Streaming services contain a wealth of overlooked foreign-language war stories
This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
One of the many joys of our new streaming universe, where years’ worth of content can be instantly accessed, is digging around in the more obscure corners of Netflix and Amazon Prime.
For those with the patience to read subtitles, there is a cornucopia of excellent foreign language films that mainstream cinema and television channels consider too niche to show, but which are still absorbing, even enlightening viewing. The Forgotten Battle and The Unknown Soldier are two of my most recent discoveries and are both highly recommended.
Set in two lesser known theatres of the Second World War — the Netherlands in late 1944, and the Russo Finnish conflict — they are richly layered, intelligent, character led productions that show the bloody reality of war through the lives and deaths of everyday people.
The combat scenes are superb, showing the sheer randomness of death in battle
The Forgotten Battle, directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., opens in autumn 1944 as the Germans are retreating. The Dutch stand watching, trying to contain their joy. A young man called Dirk throws a rock at a German vehicle, which crashes, resulting in several German deaths. Soon after, the Germans re occupy the town and demand Dirk’s surrender. The film is told through several points of view: a Dutch soldier fighting with the Nazis, a British pilot who crash lands in Holland, and Teuntje, Dirk’s sister. The interplay between Teuntje, Dirk and their father, who has worked with the Germans, is well told, especially his naïve and catastrophic belief that he can negotiate with the Nazis.
The storylines play out against a strategic background as the Allies attempt to open up supply routes to the front. Nearly 13,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded in the battle for the river Scheldt, many of them Canadian.
The combat scenes are superb, showing the sheer randomness of death in battle, the storylines compelling, the script and the cinematography excellent. The Dutch resisters’ execution is haunting. Now available on Netflix, it has been deservedly garlanded with awards in The Netherlands.
Finland’s war is little known outside the region. The Nordic country fought the Soviets from 1939 to 1940, losing a swathe of territory, then allied with the Germans from 1941 to 1944 in the “Continuation War”, temporarily recaptured some of its lost lands, then made peace with the Soviets.
A curious footnote is that Finland, while aligned with Berlin, refused to deport its small Jewish community and Jewish soldiers fought in the Finnish army, sometimes alongside the Wehrmacht.
Based on a bestselling novel by Väinö Linna, who fought in the Continuation War, The Unknown Soldier was released in 2017, on the hundredth anniversary of Finnish independence and is available on Amazon Prime for 99 pence.
That’s a small sum well spent. The film is an ensemble piece whose storyline moves between different characters on the front lines and in the capital Helsinki. The soldiers flow back and forth across the contested lands as the fortunes of war shift, but the human story is always to the fore.
One Finnish soldier has a quick romance with a local girl, but the territory is lost to Russians. When the Finns recapture the town, she has disappeared. The battle scenes are gripping , the carnage and courage of trench warfare exploding across the screen. Brilliantly directed by Aku Louhimies, The Unknown Soldier is the story of wartime Finland itself.
Not surprisingly the sight of German officers marching around a Jewish owned department store caused great upset
And finally, I wrote in last month’s issue about how America freed numerous Nazi industrialists after the war so they could run the economy of the new West German state. This was part of a wider strategy to exploit German technological expertise, including the Nazi rocket scientists such as Wernher von Braun, who developed the rockets that killed thousands of civilians in Britain, as well as vast numbers of concentration camp inmates and slave labourers who assembled them. Von Braun and the other scientists should have been tried as war criminals.
Camp Confidential, a gripping new short animated documentary on Netflix, tells the story of the secret site known as PO Box 1142 where, not far from Washington DC, von Braun and his colleagues were held after their arrival in the United States.
As Israeli film makers Daniel Sivan and Mor Loushy show in this extraordinary film, they were put up in country club conditions. PO Box 1142 had a swimming pool and tennis courts, good food and copious supplies of alcohol. The Nazis were even taken shopping in Washington DC to buy underwear for their wives and chocolate for their children.
Not surprisingly, the sight of German officers, still wearing their long leather coats, marching around a Jewish owned department store, barking orders to the sales assistants, caused great upset.
The computer generated animation brings a dream like quality to the story but for many American soldiers serving at PO Box 1142 life there was a nightmare. As German Jewish refugees, they had signed up to fight the Nazis, not baby sit them. Nowadays von Braun is still lauded as the father of the US space programme, but Camp Confidential at least sheds a powerful light on a dark corner of American history.
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