Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion(1937), Michael Curitz’s Casablanca(1942), Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die(1943 film based on the assassination SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich), and William Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe(1945) are excellent examples of effective antifascist world war II cinema. Interestingly enough, the majority of antifascist war films came from Hollywood (as opposed to the Soviet Union). In post war Europe, antifascist war films started popping up almost immediately. Italian director Robert Rossellini‘s (originally a director of fascist propaganda films) Open City (1945) and Germany Year Zero (1948) were effective Italian neorealist film’s that used the ruins of Europe as its settings. Both of these films contained an authenticity that has never been matched in their presentation of a destroyed Europe.
The antifascist war film has taken various approaches in conveying its message. Unfortunately, the majority of these films are highly unintelligent, fundamentally flawed, and lacking any type of cohesive message. Some of these films are even so ridiculous that they would fit better in the fantasy adventure genre (with Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark). Many of these films also use the same characteristics supposedly utilized by fascists and their propaganda. A “black and white” look at war is obviously the most effective and straightforward form of propaganda. You can analyze any Hollywood war film (or Hollywood film in general) and figure that out.
American and International war films greatly differ. Whether it is execution, political agenda, artistic integrity, or set design, global perspectives on film making greatly vary. This is no different for the war film and the antifascist war film. For this essay, I will analyze two antifascist war films from the United States and two antifascist war films from Europe. The first being Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan(1998) which I believe to be the most straightforward and symbolic of America’s interpretation of the second World War. The second American World War II film I will be examining is Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980). I believe this film to be the most realistic and holistic view of America’s involvement in the Second World War
The two European anti-fascist war films I have chosen take much different approaches in getting their messages across. The first being Soviet propaganda film Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985). This film uses an unconventional combination of the real and surreal to get its hellish, lucid dream message across. The second international film I will analyze is Italian Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). This film takes the most unconventional approach to both the war and antifascist film. Its artistic usage of human sexual and physical degradation acts as metaphorical symbolism for fascism. Not something you would expect from the typical American antifascist war film.
Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is one of the most popular, if not the most popular of American World War II films (and American films in general). Despite its violence and use of obscene words, ABC aired the film uncut and with limited commercial interruption on Veteran’s Day from 2001-2004 (de Moraes, 2004). It’s safe to say that most American’s have seen or at the very least heard of Saving Private Ryan. At the academy awards the film also won awards for Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, Best Editing and Best director for Spielberg (Clarke, 2006).
Saving Private Ryan takes a fairly simple and direct approach to the American World War II combat propaganda film. The film starts with an old man visiting the cemetery of American’s who died in Normandy. Next thing you know its June 1944 and American’s (The English contribution was not acknowledged) are landing in Normandy. Body parts and blood start flying immediately. These scenes come out more resembling a cheap and gory horror film than as the dramatic deaths of U.S. soldiers. A Unit of U.S. soldiers are on the search for Private Ryan. All of Private Ryan’s brother’s have died in the war and they want the last of the brothers to go back home. Most of the units of U.S. soldiers are killed in their mission to locate Ryan. At the end, you find out that the old man from the opening of Saving Private Ryan is the elderly Ryan. The only thing the film seemed to accomplish was embarrassing sentimentalism, naive patriotism, and an extremely distorted and inaccurate view of history.
The only political element to Saving Private Ryan was the acknowledgment of anti-Semitism in National Socialist Germany. The way that this is responded to is immature at best. A Jewish Private Stanley Mellish lets German POWs know that he is tough by waving his “Star of David“, while chanting “Juden“ repeatedly. Later in the film Mellish dies heroically fighting a German one on one. This scene was in contradiction to Spielberg’s “every Jew is a victim” theme found in Schindler’s list. I also doubt Spielberg would ever mention that over 150,000 Germans of Jewish descent fought in Hitler’s army (Rigg, 2004).
It seems that Spielberg was trying to allude that the United States got into World War II to save the Jews. He also tried to create a similar myth in his film Amistad by attempting to make the viewer assume that the American Civil War was fought to free the slaves. Steven Spielberg seems to want American’s to think that every war fought in the past couple hundred years was to battle racism. This works hand in hand with Spielberg’s utilization of sentimentalism that he has helped to contaminate Hollywood with. Steven Spielberg wants American’s to have an idealist and illogical view of the world. He wants American’s to think they are “progressing” in their battle against evil. That’s probably why he’s the master of fantasy and adventure.
“The good war” wouldn’t be complete without allied myths and distortions. Because of course, the bad wars were fought against Communism (Korea, Vietnam, etc). The Wehrmacht (mostly comprised of conscripts) German Army is seen as cowardly and evil. The U.S. soldiers learn their lesson when they don’t kill an unarmed POW Wehrmacht soldier (which Spielberg strategically used the ugliest German possible for). Later the captain is killed by that same POW. The message Spielberg is giving is not to spare one German soldier’s life as they are all enemies.
The German language in Saving Private Ryan is referred to as “filthy pig Latin.” For Spielberg even the German language is a forbidden taboo. Spielberg also had the German language substituted in Schindler’s List for the more friendly English language. I don’t think he wanted to scare anyone with the mean and “hunnish” German language. Spielberg’s token attempt to humanize German soldiers is through the babbling of “betty bop” and other childish things. But it really isn’t to humanize Germans. It’s just to discredit German stoicism and strength which self determination promotes.
Spielberg also didn’t want to give credit to Nationalist Socialist Germany’s Swastika. It is only seen once in the film (graffiti on a wall). I guess even acknowledgement of the enemies symbol would be too extreme. But factual acknowledgements aren’t Spielberg’s objective. He proved that in Schindler’s List, when he conveniently forgot to acknowledge that the mentally ill Commander of Krakau-Plaszow (Amon Goeth) was arrested by the SS for brutality against inmates (Critchley, 1997).
Saving Private Ryan’s “battling against Nazi fascism” theme has no substance or intelligence. You never really get an answer as to why you’re supposed to hate Nazis and Fascists. The only accomplishment of the film was the respectful acknowledgement of those that died in World War II for the United States. I don’t believe Steven Spielberg was mature enough to handle such material. He should stick to making kid’s films.
Director Samuel Fuller was another Jewish American to tackle the antifascist World War II combat film. The major difference between Fuller and Spielberg is that Fuller actually participated in the war (Spielberg wasn‘t even born until 1946). Fuller’s The Big Red One follows U.S. soldier’s through North Africa, Sicily, D-Day landings, and eventually the liberation of Falkenau concentration camp. This gives the viewer a more realistic, holistic, and complete view of the United States involvement in Europe during World War II (in comparison to other World War II films).
In The Big Red One, the German enemy is at least acknowledged as human (unlike Spielberg‘s films). The politics of the war are for the most part, neglected as the soldiers see each other as fighting other soldiers. At the end of The Big Red One a German soldier is even saved by American soldiers. The narration by Mark Hamill goes on to say that he had more in common with the German soldier than many of the American soldiers (since he had lived the war so long). This was a bold move on Samuel Fuller’s part as he crossed the barrier of “black and white” that most American war films subscribe to.
Fuller tackles the Nazi holocaust in a more mature way than most films on the subject. After liberating Falkenau concentration camp, a soldier notices an oven (which we can assume bodies were burned in). The soldier then finds a German soldier inside it and shooting. He continues to do this for a while as his emotions have overwhelmed him. His shock has turned to hatred which is a truly human response.
In comparison to other World War II films, The Big Red One is not as highly recognized. This came as a shock to me after watching it as it gave me the most historically informative perspective on the war (like Patton). Since The Big Red One was recently reconstructed (the original version being heavily cut), it may finally get its due. After watching the film I didn’t feel like I had just watched a hateful and hypocritical film, like when I watched Saving Private Ryan.
Most American films dealing with World War II are generally combat films (like Saving Private Ryan and The Big Red One). I can assume one of the reasons for this is monetary. Films that bring up intellectual and philosophical questions regarding politics and war are most likely not going to make money. Hollywood films (since its beginning) for the most part have always appealed to the lowest common denominator as the American film industry is a business.
Although Saving Private Ryan is first and foremost a money making product, it is also a propaganda piece (and effective at that). American’s are entertained by its cheap violence, sentimentalism, and patriotism. World War II was the last war the United States really won and to watch Saving Private Ryan is to make a proud American. No intellectual thought is regarded to enjoy the film and that makes the best propaganda.
I personally would like to see an American that intellectually tackles fascism. A film that takes an unconventional approach that raises both philosophical and intellectual questions. American society needs to be challenged. If you hate something, you should at least know a little bit about it.
International war films, I have to admit, are my true love. There is such a variety of films produced globally that offer so much to the viewer, film’s that have something new with each viewing. I am not one for overused conventions. International war films offer me countless cinematic structures relative to nation of origin, auteur (most of these films are auteur pieces), culture, and socio-political climate (but not limited to).
The two international war films (Come and See and Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom) I will analyze are from the Marxist perspective. Since the directors involved in these films were obviously not interested in money, art and propaganda was their priority. Being Marxist in nature, neither director was afraid to experiment as proved in the originality of the films. With most Marxist War films, the antifascist element is obvious and direct. The fascist being the eternal enemy of the Marxist, is given the relatively proper treatment in these films. The difference in these two films is the approach and execution.
Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) was one of many films in a series to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Germany’s surrender (Chambers, 1996). In the film, a young teenage boy named “Flora” is forced into joining Soviet Partisans in resistance against the Waffen SS. Throughout the film Flora experiences the horrors of war. As Come and See progresses, Flora’s face becomes increasingly horrified, complimenting the tone of the film.
Come and See was done in a quite realist fashion. The film was shot on Steadicam allowing the viewer to feel as if they were watching a documentary (Chamber, 1996). This style of realism echoes back to the films of Soviet Cinéma vérité pioneer Dziga Vertov. Like Vertov’s films, Come and See is a realist film that at the same time is surreal. This combination of opposites created a truly disturbing look at war, making Apocalypse Now look like it was directed by Michael Bay.
To add to the films realism, most of the SS uniforms used in Come and See were originals worn by German and German contracted (Slavs, Poles, Russians, etc) soldiers in World War II. Live ammunition was also used. Aleksei Kravchenko, the actor that played Flora, stated in a video interview (found on the Kino DVD release), that bullets were passing 10 centimeters above his head. It seems that the Soviet Union didn’t have as much problems with insurance companies like Hollywood.
Since Come and See is shot from the perspective of a young teenager, it is initially apolitical. Flora knows there is a war and eventually to his horror starts seeing dead bodies. The worst is seen through his eyes when he sees a whole village burned a live in one building. As this point, Flora seems almost completely detached from the world. So many things he couldn’t possibly comprehend he has witnessed with his own eyes.
The true antifascist sentiment of the film comes when the remaining members of a recently destroyed SS unit are captured. The angry and vengeful partisans question the soldiers about their actions. One of the SS leaders cowardly calls out “kill the fascist pigs” in hopes that they will spare his life. An older German SS Major (Sturmbahnfuhrer) tries to convince the partisans that he’s an old grandfather that just wants to get back to his family. After seeing the atrocities committed earlier in Come and See it is crazy on their part to even contemplate mercy. Finally another SS man speaks with his true beliefs. Earlier in the film he told people in the building (that was eventually burned down containing the entire village) that they could leave if they didn’t have children. One of the partisans inquires the SS man on his reason for saying this. The SS man goes on to talk about how that the Bolshevism starts with the children. He goes on about how parasite races spread the Bolshevik disease. Almost immediately afterwards the partisans unload bullets on all the captured SS men.
One characteristic of Come and See that is comparable to Saving Private Ryan is the presentation of German soldiers. The soldiers are ugly, maniacally laughing, and take pleasure in killing. At one point a German soldier starts repeatedly shaking his head from left to right with his lips flapping in the air. When he finally stops he laughs barbarically almost mimicking a baboon. Saving Private Ryan’s presentation of German soldiers was tame in comparison to Come and See.
Come and See presents the fight against fascism as a means for Slavic survival. It wasn’t a matter of them disliking fascism; they just wanted to spread bolshevism. Fighting fascism was fundamental to Soviet survival. At this point in the Come and See Flora understands what the war is about and has finally accepted his roles as a partisan soldier. The film was able to present a clear and logical reason for its antifascist propaganda.
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) has a very unusual and unconventional format to get across its strong antifascist sentiment. The title of Salo is derived from The Republic of Salo, the Fascist state which was set up in the German-occupied portion of Italy in 1944. Salo is also the area where Pasolini’s brother Guido was killed during the Second World War (Schwartz, 1992). This fact adds to the already very personal production of Salo.
Salo features some of the most depraved and disturbing scenes ever committed to celluloid. Rape, sodomy, and sexual dehumanization are seen throughout. The victims of these acts are eighteen young men and women. Throughout virtually the entire film, all of them are naked and under the complete sexual dominance of their fascist controllers. At one point a girl is even forced to eat the feces of the duke. Later, all the fascist leaders have a huge dinner with the prisoners where they all dine on feces. The president has much enjoyment eating feces and flirting with one of his young male prisoners seated across from him.
Pasolini presents fascism as the dehumanization and destruction of the individual. None of the sex scenes in Salo are even remotely erotic. Sex has become something that is done at the command of the fascist government without warning. Humans are turned into objects of pleasure for fascist leaders who can’t control their own power.
Throughout the film the young prisoners are also forced to hear perverted sex stories from middle aged prostitutes. Pasolini felt that the language of Power in fascist Italy corrupted, degraded, and brought with it the objectification of the body (Schwartz, 1992). The narration by the prostitutes gets so out of hand that it perfectly compliments the bad dream feeling of the overall film. As the viewer you even feel dehumanized. Pier Paolo Pasolini succeeded in delivering his antifascist message via sexual nightmare.
Europeans seem to have a more clear view on Fascism having experienced it firsthand. This is obvious viewing the countless European films dealing with it. Americans never experienced firsthand the repressiveness and horrors of fascism. American soldier’s toured Europe and battled its soldiers, but never knew what it felt like to be a victim of it. American war films reflect that. As brought up before, the majority of American war films are combat films (as they should be). They provide the viewer with entertainment, mostly unnecessary melodrama, and American patriotism (even in the antiwar films). It will be interesting to see what the future holds for American war films.