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The Review/Feature/

Lest We Forget: Films for Remembrance Day

The World Wars on screen

by
Nov 11, 2016

Most people born in western countries in the last 40 or 50 years have not had to experience war firsthand. The bravery and sacrifice of the people who lost their lives in the World Wars has allowed those born later the safety and comfort to contemplate that sacrifice.
One way of doing so is by engaging with stories of the wars on film. Filmmakers have portrayed World Wars I and II and the Korean war from many angles, taking audiences into the trenches and the darkest places, showing them the conflict from the perspective of soldiers and victims on both sides, and sometimes complicating our understanding of the meaning of war, while tracing its effects on the human beings caught up in it.
Film cannot impart the reality of war. No art form can. But it does offer a potent reminder of what happened to the people who lived through it, and those who died because of it.

Fields of Sacrifice | dir. Donald Brittain | 1964

This documentary, shot in the early 1960s, returns to the fields of battle where 100,000 Canadian soldiers died in World Wars I and II. The director, Donald Brittain, was an NFB employee on the verge of being fired for his less-than-stellar work on several projects. When the Department of Veterans Affairs commissioned a film about Canadian war graves and nobody else at the NFB wanted the job, it fell to Brittain. Rather than just phone in a dull, depressing set of images, he ended up producing a sometimes-poetic, sometimes-ironic film that shows a world that has moved on from war, but not forgotten the sacrifices made by Canada's soldiers.

Land of Mine | dir. Martin Zandvliet | 2015

Martin Zandvliet's tale of German POWs who were sent to Denmark after World War II and forced to clear mines played at TIFF '15. It's based on actual events; of the 2,000 young men who were assigned the incredibly dangerous task, nearly half were killed or lost limbs.

The film received a lengthy standing ovation at the Festival, and reviewers like Stephen Farber of The Hollywood Reporter were impressed with Land of Mine's "fresh and compelling approach to this well-traveled territory." It's a story that shows us how the horror of war — and the blunt reality of young lives cut short — is not necessarily contained even after peace is declared.

Paths of Glory | dir. Stanley Kubrick | 1961

Kubrick's film about the First World War is a towering achievement, and the scene above is one of its most iconic: Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax walks the trenches, an attack begins, and the audience is dropped into a world so horrifying it seems surreal.

Stalingrad | dir. Joseph Vilsmaer | 1993

As we remember Canada's war dead, film can also remind us that war is horrific for those on both sides of the conflict. The battle for Stalingrad, as depicted in this 1993 German film, makes this painfully clear. It is one of several attempts to dramatize the fighting on the Eastern front — this one is told from the point of view of German soldiers, while another film with the same title was released in 2013 telling the story from the Russian side. It's a bleak narrative, rendered all the more painful by the statistics that are shown at the end: more than one million people were killed in action, starved, or froze to death during the fight for Stalingrad.

Test of Will: Canada in Korea 1950-53 | prod. Richard Nielsen | 2002

While the World Wars are a major focus on Remembrance Day, it is important to remember that Canadians also fought and died in the Korean war. This 2-hour documentary tells the story of our involvement in the war, using footage and stills from the time, as well as the voices of soldiers who fought in the conflict, to immerse viewers in the tale of the Canadian military in Korea.

Son of Saul | dir. László Nemes | 2015

More than 43,000 Canadians were killed in World War II. As we remember their sacrifice, it's also important to remember what they were fighting for, and film can offer an unbearable window into the terrible truth of what was happening in Europe at the time. Son of Saul is a Hungarian film which played at TIFF '15 and won the Grand Prix at Cannes last year. It plunges viewers into Auschwitz in 1944 and tells the story of a man who has been forced to burn the corpses of his fellow prisoners. When he comes across the body of a boy he believes to be his son, he finds renewed purpose in trying to arrange a religious burial for the child. Shot in claustrophobic style, with cinematography that emphasizes shadows and the colours of sickness, the film has been praised for its unflinching depiction of the realities of the Holocaust. As Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw put it in his five-star review, "Nemes’s film has found a way to create a fictional drama with a gaunt, fierce kind of courage – the kind of courage, perhaps, that it takes to watch it."