We may think that World War II and the Holocaust are fading into obscurity. But for millions of older American veterans, whose memories of the war are returning late in life, and for the millions of people around the world whose lives were changed forever by the Holocaust’s legacy—this era is as fresh as yesterday.
Plus, real “news” continues to surface. We just reported on “Hitler’s Hidden Holocaust,” a superb new National Geographic film, debuting August 2. The film shows the urgent need to document the nearly forgotten killing fields of eastern Europe before all memory fades with the last elderly witnesses living there.
And the “news” isn’t only about families directly affected by the Holocaust. We also told you about a new graphic novel by Carol Tyler, “You’ll Never Know,” a book about veterans’ memories that is recommended by the New York Times as well as ReadTheSpirit.
Now, Facets—the international nonprofit media-arts group—is offering exclusively through the Facets web site a 2-DVD set of rarely seen post-war films with imagery that’s sure to stir memories—and likely will inspire fresh courage. I know that both films contain scenes that I can’t get out of my mind since I previewed the DVDs this week.
“Somewhere in Europe” was released in 1947. It was produced in Hungary in the same post-war, rubble-strewn period that Roberto Rossellini was filming “Open City” and “Paisan” in Italy. The Rossellini films regularly aired on American television, partly because Rossellini included American troops in his half-documentary, half-dramatic films. The famous American director Martin Scorsese now says that watching “Paisan” on TV as a child shaped his whole approach to movie making.
“Somewhere in Europe,” set in Hungary, is a similar kind of movie. “Somewhere” never became as famous as Rossellini’s movies, partly because the Communist takeover of eastern Europe eventually downplayed such films.
But I guarantee you this: For anyone with family memories of post-war refugees, the opening scene of this film—actual refugee children trudging down a dirt road—will stir deep emotions. These skinny, trauma-toughened kids were recruited by director Geza Radvanyi to add realism. The plight of these orphans becomes a dramatic tale of kids desperately trying to survive, hiding out in a ruined castle and discovering a former concert pianist who becomes their mentor. He helps them begin a new life together. Adding to the harsh truth of this drama, however, townspeople living near the castle are not at all pleased. Conflict erupts.
“The Battle of the Rails” (“La Bataille du Rail”) is my personal favorite in this two-film set. Released in 1946, the production was masterminded by Rene Clement, the French director best known to Americans for the three-hour, 1966 epic, “Is Paris Burning?”
Like other courageous French filmmakers during the war, Clement began shooting scenes of French railway workers while the war still raged. He even managed to shoot footage of German troops guarding the railways. Then, immediately after the war, he added new scenes depicting members of the French Resistance showing how they had sabotaged the railways during the war.
Most of the “characters” in the film weren’t actors. They were the actual railway workers.
I was moved by scenes of the massive wartime operations involving blown up trains, including the use of huge cranes to clear away derailed locomotives. In my own family, my grandfather worked in exactly this kind of crew in a different region of the war. The two photographs here—at top and bottom today—were taken by my grandfather while working with his own wartime railway crews. Either image could serve as a “still” from Rene Clement’s film.
Beyond the heroic railway adventures, some scenes here pack an emotional wallop because they so clearly were produced by a team of war-hardened professionals who had seen death first hand. In one sequence, some members of the Resistance are caught by the Germans and lined up against a wall awaiting execution. For several long moments, we see and hear the world through their eyes and ears—not at all what I anticipated. I won’t spoil the scenes with further details.
Thanks to Facets for preserving and promoting global diversity. If you’re interested in the new 2-DVD set, visit this Facets page. AND, while you’re at it, MARK YOUR CALENDARS for this …
The Chicago International Children’s Film Festival is coming in October. This Facets event is very popular with educators and entire showings can fill up quickly—so plan early if you live in Chicago or plan to travel there for this celebration of arts and culture. The programs are designed to showcase a wide diversity of films for, by and about children. Facets also produces lesson plans and other educational materials to help educators work with young viewers.
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)