flute outside her father’s prison cell!), but not on the wikipedia page about Litten, which claims he sang it under different circumstances in jail). Litten committed suicide in Dachau, after surviving nearly five years of beatings and torture. The production I saw was called, “Hitler on Trial,” and I believe it was 50 minutes long or so. There’s a trailer at http://www.cpbn.org/program/hitler-trial. Apparently, the BBC has made two productions based on Litten’s life, one a drama, see The Man Who Crossed Hitler, 90 min. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b013y3t0), and one a documentary, Hans Litten vs Adolf Hitler: To Stop a Tyrant, 60 min. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0146fs2).
A video of Pete Seeger playing Thoughts are Free is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbwQXVcbkU0. Given the history of the song (detailed at the wikipedia page for the song linked to above), used for more than 800 years as a hymn against political repression, including against the Nazis, I think this less than 2 minute song could help with discussions about nonviolent resistance to Nazism.
There’s a memorial to those courageous German women in Berlin called “Block der Frauen”. My tour guide mentioned it during my lone visit there in 2009.
I am looking for a movie in which a young girl was used to blow up Nazis during the world war ll French Resistance. I saw it years ago when I was younger, but do not remember the name of it because it was a very good movie and it stuck in my mind all these years. I think the movie was made during the late 1960’s or early 1970’s, and it was based on a true story.
would love to know the name of it if you know it can you forward it to me. thank you in advance
Sounds like Inglorious Bastards.