[DVD] Europeans do it better

I have a very long list of films to be reviewed, divided in two big categories: watched in the cinema or at home. Within the ones I've seen at home, there are subcategories: good films, bad films, and European films.

Today's topic is European films about World War II. I was going to do my first videoblog about this topic, but I never find the time and I'm not very sure how to do it (video editing, especially... I have too big of a project in mind), so I'll just write about it.

The thing is, there are a vagillion films about WWII, because it's an easy topic when they aim at doing an "epic" film. It's easy: the allied forces are THE Good Ones (especially American soldiers: they are always la crème de la crème in war movies) and Nazis or the Japanese are EVIL. Of course, I'm talking about films shot from the perspective of Hollywood here.

I don't know about Japanese films because the truth is, I've never watched one about this topic. But despite it being the darkest moment of German history, there are many German films on WWII. Which shocked me when I was living there, because it's not exactly something they are proud of or like to talk about.

For some reason that escapes me, European cinema is very badly distributed in the rest of Europe, meaning that we don't get to see much of what our neighbours are doing (with the possible exceptions of British and French films). I attribute this to the fact that 1) the Hollywood industry is way stronger than European cinema industry; 2) marketing problems; and 3) more than 50 languages are spoken throughout Europe, so finding a translator for certain language combinations must not be an easy task, while there are thousands of translators from English.

During this past year I've watched three European films about WWII that changed my life: Sophie Scholl - Die letzten Tage (Marc Rothemund, 2005), Der Untergang (by Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004), both of them German, and the Dutch film Zwartboek (Paul Verhoeven, 2006). The context is similar in the three of them, but the time and places are different.

Sophie Scholl - Die letzten Tage takes us to Munich in late 1942. A group of resistence students who call themselves White Roses distribute anti-war and anti-Nazi panflets secretly and three of them are caught: Christoph Probst, Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie Scholl. They are trialed for treason and sentenced to death in the guillotine. The movie shows us Sophie's days-long interrogation and how she stands up to what she believes in, even if she has to die for it because the regime won't tolerate such propaganda against them.

In 1945 Berlin, the highest charges of the Nazi government hide in Hitler's bunker in Der Untergang. In spite of the fact that the Russian troops are not far away from the capital city, and in spite of the fact that his generals think that he is crazy for staying, Hitler still wants to resist because he sincerely thinks that he is going to win the war.

Sophie Scholl and Hitler are the opposite sides of one same coin. The former is a hero and dies because she defends the people's right to know what the Nazi regime is doing, the people's right to open their eyes and think by themselves and speak up. The latter is portrayed in Der Untergang as a crazy old man, the antihero, and not even his collegues respect him that much anymore, but still follow him until the very end.

While Sophie Scholl - Die letzten Tage and Der Untergang are films "to think" (meaning that they are not precisely action movies with lots of explosions and such), and the characters the films are based on are real, the story in Zwartboek is ficticious and more Hollywood-like.

Zwartboek takes us to Holland during the German invasion in the early 1940's. It's the ficticious story of Rachell Stein, a Jewish singer who must hide in order to survive. After being almost killed and seeing how her whole family is murdered, Rachel joins a resistence group in The Hague and her mission is to seduce a Nazi officer in order to save other members of the resistence.

But, alas! Rachel, now known as Ellis de Vries, is also human, and so happen to be Müntze, the Nazi officer, and all of the members of the resistence, and everybody wants to survive at any cost. And that is what makes the film really interesting instead of just another action film with lots of explosions and deaths and such.

This is precisely what I loved about these three films: the characters are human and plausible, drawn in shades of gray instead of plain black or white. This is especially important with "the bad ones": I sincerely believe that the best villains are those that don't look like villains. It's also important that main characters are not hollow or Mary-Sue-ish, especially if they are the heroes. Sophie Scholl or Ellis de Vries could be any of us (with an overdose of courage, that is).

I know there are some very good, deep and well-developed Hollywood films on WWII, but I think that the fact that the US didn't have fights within their borders (except for Pearl Harbour) it feels like it's just another foreign war in which American soldiers went to save the world, while in Europe millions of civilians died, and that's what movies reflect somehow: the points of view are different according to how deep the wound left by WWII is in your country.