World War Two & the Holocaust Films

The 1939-1945 war which began with Germany's invasion of Poland in September 1939 under Adolf Hitler's quest for Europe-wide Nazi-domination, and gradually engaged America and the Asia-Pacific region in the conflict. While fighting a war to the east and west of Germany, Hitler's virulent nationalism and anti-Semitism was paving the way for the Final Solution, from 1942 to 45, an operation on an unprecedented scale, categorising, deporting, and exterminating the Jews and other so-called 'undesirable' groups, mainly in the forests of Eastern Europe and the Nazi Extermination camps in Poland. The Holocaust has provided the source and inspiration for a large number of films, which attempt to capture the sense of life in the concentration and extermination camps, or focus on resistance to the Nazis' Final Solution. Very often these films explore the human impact on relationships, family, and loss, attempting to show the deep and enduring impact the Holocaust has left on individuals, families, and Jewish culture in Europe.

Many films on the theme of WWII focus on warfare in Europe and the Allied campaign against Nazi Germany and the Axis powers. A smaller number of films have a specific focus on the war in the East and the Allied campaign against the Japanese forces.  This element of WWII went on beyond the defeat of Germany in 1945, and led Allied soldiers into the hostile and unfamiliar terrain of the jungles of Asia.

  • Katyn Cross: commemorating Katyn massacre of 1940. Taken 2012 Krakow, Poland. Copyright V. Nesfield, used with permission.


Amen (2002) War drama about newly-commissioned Lieutenant Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), who witnesses the chemical disinfectant he's helped perfect being used to systematically murder interred Jews. The only sympathetic ear he is able to find is that of young Father Riccardo (Mathieu Kassovitz), a priest with deep ties to the Vatican. While Riccardo takes on the obstructive Vatican hierarchy, Gerstein must walk a tightrope between documenting and enabling the atrocities his fellow SS officers cold-bloodedly commit. As the two unlikely allies fight to reveal the truth to the Church and the world, they discover that the fates of a man of conscience committing treason for the sake of humanity and a man of God committing heresy to thwart genocide are ultimately the same. (Directed by Costa-Gravas.)

Beautiful Dachau (2006) A short film by Alan Marcus exploring the issues of Holocaust tourism and Germany's post-Holocaust reconciliation with its own history. Using Concentration Camp Dachau as the context, the film negotiates the challenges facing the town of Dachau in remembering and acknowledging its notorious history, and functioning as a modern residential and tourist town now. (Alan Marcus)

The Burmese Harp (Biruma no tategoto) (1956) In the final days of the war a Japanese soldier, having surrendered his regiment to the British, fails to persuade a Japanese battalion to surrender too. Disguising himself as a monk, he begins to adopt the lifestyle of a Buddhist monk. (Directed by Kon Ichikawa.)

Come and See (1985) A devastating account of the Nazi occupation of Belarus during World War II, it tells the story of a young boy’s abrupt loss of innocence when he joins the Soviet resistance and is thrust headlong into the brutal horrors of combat. Featuring terrifyingly authentic battle scenes and poetic, almost surreal imagery, this film is a vivid and unforgettably powerful portrait of the atrocities committed by men in the name of war. (Directed by Elem Klimov.)

The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler (2009) The story of Irena Sendler, a social worker who was part of the Polish underground during World War II and was arrested and tortured by the Nazis for saving the lives of nearly 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw ghetto. (Directed by John Kent Harrison.)

Defiance (2008) Four Jewish brothers flee Nazi occupation to the forests of Eastern Europe, joining up with a partisan movement and other Jews in hiding. A story of resistance to the Nazi juggernaut, camaraderie and determination to fight until the end. (Directed by Edward Zwick.)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (2003) Heroic Lutheran youth leader, pastor, and theologian in Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German clergyman of great distinction who actively opposed Hitler and the Nazis and was hanged less than a month before the war was over, this film covers the last few years of his life and his courage and conviction to what sadly cost him his life. (Directed by Martin Doblmeier.)

Downfall (2004) Controversial German drama about the final days of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. Bruno Ganz plays the German dictator who, as the Russians encroach on Berlin, retreats to his bunker with his fiancée Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler), his private secretary Traudle Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), and his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes). Based on Junge’s memoir of her time as Hitler’s secretary, the film shows Hitler’s violent moods, his moments of humanity towards his staff, his desperate attempts to grasp a military victory, and the claustrophobia of the final days of Nazism in the bunker. (Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel.)

Europa Europa (1990) A Jewish boy separated from his family in the early days of the war poses as a German orphan and enters into the heart of the Nazi world. Hiding in plain sight as an Aryan, he becomes a Hitler Youth member and begins a relationship with an anti-Semitic girl. (Directed by Agnieszka Holland.)

Fateless (2005) 14-year-old György's life is changed forever in World War II Hungary. Deported to a concentration camp, he is forced to confront his Jewish identity and where he finds the meaning of community. In a different vein to many Holocaust films, Fateless offers György’s view of life after the Holocaust too, and the alienation he feels from the ordinary world outside of the camps. (Directed by Lajos Koltai.)

The Grey Zone (2001) Drama based on the book Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account by Dr Miklos Nyiszli, and discussed by Primo Levi in his work on the grey zone of morality in the camps. The Sonderkommando unit in Auschwitz are planning an armed revolt. As the rebellion is about to begin, the group discovers a 14-year-old girl who has somehow survived a gassing. The girl becomes a catalyst for their desperate attempt at personal redemption, as the unit attempt to protect the girl even if it threatens the revolt which could save thousands of lives. (Directed by Tim Blake Nelson.)

The Hiding Place (1975) In wartime Holland, Corrie ten Boom and her family of watchmakers quietly sheltered Jews in their small house until Nazis discovered the hiding place and arrested them all. This is the gripping, true story of Corrie and her sister’s endurance in the horrors of the Ravensbruck death camp, and their sure hope that God is the true hiding place. (Directed by James F. Collier.)

Life Is Beautiful (1997) Controversial due to Benigni’s intention to create a Holocaust narrative with humour. Guido (also Roberto Benigni), a carefree and jovial Italian Jew finds himself deported to a concentration camp with his wife and young son, Giosue, on his son’s birthday. Determined to protect his son's innocence and allay his fears, Guido goes to elaborate lengths to convince Giosue that their imprisonment is a game, with the grand prize being a tank. (Directed by Roberto Benigni.)

Night and Fog (1955) One of the first films to be made about the Holocaust, only a decade after the liberation of the camps, and still one of the highest regarded. Resnais visits the desolate grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau and combines this footage with historical film footage taken by the allies at liberation. François Truffaut called Night and Fog: “Not a documentary, or an indictment, or a poem, but a meditation on the most important phenomenon of the Twentieth Century.” (Directed by Alain Resnais.)

The Ninth Day (2004) A film which tackles the complex issue of Catholicism during the Holocaust and the silence of the Vatican during the Nazi years. Imprisoned in Dachau with other Catholic Priests, Father Abbé Henri Kremer is granted nine days leave to return to his home town for his mother's funeral. SS Lieutenant Gebhardt offers Henri his freedom if he can convince the local bishop to capitulate to the Nazis, but if he cannot, Henri’s death awaits him. (Directed by Volker Schlöndorff.)

Schindler's List (1993) Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a Nazi Party member more interested in the social opportunities his membership affords him, than party politics. Dispatched to Poland, the local Jewish population provide a ready source of cheap labour for his factory, but with the realisation that the Jews he does not hire from the ghetto will be sent to concentration camps, Oskar's factory becomes an in-demand shelter. Schindler must maintain his façade of Nazi allegiance while protecting an ever-growing list of employees. (Directed by Steven Spielberg.)

Shoah (1985) This epic nine and a half hour documentary tells the story of the Holocaust, specifically the Jewish experience, (hence the terminology Shoah) entirely through the medium of interviews, and without any archive footage or photography. Lanzmann questions survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators in his tenacious style of extracting the minute details of his subjects’ experiences, and in some cases, demonstrating that the anti-Semitic sentiment has not yet died down. (Directed by Claude Lanzmann.)

Weapons of the Spirit (1987) The story of the tiny Protestant Le Chambon-sur-Lignon village in France that hid Jews from the Nazis. (Directed by Pierre Sauvage.)

Film synopses and descriptions for Amen, The Burmese Harp; Come and See; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and The Hiding Place, sourced from Amazon UK (   Synopsis for The Ninth Day from Amazon USA (

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