Maximilian Schell and Richard Widmark stand in a courtroom in a still from the film 'Judgment At Nuremberg'.

25 movies that represent major moments in WWII

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November 21, 2023
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25 movies that represent major moments in WWII

The 20th century was an eventful one. Over 100 years, large-scale wars dramatically shifted the balance between the world's major powers. Conflicts during the period from 1900 to 1999 claimed the lives of 187 million people.

Perhaps one stands out among all the rest in the world's cultural memory for its scope, tragedy, and unprecedented cruelty: World War II.

World War II began in 1939 and involved nations from nearly every continent. It introduced nuclear warfare, killed more civilians than soldiers, and led to new definitions of human rights. It remains the deadliest conflict in human history.

Since its conclusion in 1945, World War II has been the subject of countless films, which range from documentaries to comedies and dramas to arthouse. Each concerns a different aspect of the war, be it the uniquely tangible damage to civilian daily life in many countries; the singular horror of life in concentration camps; critical battles like the evacuation of Dunkirk; or central figures like Hitler, Mussolini, de Gaulle, and others.

Stacker used historical sources, film reviews, and academic works to compile a list of 25 films that represent landmark milestones throughout World War II. The movies on this list are ranked in roughly chronological order of the time in the war that they primarily represent. However, many of the films listed span many years and multiple significant events, so the chronology is not entirely straightforward.

Together, however, the films below cover World War II from beginning to end—starting with the origins that enabled the Nazis' rise to power and continuing through the legacy that has shaped the world decades later.

Mephisto (1981)

- Director: István Szabó
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 146 minutes

While many films about WWII focus on large-scale battles and ethnic persecution, "Mephisto" instead takes a step back in time to examine the foundational sentiments and interactions that later escalated into violence. The film depicts the social scene among political and cultural elites in early 1930s Berlin through the story of a stage actor who becomes entangled with the cultural czar of the Third Reich.

The protagonist's journey illustrates the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany from the 1920s through the 1930s, including Hitler's election to chancellor, early protests, and the increasing division between the far left and far right as the Nazi Party's grip on the city becomes more and more tangible.

The Mortal Storm (1940)

- Director: Frank Borzage
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 100 minutes

"The Mortal Storm" continues on the timeline that "Mephisto" began, showing the impacts on Germany as the newly elected Nazi Party began to rise to an unlimited level of power and give way to violence and persecution. The story of the Roth family exemplifies the experience of Germans who resisted early pressure to support the Nazi agenda, as various members of the family are imprisoned in a concentration camp or escape across the border to Austria.

The film depicts many key moments in the transformation of Germany into a fascist regime, including book-burning rallies, adoption of widespread uniforms, brutality by local Nazi forces, and attempts to flee by Jewish families.

Europa Europa (1990)

- Director: Agnieszka Holland
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Metascore: 75
- Runtime: 112 minutes

"Europa Europa" depicts the broader spread of Nazism across Europe, shifting the focus from Germany to the events occurring in Poland and Russia. The film tells the story of a Jewish teenager who flees with his family from Germany to Poland, before ending up along the Russian front as part of the German army.

The story begins in 1938 Germany on Kristallnacht, or "The Night of Broken Glass," when Jewish homes, schools, synagogues, and other institutions were destroyed and nearly one hundred Jews murdered; this was the culmination of the yearslong rise in antisemitic policies since Hitler's election as chancellor, and marked the start of open persecution of Jews in Germany.

The film then follows the start of World War II in Europe, from the 1939 invasion of Poland by Germany, to the invasions of Poland by the Soviet Union, and the eventual invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany. The main character's experiences illustrate those of the Hitler Youth, who were indoctrinated at Nazi academies and trained to spread the Nazi agenda throughout their communities.

Schindler's List (1993)

- Director: Steven Spielberg
- IMDb user rating: 9.0
- Metascore: 95
- Runtime: 195 minutes

"Schindler's List" is infamous for its unflinching depiction of the cruelties inflicted on Jews during their arrests and detainments inside concentration camps. In particular, it is known for its grueling depictions of the 1943 liquidation of the Krakow ghetto by German occupants, and subsequent transport of prisoners to the Płaszów Concentration Camp, also in Poland. The film also sheds light on the bravery of those who covertly worked to help Jews escape the Nazi regime through the story of Oskar Schindler, a German member of the Nazi Party who secretly saved the lives of over 1,000 Jewish refugees by diverting them from concentration camps for employment in his factories.

Dunkirk (2017)

- Director: Christopher Nolan
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Metascore: 94
- Runtime: 106 minutes

"Dunkirk" depicts one of the seminal battles of World War II—the 1940 evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Allied troops from the northern France coast. The film shows the simultaneous perspectives from land, air, and ocean of a disastrous moment for British and French troops, who were surrounded by German forces and faced a seemingly imminent massacre. Though many members of the Allied forces were rescued, tens of thousands of others were not and became prisoners of war under the Nazis.

The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)

- Director: Marcel Ophüls
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 251 minutes

While the evacuation of Dunkirk was unfolding, within the same country's borders, collaboration between Nazi Germany and France was ramping up, as depicted in the documentary "The Sorrow and the Pity." The film depicts this strange period in France's history, during which the Vichy government—a temporary regime ruling the country—responded to German occupation in 1940 by siding with their invaders. The plot begins by showing initial widespread support for partnering with Nazi Germany, and follows the growing partisan divide between resistance groups and Vichy collaborators over the next several years, culminating in the liberation of France from Germany in 1944.

The Great Dictator (1940)

- Director: Charles Chaplin
- IMDb user rating: 8.4
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 125 minutes

A standout among often-somber World War II films is "The Great Dictator," which uses parody to depict the inner workings of Hitler and his regime. The movie unravels the dysfunction and megalomania that characterized Hitler's rule, including Hitler's at times sparring and collaborative relationship with the Italian leader Benito Mussolini. It was also one of the first films to denounce Hitler's rule as unavoidably driven by fascism, racism, and paranoia, flying in the face of some early 1930s leaders who preached nonintervention, still unaware of the full extent of horror being wrought on Jewish communities.

The Cranes Are Flying (1957)

- Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 95 minutes

While much of the coverage of WWII focused on happenings in central Europe, "The Cranes Are Flying" lends insight into pivotal action taking place in Russia, then called the Soviet Union. The film sheds light on the cruelty many Russians faced at the hands of German occupants, who first invaded Moscow in 1941 and engaged in air raids and ghetto purging similar to those that took place in Germany—as experienced by the film's female protagonist, Veronika.

Among political elites, WWII was known as the Great Patriotic War, and many Russians were drafted into the Red Army to fight, though this film is most notable for focusing on the violence occurring back at home amongst close neighbors.

The Ascent (1977)

- Director: Larisa Shepitko
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 111 minutes

The bulk of the plot of "The Ascent" examines the struggles faced by Russian soldiers in the region of modern-day Belarus, which was then known as Belorussia. During World War II, Belorussia was caught in the crosshairs of conflict between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and saw brutal violence due in part to the region's high population of Ashkenazi Jews. The film testifies to this violence with gritty realism, depicting the excruciating journey across Belorussian terrain by two Soviet soldiers, culminating in a morally difficult interrogation at the hands of a Nazi soldier.

Conspiracy (2001)

- Director: Frank Pierson
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 96 minutes

"Conspiracy" depicts the 1942 Wannsee Conference, a pivotal moment in WWII during which senior Nazi officials met in Berlin to agree on the implementation of the "Final Solution"—the deliberate and systematic genocide of the Jewish population. The film uses the only surviving transcript of the meeting and thus portrays very real psyches of cruelty and indifference amongst the officials present. The Wannsee Conference was a watershed event during WWII and marked the formal start of the Holocaust.

Army of Shadows (1969)

- Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Metascore: 99
- Runtime: 145 minutes

Again pivoting to another microcosm in the large mosaic of experiences during World War II, "Army of Shadows" focuses on the activities of members of the French Resistance in the 1940s, who went against the Vichy government regime established in "The Sorrow and the Pity."

In the film, as in real life, Resistance fighters must work covertly to collaborate with the Allied Forces, evade capture from Vichy officials, and move throughout Nazi-occupied France. The film also highlights the famed figure of Charles de Gaulle, whose radio broadcasts from London spurred and encouraged Resistance fighters to persist in their efforts for the Free France movement, despite the constant threat of persecution by Nazi occupiers.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)

- Director: Nagisa Ôshima
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Metascore: 53
- Runtime: 123 minutes

The real-life figure of Sir Laurens van der Post serves as the basis for the central figure of "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence," which depicts the experiences of prisoners of war in 1942 Japanese-occupied Indonesia. While many WWII stories focus on the action concentrated on the European continent, at the same time, Japan invaded Indonesia (then a Dutch colony) in 1942 in retaliation for the Netherlands declaring war on them post-Pearl Harbor.

The film sheds light on the competing cultural and military differences between the Japanese army and the British prisoners. Though South African-born, the real van der Post did indeed fight as a captain in the British Army during WWII and was considered by many a war hero for his bravery on behalf of his fellow prisoners while captured at Java.

The Thin Red Line (1998)

- Director: Terrence Malick
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Metascore: 78
- Runtime: 170 minutes

Further exploring the Pacific arena of World War II is "The Thin Red Line," which follows the events of the 1942-1943 Battle of Guadalcanal. The battle was a highly momentous struggle between the invading Japanese and Allied forces in the Solomon Islands site, which could have fateful impacts on Australia and the larger Pacific. The film focuses on the experiences of Americans fighting overseas on behalf of the Allied Forces, who endured six months of grueling environmental and military conditions to eventually successfully halt the expansion of Japanese forces in the Pacific.

Come and See (1985)

- Director: Elem Klimov
- IMDb user rating: 8.4
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 142 minutes

"Come and See" returns to Nazi-occupied Belorussia, this time exploring the occupation's impacts from the perspective of native Belarusians rather than Russian soldiers. In this case, it is the story of a teenage boy in 1943 conscripted into the military that illustrates the violence and atrocities endured by eastern Europeans—Jewish or not—during WWII. Belarus suffered particularly hard: By the end of the war, the country had experienced the razing of 629 villages, deaths of nearly 2.2 million citizens, and countless moments of cruelty at the hands of Nazi forces.

The Zone of Interest (2023)

- Director: Jonathan Glazer
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Metascore: 95
- Runtime: 105 minutes

"The Zone of Interest" tells the real-life story of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp in the 1940s, and his family, who lived alongside the camp during his time overseeing operations there.

The film specifically focuses on a perpetrator, rather than victim, of the Holocaust, to explore one of the central questions to rise from World War II: How were so many members of the Nazi party able to compartmentalize evil and become complicit in mass genocide? Höss was one of the most egregiously successful examples of this, as he was known to work tirelessly to improve the "efficiency" of Auschwitz and other concentration camps; at the end of the war, he went into hiding and was eventually tried and executed for his crimes.

Ivan's Childhood (1962)

- Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 95 minutes

While "The Cranes Are Flying" explored the impact of German occupation on Russian adults, "Ivan's Childhood" examines the reverberations the invasion would have on the Soviet Union's youngest citizens. It follows the story of a 12-year-old Russian boy who has been orphaned by World War II and ends up on the front lines as a precocious army fighter. The final scenes of the film reveal the fate of Germany toward the end of the war, when the nation was eventually invaded by the Soviets they had previously occupied after the Fall of the Third Reich in 1945.

Rome, Open City (1945)

- Director: Roberto Rossellini
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 103 minutes

Italy played a central role in the action of World War II, a perspective paid tribute to in "Rome, Open City." For nine months in 1943, Nazi Germany invaded Rome in retaliation for Italy joining the Allied forces, which had reversed Mussolini's previous dedication to the Nazis' cause. The film depicts Italians' struggles to resist German occupation of its storied capital, including the efforts of anti-Fascist resisters, and the unlikely collaboration of communists and nationalists against the German invaders.

Life Is Beautiful (1997)

- Director: Roberto Benigni
- IMDb user rating: 8.6
- Metascore: 59
- Runtime: 116 minutes

A more long-term perspective of World War II in Italy is offered in "Life is Beautiful," which follows the story of a Jewish man named Guido from the 1930s through 1945. The film depicts the palpable effects of WWII on the everyday lives of Jewish Italians.

The plot ultimately takes the characters into a concentration camp just three months before the war's end. When he and his son are brought to the camp, Guido tells the boy that everything happening is just a game they need to win in order to shield him from the horrific reality of the Holocaust.

In real life, when the Allied forces began liberating concentration camps in 1945, many Italians were left waiting to be transported home for an extended period, as many Americans, British, and Russian soldiers prioritized rescuing their own citizens first.

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

- Director: Clint Eastwood
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Metascore: 89
- Runtime: 141 minutes

The titular battle of "Letters from Iwo Jima" was a landmark moment in the Pacific theater of World War II, during which 100,000 Americans invaded Japan and fought 22,000 Japanese soldiers for five straight weeks. While Iwo Jima is often shorthand for an American triumph, the film offers insight into both sides of the battle, humanizing the ill-prepared Japanese who took their lives as their fight became increasingly hopeless. The battle took place in 1945 and signaled the beginning of the end of World War II. American forces ultimately prevailed, creating an opening to move on to the last and most significant stronghold in the Pacific: Okinawa.

Son of Saul (2015)

- Director: László Nemes
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Metascore: 91
- Runtime: 107 minutes

Set in Auschwitz in 1944, "Son of Saul" puts the spotlight on a subset of concentration camp prisoners who were part of the Sonderkommando, a group chosen to remove and dispose of the corpses of those murdered in the gas chambers.

The film illustrates the psychological and moral quandaries that these individuals faced, against the backdrop of the chaos of concentration camps towards the final weeks of World War II. As the movie depicts, the closer Allied forces closed in, the more rapidly Nazi forces began executing larger numbers of inmates; alongside this, prisoner uprisings began to take hold, and the Sonderkommando themselves revolted in October 1944.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

- Director: Isao Takahata
- IMDb user rating: 8.5
- Metascore: 94
- Runtime: 89 minutes

The final months of World War II weren't just turbulent for those in Europe; they also created disarray in the lives of those in the Pacific arena, as depicted in "Grave of the Fireflies." Set in Japan in 1945, the animated film tells the story of two young siblings who were orphaned during the bombings of Kobe. As Japan's success in the war starts to plummet, the effects are palpable for citizens—rations are low and more bombs abound. The film also depicts Japan's surrender to the Allied forces from the perspective of Japanese citizens, who lived under occupation by the Allies postwar, beginning the yearslong process of rebuilding from the fallout of two atomic bombs.

Downfall (2004)

- Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Metascore: 82
- Runtime: 156 minutes

While other films show the impending end of the war through the perspective of citizens on the ground and in concentration camps, "Downfall" takes the perspective of the most central figure of WWII: Adolf Hitler. While Berlin was being invaded and taken over by Allied troops in April 1945, Hitler spent his final days buried in a bunker below the city.

Faced with imminent defeat, Hitler's delusions transcend megalomania into true madness, with his wife Eva Braun and other companions standing alongside him. Ultimately, Hitler, Braun, and close allies Joseph and Magda Goebbels would all die by suicide in the bunker on April 30, 1945 (with the Goebbels dying shortly after Hitler and Braun's deaths).

Europa (1991)

- Director: Lars von Trier
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Metascore: 69
- Runtime: 112 minutes

The end of World War II was hardly harmonious or conclusive; members of many countries faced years of grappling with the fallout and long-term reverberations, as depicted in "Europa." Germany, in particular, was thrown into a period of infrastructural rebuilding, as illustrated by this story of an American who arrives in Germany immediately postwar to work on the railways.

After the war, many Germans grappled with the question of their national identity; years of heavy nationalism suddenly gave way to a frantic effort to align with the rest of Europe and disavow overt nationalism. At the same time, the moral culpability of many other countries—in this film's case, America—in the role they played (or failed to play) during the war's atrocities is another issue brought to light.

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

- Director: Stanley Kramer
- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Metascore: 60
- Runtime: 179 minutes

How to handle the Nazi leaders who had fallen from grace after World War II, and how to possibly try and punish them for their crimes, is the central struggle in "Judgment at Nuremberg." The film explores just how complicated and far from cut-and-dry these questions were, due at least in part to the enabling complacency of the larger population and other nations involved in the war. While the original Nuremberg Trials lasted from 1945 to 1946, the film depicts one of a series of 12 of the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials between 1946 and 1949.

Shoah (1985)

- Director: Claude Lanzmann
- IMDb user rating: 8.7
- Metascore: 99
- Runtime: 566 minutes

"Shoah" is a testament to the long-lasting effects of World War II beyond its end in 1945. The extensive documentary interviews former Nazi officials, concentration camp survivors, and other witnesses decades after the war's end to examine how the Holocaust continues to shape their lives. Footage of pastoral areas that were once home to mass death sites conveys the sense that remnants of the genocide, though no longer physically visible, still shape the culture, politics, and identity of the central European countries where much of the war was concentrated.

The film attempts to explore, yet not definitively answer, many of the philosophical questions these societies have grappled with since the end of World War II. This includes how morally culpable former Nazi officials are on an individual basis; how so many people were successfully influenced to take part in a massive genocide; and how to pass the story of World War II's worst tragedies on to the next generation, to ensure they are never repeated.

Data reporting by Luke Hicks. Story editing by Cynthia Rebolledo. Copy editing by Tim Bruns. Photo selection by Clarese Moller.

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