Though it is not apparent in the Anglophone popular culture that dominates the cinema, broadcasting and publishing industries globally, the bulk of the combat in the European theater of World War II — which ended 75 years ago — took place in the East.
It was on what Germans called “The Russian Front” or “The Eastern Front” (“Ost Front”) that Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht deployed the bulk of its forces, and suffered the bulk of its casualties.
After early disasters, Joseph Stalin’s Red Army learned to counter Germany’s innovative mechanized tactics in battles like the offensive against Moscow; the nightmarish street fighting at Stalingrad; the titanic armored clash at Kursk; and the even more colossal “Destruction of Army Group Center” on the Polish border.
And eventually, it was not the Union Flag or the Stars and Stripes that was raised over Berlin’s Reichstag, but the Red Banner.
Moreover, it was in the East that the Nazis carried out their worst atrocities. The death camps were exclusively established in Poland, and the dark forests and broad steppes of the USSR became slaughter grounds as SS units undertook “counter-insurgency” operations against partisans and civilians, and unleashed their mobile death commandos, the Einstatzgruppen against Soviet Jews.
In a battle to the death between dictator and dictator, the blood price paid by the USSR was massive: 27 million Soviets are believed to have perished in four years of war.
Yet while war films are a popular genre, little of the above has been seen by Western cinema audiences. With such a richness of closer-to-home material to draw from — D-Day, Arnhem, the bomber offensive, Pearl Harbor, Midway, etc — the Eastern Front has, perhaps understandably, been largely overlooked by Hollywood.
There are exceptions. Sam Peckinpah’s blood-spattered Cross of Iron (1977) about a German unit retreating from the Crimea, is beloved of war-movie buffs, but is not considered a top-tier Hollywood war flick. Enemy at the Gates (2001) covering the exploits of snipers in Stalingrad, boasted Jude Law’s star appeal, but was criticized for inaccuracies.
Naturally, auteurs from the countries engaged have been more focused.
The defeat of Nazism was arguably Soviet Communism’s greatest feat, and it featured in multiple Soviet films — few of which gained traction in the West. Today, with Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin strongly promoting patriotism, a new wave of Russian war films has appeared. German filmmakers have been less productive, but have produced some somber classics.
Below, Asia Times takes a tour of the Eastern Front with a Top 10 movie list that ends with what just may be the greatest war film you have never heard of in the Number 1 slot.
A warning to readers: Some of the films below are significantly more challenging to watch than Western war movies.
10: Stalingrad: Dogs! Do you want to live forever? (1959, West Germany) Stalingrad, the industrial city on the Volga, represented the high water mark of Hitler’s advance in the East, and then — after Soviet Marshal Georgi Zhukov surrounded and crushed the German Sixth Army there — represented a turning point in the war. Fought in hellish conditions — at close range, in ruins, amid sub-zero temperatures, by soldiers who were starving to death — the battle was the first time an entire German Army had been annihilated. This early West German anti-war film captures its desperation and despair, in black and white cinematography that not only encompasses the starkness of grey rubble and white frost, but also recalls the real-life battlefield newsreels that many of its viewers remembered from the previous decade. The title, incidentally, originated in an imprecation delivered by Frederick the Great to his retreating troops. In surrounded Stalingrad, German troops had nowhere to retreat to.
9: T34 (Russia, 2018) If World War I was the war of the trench, World War II was the war of the tank. And the war-winning tank for the USSR was the T34 — today, a beloved icon among Russians. Maneuverable, powerful, dependable and easy to produce, it lacked the firepower and optics of the best German tanks — but also outnumbered them. This rousing, rattling, new-wave, big-budget Russian war film brings CGI and video-gaming technology into the cinema to show exactly what happens, in slow motion, when shell impacts armor. Remarkably, the plot — Soviets POWs escape Germany in a T34 — actually recalls a true story, though in reality the vehicle that was hijacked by a Soviet POW was a German bomber, not a tank.
8: Unknown Soldier (Finland, 2017) It was not just Germany versus the USSR: A range of European nations fought alongside the Nazis in the East: Hungarians, Italians, Rumanians, Italians, Spanish — and Finns. The latter were perhaps the one nation to emerge with their honor intact: They were (largely) fighting a defensive war; were lauded for their combative prowess; and do not stand accused of the atrocities their allies committed. This film is the third and most recent adaption of the most famous Finnish novel of the war (not to be confused with Franco-German Guy Sajer’s classic The Forgotten Soldier which tells of a panzer grenadier’s experiences on the Eastern Front). Superbly shot on location with thousands of extras from the Finnish Army, Unknown Soldier is the story of the Finnish “deep forest fighters” who were engaged on the eastern front’s northernmost limits. This gritty adaption finds them reaching their own limits, despite the camaraderie that unites them, as they are relentlessly whittled down in combat after combat.
7. Ballad of a Soldier (USSR, 1959) Ballad of a Soldier is unusual war film in that its focus is not on combat but on love: romantic love; love of parents for children; and love of country. A soldier destroys two enemy tanks, and is granted six days of leave to visit his mother. Heading home, he witnesses the devastation of his country, and falls in love — to the point that he only has the chance to spend a few minutes with his mother before returning to the front. Ballad of a Soldier was recognized as an instant classic and was — unusually, given the Cold War era it was made in — shown in the US, to acclaim. The voice overs that both start and end the film state that the soldier was killed and buried in a foreign land, but will be remembered simply as a Soviet soldier.
6: White Tiger (Russia, 2012) Another unconventional film, White Tiger combines surreal plot with cinematic hyper realism. On the surface, it is a a battle between the two iconic tanks of the war, the medium Russian T34/85 and the heavy German Tiger. Deeper down, it is the story of the demonic spirit of war itself, as personified by the supernatural “White Tiger” of the title, the Nazis’ most fearsome fighting vehicle. The invincible nature of this beast tells the viewer something about the awe with which Soviet and Allied troops held the Tiger, the ultimate German panzer. The hero is a horrifically burned Soviet tanker who gains the ability to “speak” to tanks, and who takes it upon himself to find and kill the super tank. But it is the high-impact battle scenes and wincingly realistic wounds the tank crews — trapped in boxes of burning metal as their vehicles “brew up” — suffer that will remain with the viewer.
5: The Pianist (Poland/France/Germany/UK, 2002) Roman Polanski’s story of a Jewish concert pianist barely surviving the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the 1944 Warsaw Uprising to welcome the first Red Army troops into the ruins of his city was a multiple Oscar winner. While many films have covered the Holocaust — which was largely carried out on Polish soil at the extermination camps of Auschwicz-Birkanau, Belzec, Chelmo, Sobibor and Treblinka — The Pianist focuses more broadly on the sufferings of Poland, which lost 6 million of its 35 million strong pre-war population, and saw its capital razed to the ground.
4: Der Untergang/Downfall (Germany, 2004) The Gotterdamerung of the Third Reich plays out from the claustrophobic vantage point of Hitler’s bunker, with Bruno Ganz putting in a frighteningly brilliant performance as the increasingly demented Fuhrer. While it may still be politically ticklish for Germans — the perpetrators of the worst national crimes in modern history — to claim any victimhood in the war, Downfall does not flinch from showing the suffering of Berliners. SS execution squads roaming the burning city gun down deserters, and hapless children are compelled to take on the advancing Red Army as it smashes through the “lair of the fascist beast” street by street. But it is Granz who bestrides the film like a colossus: Never before has dictatorial evil been so charismatically portrayed on screen.
3: The Cranes are Flying (USSR, 1957) If Tolstoy had been a war film director, this is the movie he would have made. Not an action film, The Cranes are Flying covers the colossal trauma the war had on both the physical infrastructure and national psyche of the Soviet Union, as experienced by one family. At the center of its complex plot is a soldier lost in action, and the ramifications that the related uncertainties have on his lover. The film briefly made its stunning female lead, Tatiana Samoilova a star in the West. Despite its tragic theme, the film ultimately ends on an uplifting note related to its title. Fine acting, superb production design and absolutely top-notch black and white photography make this not just a masterpiece of Soviet cinema, but a masterpiece of cinema, period.
2: Stalingrad (Germany, 1993) The grip that Stalingrad had over the German psyche remained firm as late as 1993 — as witness this movie. Made by the same production team who had produced the classic submarine drama Das Boot, it uncompromisingly covers the German Sixth Army’s destruction with full-on, Hollywood-style production values. The viewer follows a battalion of elite German assault engineers as they deploy from sunny Italy to the farthest reaches of the Russia steppes. Their mission: To break the iron Soviet resistance in the rubble and bring the grinding battle to a victorious conclusion. (The combat engineer units, specialists in flamethrowers and explosives, did, indeed, exist. They were wiped out in the city.) Set pieces capture the hideous struggle in all its gory: a bloody assault on fortified Soviet positions in a ruined factory; the agonies of the wounded in a sordid underground field hospital; T34 tracks grinding German infantry to death in their holes in the snow; and desperate crowds of wounded men mobbing aircraft attempting to fly out of the doomed fortress-city. Stalingrad was one of the most hideous battles ever fought; Stalingrad memorializes it with one of the bleakest movies ever produced.
1: Come and See (USSR, 1985) The only thing worse than the war on the front lines was the war behind the front lines — for it was in the counter-insurgency operations in the USSR, Poland and Yugoslavia that the Nazis unleashed their most savage and genocidal instincts. In this vein, no war movie list is complete without director Elem Klimov’s haunting and traumatizing masterpiece. Set in occupied Byelorussia, the film covers a young lad who seeks to join the partisans and see the war. He gets his wish — and the viewer joins him as he descends into the abyss. The film’s gorgeous cinematography contrasts with its searing subject matter as Klimov’s camera traverses atrocity after atrocity and in a remarkable performance, the lead, 16-year-old Aleksei Kravchenko, ends the film looking like an old man. The final set piece of Come and See is the equal to the beach landing in Saving Private Ryan and the helicopter assault in Apocalypse Now but is far, far more harrowing to watch: Its subject matter is the massacre of a village by SS troops. (So accurate is its portrayal of the technique of mass murder that the scene plays in the museum in Oradour, the southern French village liquidated by SS troops in 1944.) Klimov had himself experienced the war as a child, being evacuated from Stalingrad; after Come and See, he would never make another film.