Among the more recent Russian movies about World War II, Rogozhkin’s "The Cuckoo" may be the most satisfying. Source: Kinopoisk
1. “The Cranes Are Flying” (1957) by Mikhail Kalatozov
Soviet cinema’s critical engagement with the war began in many ways with Kalatozov’s film, which was voted by Russian critics in 2008 as the best film of the first 50 years of Russian cinema. Kalatozov’s film was the first among many classics from the Thaw era that dealt with the war’s significance, preceding Grigorii Chukhrai’s "Ballad of a Soldier" (1959), Sergei Bondarchuk’s "Fate of a Man" (1959), Chukhrai’s "Clear Skies" (1961), and Andrei Tarkovsky’s "Ivan’s Childhood" (1962).
The whole film can be seen on the Mosfilm YouTube channel. Source: Youtube
The Cranes are Flying focuses on Veronika, who has seen her boyfriend Boris off to the front and who deals with the hardships the war causes at home. Tatiana Samoilova’s nuanced performance is one for the ages.
2. “Trial on the Road” (1971/1986) by Alexei German
Banned for 15 years, German’s first film tells the story of a Soviet soldier who defects to the Nazis, then switches sides again to fight with Soviet partisans. Based on his father’s novel and adapted by Eduard Volodarskii (who has written a number of important films dealing with the war), "Trial on the Road’s" examination of concepts such as “patriotism,” “hero,” and “traitor” remain profound.
“Trial on the Road” was censored and taken out of circulation in the Soviet Union for 15 years after its release due to its unflattering depiction of Soviet soldiers. Source: Youtube
German also directed another classic about the war, "Twenty Days Without War" (1976).
3. “They Fought For the Motherland” (1975) by Sergei Bondarchuk
Bondarchuk, a veteran of the war, first turned to it onscreen with his 1959 classic, "Fate of a Man". After making the six-hour epic adaptation of "War and Peace", which won the Academy Award, he returned to World War II in "They Fought for the Motherland".
The film was selected as the Soviet entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 49th Academy Awards in 1977, but was not accepted as a nominee. Source: Youtube
Set in July 1942, as the Red Army begins to battle at Stalingrad, the “they” in the movie are broken, wounded, weary, older, complex individuals. Bondarchuk decided to have this collection of soldiers defend a small, relatively unimportant plot of land. In the end, after defending some far-flung locales, the regiment, which has lost all of its officers, is told they will head to Stalingrad.
4. “Come and See” (1985) by Elem Klimov
Klimov’s masterpiece, set in occupied Belarus, is the story of Flyora, a young boy who gets caught up in the conflict and who stumbles through the hellish landscape that was the Eastern Front. Klimov’s film has consistently been cited as one of the best, if not the best, film about the war ever made.
Come and See is violent, brutal, horrific, and profound. Source: Youtube
When it appeared in the U.S., Walter Goodman declared that its “history is harrowing and the presentation is graphic” while its director was “a master of a sort of unreal realism that seeks to get at events terrible beyond comprehension.”
5. “The Cuckoo” (2002) by Alexander Rogozhkin
Among the more recent Russian movies about World War II, Rogozhkin’s "The Cuckoo" may be the most satisfying (Dmitrii Meskhiev’s 2004 "Our Own" is also worth a watch). In it, a Finnish soldier who was conscripted to fight for the Nazis and then chained to a rock after being labeled a pacifist, makes his way to the house of a Sami woman whose husband has also left to fight in the war. She is nursing an injured Soviet soldier who was sentenced to death for anti-Soviet activities but who managed to escape his execution.
The Cuckoo is a 2002 Russian historical comedy drama film directed by Aleksandr Rogozhkin. Source: Youtube
Rogozhkin’s film explores the way misperceptions and differences in language affect the way the three view each other, often with comedic effect.
1. “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946) by William Wyler
Wyler’s Academy Award-winning film for Best Picture of 1946 centers on the plight of three servicemen who meet while flying home after the war. Wyler’s direction and Robert Sherwood’s screenplay explore the difficulties all three men have in their attempts to return to civilian life and how the war may have taken away their best years.
The Best Years Of Our Lives - PTSD Nightmare. Source: Youtube
2. “The Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949) by Allan Dwan
Dwan’s film — particularly John Wayne’s performance as Sergeant John Stryker — is in many ways the quintessential American film about the war. Stryker’s methods initially anger the soldiers under his command, but when they arrive in the Pacific Theater, they come to appreciate the lessons he has taught.
3. “The Dirty Dozen” (1967) by Robert Aldrich
There are a host of films from the 1960s that capture the way Hollywood turned the war into an action-adventure escapade. One colleague of mine suggested that J. Lee Thompson’s The Guns of Navarone (1961) was the best of the bunch; my wife preferred John Sturges’s The Great Escape (1963); my father-in-law picked Brian Hutton’s Kelly’s Heroes (1970).
All have something to recommend them, but I’ll choose Aldrich’s film, which stars Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas and Robert Webber in a tale of how a small number of officers recruit a group of the army’s nastiest convicts for a mission to infiltrate a French chateau that houses Nazi officers.
Dirty Dozen (1967) Official Trailer. Source: Youtube
The Dirty Dozen, along with the others listed above, is a quintessential American war film of the period: action and adventure trump historical veracity. A Soviet review of the film and others like it said it represented some kind of American psychosis brought about by Vietnam. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times declared it to be a “raw and preposterous glorification of a group of criminal soldiers.”
4. “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) by Steven Spielberg
Yes, you have probably already seen Spielberg’s masterpiece, but it’s worth watching again to see how the director delves into the mythology of the war created by other American movies. It follows a basic plot established in numerous other films — an older officer tries to bring a group of younger soldiers together on a mission — and subtly subverts this plot. In the end, we are not sure that the mission has been worth it or that the losses of Americans rescuing one of their own were noble ones.
Saving Private Ryan Trailer. Source: Youtube
5 . “Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006) by Clint Eastwood
Two films, but best watched together, for they engage in a cinematic dialogue across the decades with "The Best Years of Our Lives" and "The Sands of Iwo Jima". The first narrates the story of three servicemen who raised the flag over Iwo Jima, who are subsequently flown back home to take part in morale-boosting events, and who all struggle to reintegrate back to normal life.
Letters from Iwo Jima Trailer. Source: Youtube
The second movie narrates the "Battle for Iwo Jima" from the Japanese perspective, focusing on a general and a private and their experiences on the island. The highlight of both movies is the battle scene filmed from two different perspectives.
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