5 Essential Films About World War II

  • “The Best Years of Our Lives”
“The Best Years of Our Lives”
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Few events have been depicted on screen as many times and in as many ways as World War II, which is remarkable given how many stories are left to tell. Eighty years’ worth of movies have deepened our understanding of the 20th century’s defining conflict, and there’s little reason to suspect that filmmakers will stop anytime soon. If you’ve seen all the usual suspects — your Saving Private Ryans, your Casablancas — and want to explore beyond the frontlines, here are five essential movies about World War II.

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To Be or Not to Be (1942)

With good reason, we rarely associate war with comedy — World War II least of all. The ability to make a charming, lighthearted picture about such a world-altering event as it was happening is part of the “Lubitsch Touch” that made German-born director Ernst Lubitsch one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of his or any other era. (Billy Wilder,  who directed such acclaimed movies as Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot, and Sunset Boulevard, had a sign taped to his office wall asking, “How would Lubitsch do it?”)

To Be or Not to Be takes place in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, where a troupe of actors find themselves entangled in a scheme to track down a German spy. Whatever you think of their production of Hamlet, there’s no doubting their ability to trick the Nazis with their performances — or make you laugh at some truly dark jokes. The film was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1996 and remains one of Lubitsch’s most acclaimed works, no small feat considering he also directed Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner, and Heaven Can Wait.

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