Back to IndieWire

Guilt And Rubble: 15 Essential Post-War Films

Guilt And Rubble: 15 Essential Post-War Films

This week, Phoenix,” Christian Petzold‘s noirish investigation into identity, loyalty and guilt in immediate post-war Germany, arrives in cinemas (our rave review from last year’s Toronto International Film Festival can be found here). It’s a heady, beautifully shot and deeply mysterious story, but perhaps more than anything, it’s about the unknowability of a person’s heart and the deceptiveness of appearances. These are particularly resonant themes given the film’s fascinating setting in place and period: within this richly evocative environment, people become more than characters in interpersonal dramas — they become metaphors for Germany’s guilt, shame or resentment about the recent Nazi past or symbols of the desire to simply forget.

For anyone interested in the points at which the history of film irrevocably intersects with world history, World War II marks an abrupt caesura, a before-and-after moment in time that fundamentally remade the world, as well as cinema. The films of and about the war itself are a category unto themselves, but the films that came just after 1945 or that deal with that immediate post-war era are perhaps even more vital and fascinating. The certainties of war-as-it-is-being-waged and the life-and-death struggles that dwarf all other considerations into unimportance are gone. Here instead is the long, long hangover from the costliest conflict in human history, and the sudden dreadful knowledge that as the dust settled, everyone had to reckon with their own part in it, no matter which side they’d been on, or however much they’d fought or lost.

READ MORE: 10 Great Lesser-Seen World War Two Movies

It was a period that forged some of the most important, influential cinematic movements of the twentieth century, and which saw some of the greatest directors of all time produce extraordinary work. So to celebrate the release of “Phoenix,” and taking our cue from the film in terms of time period (the years just after 1945, before the Cold War had really begun to take hold) and in terms of the experiences of countries on the losing side — Germany, Italy, Austria, Japan — we’ve compiled this selection of related movies. Out of the many, many more that exist, here are 15 films that deal, overtly or tacitly, with the legacy of guilt and destruction left in the immediate aftermath of the most devastating war in human history.

“The Marriage of Maria Braun” (1979)
Locating one of his most classical and accessible melodramas in the post-war years (actually three of them: ‘Maria Braun’ was the first in a thematic trilogy of films set in the new Bundesrepublik Deutschland which conceived Germany as a desirable yet morally ambiguous woman, both manipulator and manipulatee), Rainer Werner Fassbinder found a perfect melding of seedy content, lurid style and a desperate, dramatic setting in this film. His trademark shopworn lushness comes through in the ruined buildings and tatty train compartments, amid which Maria (Hanna Schygulla) preens and pouts in hats and heels and scarlet lipstick. It’s the contorted story of a Berlin woman who eventually gives her soldier husband up for dead, and embarks on a series of affairs for which the promise of good food, fine clothes, money and sex are overt, unapologetic justifications. When her beloved eventually does return alive and ends up going to prison for her, she continues this vacuous behavior in the name of building a life for them both, only for him to enter into a secret contract with her current lover that will keep them apart even longer. The film was an extremely troubled shoot, and like all of Fassbinder’s work, bears the hallmarks of intense (cocaine-based) hurry: little coverage; an amateur-dramatics feel to the acting at times; an artificial, sometimes tacky gloss in the images. But it also bursts with inventive filmmaking and commentary: on the warped post-war German spirit in which all interaction is merely transaction; on the untrustworthiness of behavior as an indicator of feeling; and on the impossibility of happiness in such an atmosphere of moral disaster. Even if the energy is synthetic and chemically induced, the erratic, splashy grandeur of ‘Maria Braun’ can’t be denied; it would become one of the basic gospel texts of New German Cinema.

“I Live In Fear” (1955)
Sandwiched in between classics like “Seven Samurai” and “Throne of Blood,” it’s not hard to understand why Akira Kurosawa’s “I Live In Fear” is underseen and underappreciated. And comparatively it may be the least actively “post-war” drama on this list, but of all Kurosawa’s post-war era films, its atomic age fears make it the most directly related to the subject. Set in the wake of Hiroshima, the movie centers on a family court mediator as he comes upon an extremely odd, dramatic case: a family trying to declare their wealthy patriarch mentally incompetent because the elderly doyen harbors deep delusion and paranoia regarding atomic warfare. The father, Kiichi Nakajima (the great Toshiro Mifune), has spent millions trying to move their operations to Northern Japan and to build underground shelters, but worse still, Kiichi has a greater obsession: a plan to move the entire family (plus his mistresses and all resulting illegitimate children!) and business to Brazil, no doubt wasting their entire family fortune in the effort.  Kurosawa’s movie then chronicles the miserable, unbalanced mental state of the father, as well as the embittered clan, some of whom are genuinely suffering from the same illness (and the humiliating embarrassment of Japan’s defeat) that haunts their father, while others are opportunistically worried about their cut, while the sympathetic adjudicator soberly contemplates this troublesome dilemma bearing down on his shoulders. The restrained but doleful “I Live In Fear” is thus a soft but pointed minor tragedy filled with an aching low-key melancholy as it quietly traces the unseen and even more upsetting fallout of war’s end; the cultural anxiety and terror of living in the uneasy shadow of the bomb.

“Europa” (1991)
Before there was “Nymphomaniac,” before Dogme and before Cannes scandals in which he joked about being a Nazi, Lars Von Trier made “Europa” (released as “Zentropa” in the U.S. but now more commonly known by its original title). The final film in a thematic trilogy, all of which deal in more or less hallucinatory, metaphorical fashion with the devastation of post-war Europe, “Europa” is the most on point in that regard, detailing an idealistic, pacifist American (Jean-Marc Barr) coming to Germany immediately after the war to take up a position as a night-car guard on the railroad. Quickly embroiled in a morass of contradictory political influences, he falls for the daughter (Barbara Sukowa) of the railroad owner/industrialist, whose own hands may not be clean of Nazi involvement, while also being an unwitting pawn in the chess-game played by corrupt Allied occupiers and partisan Germans, known as “werewolves” resisting occupation. Shot in striking monochrome and with technicolor flourishes (the astonishing underwater shot of red blood dripping into a bath is more impressive than all of “Sin City”), the film is heavily indebted to film noir, and from there to German Expressionism’s heightened sets and harsh directional lighting. And because it is Von Trier, it’s a deeply pessimistic film, heaving with a sort of coiled self-disgust in reserving its most scathing judgment not for the Allies or the Nazis, but for the people who never chose sides. This is the post-war era imagined as a post-apocalypse, a doomy place in which the recent past is so inescapable that it reaches through the present to choke the very idea of a future. Surprisingly, one of the film’s most successful flourishes, the second-person voiceover from Max Von Sydow, was only added for international release, but its countdown motif is appropriate: in “Europa,” time is always on the verge of running out and the future is an oncoming black tunnel from which we may never emerge.  

“Hiroshima, Mon Amour” (1959)
One of the most beautiful and emotionally vivid films ever made, Alain Resnais‘ influential excavation of memory and forgetfulness, “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” is an extraordinary work of art that locates the psychological scars of the war just ended in the mayfly relationship between a French woman and a Japanese man. Unfolding through stunningly evocative images (glistening ash falling on naked entwined limbs, looming buildings, neon Japanese signage, Emmanuelle Riva‘s hair, Eiji Okada‘s face), the film is told in a series of conversations between the two, mostly She relating her fragmentary recollections, only to be frequently contradicted by He. It’s undeniably arch, a self-consciously experimental construction of a film, but it rushes past with the logic not of a dream but of a memory that you’re trying to hold on to, even though the act of remembrance might bring you pain, and might dredge up buried shame. At moments, the manipulated, self-involved air of poetic melodrama can almost seem too much, too overwhelming to any sense of the film’s realism, but Resnais, working from Marguerite Duras‘ complex, indulgent script, always pulls back from the brink of overflow, casting many of these almost absurdly heightened exchanges against Sacha Vierny‘s rich but deceptively simple visuals, and even, on occasion, using documentary footage of the survivors of the atom bomb to jolt us back into immediacy. This is cinema as intoxication, drunk on guilt and passion (the film is desperately involved with the folly of doomed love) and full of heartbreak for all things the bomb, and the war, killed or maimed. Here, the post-war era seems so much more crushing for not dealing in life-or-death stakes, but in the tragedy of survival. It becomes a poem and a dirge for those who lived, and the endemic survivor’s guilt experienced by an entire generation.

“Germany Year Zero” (1948)
Shot on location in Germany only two years after World War II ended, Roberto Rossellini’s post-war drama “Germany Year Zero,” the final chapter of his War Trilogy, is not only a devastating neo-realist masterwork, it is perhaps the greatest post-war film ever told. In a bombed-out, practically post-apocalyptic Berlin, all families struggle to survive. The Italian director’s picture, which features all non-professional actors, centers on one family caught in the bleakest of conditions: the Kohler family, mired in drama on top of limited rations, waning electricity, heat and lack of other fundamentals. The malnourished father is an ailing, bedridden burden, the sister has turned to prostitution and the eldest son, a former soldier turned coward, fears he’ll be jailed for fighting to the bitter end and is unwilling to register for his ration card to help feed the suffering family. The housing authority forces them to live in the apartment of another, more affluent family that resents their presence. The burden thus falls on the family’s youngest, Edmund (Edmund Meschke), a twelve-year-old boy forced to dig graves and scrape up any menial work for extra money. As Edmund wanders the streets in search of work, he falls in with young thieving teenagers and his vile, vaguely pedophiliac ex-teacher who exploits the child to sell off fascist propaganda to occupying soldiers and fills his head with mendacities built on Hitler’s twisted philosophies about the weak. “Germany Year Zero” not only follows the slow demise of the Kohler family, but the disintegration of Edmund’s moral values and his poignant loss of innocence, as, under the influence of the loathsome Nazi sympathizer, he is led down a most heartbreaking path. A wrenching tragedy and a chilling reminder of the damage wrought on many subsequent generations by fascism, as agonizing as it is, its tacit compassion for the German people living in the aftermath also makes it an unforgettable work of towering humanism.

READ MORE: War Is Hell: 20-Minute Video Essay Explores The Cinematic Landscape Of War Movies

“Ten Seconds To Hell” (1959)
The Hurt Locker” for the post-war generation, Robert Aldrich‘s grim, grimy “Ten Seconds to Hell” is a weirdly downbeat picture, yet it contains stretches that are as tense and involving as any thriller. Combining many elements of the underrated director’s particular style, it even foreshadows his most famous title “The Dirty Dozen” in construction, detailing the reluctantly heroic exploits of a group of outcasts, a misfit bomb squad tasked with making safe the unexploded devices that litter the streets of Berlin immediately after the war. Here, though, they are outcasts from the German army, trusted by the Allied occupation forces at least partially because they were so disliked by their German army superiors as to be given the thankless, probable-suicide detail of bomb disposal. And they are anything but unified, held loosely together by common interest, but each having very different motivations for taking on such a perilous job. Their natural leader (played by Jack Palance, as stoic as an Easter Island Moai throughout) is a brilliant bomb expert, but clashes with his suave second-in-command, in both love and war, when they both fall for the same woman. As often with Aldrich, the film skates close to B-movie status, and is far more impressive in the micro than the macro of its plot: the love story never engages, too many of the supporting characters are undifferentiated cannon-fodder, and the higher stakes of the world outside and the politics are sometimes lost amid the clashing male egos of the troupe. But individual scenes really sing, especially the pared-back, almost Bressonian precision of the bomb disposal sequences, shot on location in Berlin for added authenticity, in which the business of firing pins and detonators and the need for a steady surgeon’s hand are rendered with procedural fascination and keep you utterly locked in your seat.

“The Third Man” (1949)
Bringing a rather British sensibility and a European flair to the very American film noir genre, “The Third Man” stands as one of the very greats (the BFI named it the greatest British film ever in 1999), but must have been even more stunning at the time, as one of the first movies to poke at the dark underbelly of the reality of Allied-run Europe. Written directly for the screen by “Brighton Rock” author Graham Greene (who turned it into a novella soon after), it stars Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins, an American writer of pulp Westerns who comes to post-war Vienna in search of old pal, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to learn that his friend is dead. Of course, that’s just the start of one of the great film thriller plots, building to a twist that’s still surprising, even given the presence of the biggest-name actor on the posters, revealed in an indelible screen entrance for Welles as Lime. It’s damn close to a perfect film on every level, thanks to Carol Reed’s fat-free, precise direction, the gorgeous photography by Robert Krasker (virtually inventing the Dutch angle), and the iconic score by Anton Karas, which became a major popular hit. But as unforgettable as Welles is, as one of the most iconic and complex villains ever, he’s nearly dwarfed by Vienna itself, the way that Reed captures a very particular time in the city’s history, as it’s divided up between the Allies and becomes a hotbed and magnet for any sociopathic opportunist like Lime. Hauntingly captured, the film only loosely deals with the impact of the war in the text, but with the action taking place against both the astonishing architecture of ancient history and the rubble of the recent, it’s a masterclass in making your movie even richer with the exact right setting.

“The Reader” (2008) 
Setting a film in the post-war period has led to a number of classics from some of the greatest filmmakers to ever work in the medium. It also led to Stephen Daldry’s “The Reader.” Harvey Weinstein had been trying to make a film of Bernhard Schlink’s semi-autobiographical novel for close to a decade, finally finding his glittering team with writer David Hare, director Stephen Daldry, and producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack (both of the latter passed away before the release), plus stars Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. Set principally in Germany in the 1950s and 1960s, it centers on Michael (David Kross as a young man, Fiennes as an older one), who has an affair as a fifteen-year-old with an older woman, Hanna (Winslet). Years later, as a law student, he attends a trial of a woman accused of a war crime as an SS officer, and is shocked to find Hanna is one of the defendants, doubly so when he realizes a secret she’s long kept that could help her defense (a secret that’s spectacularly obvious from the title: she’s illiterate). The attempt, presumably, was to make Hanna’s illiteracy a metaphor for an inability to confront the realities of the Holocaust, but it’s executed in an amazingly wrong-headed way: seemingly attempting at times to excuse her actions and failing to reveal much about the nature of Nazi evil, banal or otherwise. Moral dubiousness aside, it’s also dramatically turgid, flatly shot for a movie that utilized the talents of both Chris Menges and Roger Deakins, and Winslet aside, not even memorably acted. Nevertheless, it did what it set out to do, by which we mean it won Winslet an Oscar and netted the film a Best Picture nomination, despite having precious few insights to share on the collective guilt and shame of the Nazi generation, or the one that followed it. 

“A Foreign Affair” (1948)
Very underrated in the Billy Wilder canon — perhaps because it was released in the same year as the duff “Emperor Waltz,” was denounced at the time, and came just ahead of his extraordinary 1950s run, beginning with “Sunset Boulevard” — “A Foreign Affair” marked the first feature Wilder had shot in Europe after fleeing the Nazis fifteen years earlier. But that’s not to say that Wilder takes it easy on his home country: it’s a complex and biting genre-bender that sees Wilder baring his fangs with total disregard for the film’s purpose as propaganda, for the most part. Funded in part by the government, who were looking for a film set in Allied-occupied Germany, it sees congresswoman Jean Arthur coming to visit the troops, and enlisting a U.S. Army captain (John Lund) to try and track down a cabaret singer (Marlene Dietrich, of course) thought to have been the mistress of Göring and/or Goebbels, sparking off a love triangle. It’s that very particular Wilderian mix of tones, of sincere romanticism and deep cynicism, a thriller of sorts crashed into a rom-com and a portrait of a city rebuilding in both body and soul, and though it feels a touch compromised in places (it was a rough shoot, with Arthur in particular clashing with just about everyone), it’s a gloriously smart and surprisingly complex picture. You can sense Wilder’s anger at the Nazis, and his hurt at the damage done to Berlin, but the U.S. military and politicians are just as much the target of his ire here. And while Arthur and Lund are both very good — the latter didn’t really get the career he deserved, judging by his turn here — it’s fittingly Dietrich, in the first of two collaborations between her and Wilder, who really shines, taking a difficult role and making it sing (quite literally, in a number of highly memorable cabaret numbers).

“The Idiot” (1951)
Japan’s role in the Second World War (and its conclusion with the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima), and its changing nature under American occupation and beyond, haunted Akira Kurosawa’s work until the end of his career, but it was in the films made in its immediate aftermath (those collected by Criterion in the ‘Postwar Kurosawa’ boxset), that he grew enormously as a filmmaker. Among the most interesting is “The Idiot,” made in the aftermath of his international breakout “Rashomon,” and the only chance that the director ever got to adapt a book from his favorite writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Updating the Russian author’s story to Japan in the aftermath of the WWII, the film focuses on Kameda (Masayuki Mori), a veteran and former POW camp internee who’s been in an asylum for epilepsy, who, with his new friend, Akama (Toshiro Mifune, of course), falls in love with another man’s mistress, Taeko (the bewitching Setsuko Hara). Kurosawa made films that more directly confronted Japan’s post-war existence, but it’s undeniable that by making Kameda a former soldier and captive, he turns the film into a larger metaphor for a nation traumatized, ashamed, destroyed and suffering a severe identity crisis. It’s possible that it might even have been more explicit at one point: the director originally intended the film to be nearly five hours long, and in two parts, but his backers, Shochiku, cut it to shreds, ending up a little shy of three hours. Sadly, Kurosawa’s original cut has never been found, so it’s hard to tell if the intended version would have been a lost masterpiece or an indulgent folly (there’s a little of both in the surviving cut), but what survives still shows Kurosawa beginning to really flex his filmmaking muscles, and using one great work of art to create another, one that says so much about the world in which he was living.

“The Good German” (2006)
Steven Soderbergh‘s airless adaptation of Joseph Kanon‘s novel works better as an experiment in homage and reference than it does as a movie, in fact on the level of stylistic recreation it is at times quite brilliant. But the difference between it and the films it references is that “Casablanca,” for example, (which the finale here mimics right down Cate Blanchett‘s hat brim) is not self-consciously a throwback: it was simply the best, most immediate and artful way of telling that story with the tools available at the time. That genuineness is what “The Good German” lacks, the clarity and the emotional punch of the films it loves, but cannot be. Instead we get a kind of clinical, intellectualized reanimation of the techniques Soderbergh admires, right down to him shooting a great deal of the film on soundstages, and in stately, theatrical, choreographed takes rather than the looser format more modern filmmaking allows. And so his actors often seem uncomfortably stitched into this rigid framework — George Clooney practically disappears while Tobey Maguire, rather miscast anyway, seems visibly uncomfortable. Only Blanchett really seems to thrive in this register — shame the film is not more about her, rather than the cardboard menfolk. A noirish murder mystery with a dash of international intrigue involving the U.S.’ attempts to whitewash a Nazi war criminal so as to use his rocket-making expertise, this should be a gripping journey. But, typified best by Blanchett’s doomy femme fatale’s final confession about just what she did to survive, this is not a story about the moral blacks and whites of war, it’s a film about the messy grays of post-war confusion. But that vital sense of uncertainty and moral relativism is choked under so much ersatz style.

“Judgment At Nuremberg” (1961)
A remarkably serious-minded, even gruelling, 3-hour-plus fictionalized account of one of the war crimes trials held in Nuremberg in 1948, Stanley Kramer‘s star-laden film is a stately, talky and, if you are interested, wholly gripping investigation into the demarcation between full-blown Nazism and the “just following orders”/patriotism defense that so many lower-ranking party members and ordinary Germans presented in the years following the war. With Spencer Tracy on peerless form as the presiding American judge, and Burt Lancaster as one of the four German defendants, himself a judge, the film has a massive (and hugely impressive) ensemble also including Oscar-winning Maximilian Schell, Richard Widmark, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, William Shatner and Montgomery Clift. But by its verbose yet fascinating climax (Abby Mann‘s script also won an Oscar), it almost emerges as a two-hander, where the subtler points of law boil down to a surprisingly clear-cut ideal. As Lancaster’s “good German” says to Tracy’s Judge at the end, “The deaths of all those millions — you have to believe I never thought it would come to that,” to which Tracy replies “It came to that the first time you sentenced an innocent man to death.” Despite a good job via Schell’s brilliant defense lawyer, of contextualizing Nazi atrocities with Hiroshima and other Allied operations, the film feels shot through with cold fury, leading to its unequivocal conclusion: “just following orders” cannot exculpate anyone from complicity in grotesque moral failure. Compared to more recent documentaries and narrative films about the war, it might feel a little glib, but as the first major picture to deal with this issue (and the first time the documentary footage of concentration camps was seen by many), and taking into account the movie’s own time period, with the Cold War in full swing (one of the defendants pleads for clemency on the grounds that the US will need Germany’s support against the Russians), it’s a strikingly uncompromising film.

“The Search” (1948)
The first film from an American director to shoot in Berlin after the war, Fred Zinneman‘s “The Search,” starring Montgomery Clift, experienced a resurgence blip recently when it was remade by Michel Hazanavicius, transposed to the 1999 Chechen War and sent to Cannes starring Berenice Bejo. That remake, however, was a total dud, serving only to highlight again the strengths of the original — itself not quite a classic, still the 1948 film boasts some terrifically authentic, lived-in locations amid the army bases and rubble strewn sites of post-war Germany, and a wonderfully relaxed star-making turn from Clift. He plays a young American GI, a little feckless and green perhaps, who finds and befriends a traumatized, hungry boy wandering amid the ruins, who’d been separated from his mother in the fog of war. The film is oddly paced, sometimes feeling slack and almost knockabout as the pair reluctantly, and then defiantly, bond, but the earnest offhandedness of Clift’s performance (reportedly Clint Eastwood cites this role of Clift’s as the single greatest inspiration for his own acting style) lends even the dullest of scenes an unforced naturalism that is in itself remarkable, in such a potentially melodramatic story. And the impressive details aren’t just in his performance and the crumbled, blasted buildings; there are clever notes of psychological insight, too, that range from the humorous, like the bit of interaction over the sandwich that initiates their friendship, to the gently heartbreaking, like how the kid, nicknamed Jim, first ran away from the orphanage when he saw them loading children into ambulance transports and remembered that that was how the Nazis had taken people to the camps. Understated, unassuming and delicately played, “The Search” is one of the few films dealing with this period to have a little uptick of hope and optimism at its heart, which makes it a minor treasure amid so much rubble and destruction.

“Lore” (2013)
A precise, poetic and powerful dissection of post-war German spiritual brokenness as seen through the eyes of a young German woman (excellent newcomer Saskia Rosendahl), Cate Shortland‘s “Lore” is one of the more recent entries here, but also one of the best. Unfolding with quiet restraint and a lyrical eye for the landscapes and imagery of ravaged, demoralized, defeated rural Germany (shot by “True Detective“‘s Adam Arkapaw), it follows the story of Lore (Rosendahl), whose Nazi parents flee the oncoming liberation forces, leaving her to look after her siblings, one a baby. Her neighbors soon ostracize the children and Lore is forced to journey the trainless 900km to her Grandmother’s house. En route on foot, she meets a Jewish boy of her own age who becomes a kind of father figure to the kids, and her protector, for a time. But mostly it’s about the scales progressively falling from Lore’s eyes as regards to her parents, and her own indoctrination. Shortland’s film is a thorough investigation of an aspect of Germany’s Nazi past that we don’t see too often represented: the story of the children who grew up wholly under Nazism and for whom the end of the war was the end of the world they had known, and it’s quietly terrifying in its evocation of the soullessness, the kind of humanity vacuum that Lore encounters on her cross-country odyssey. Ending with a scathing rejection of the kind of complacent wilful ignorance and selective forgetfulness of her grandmother’s generation, “Lore” reminds us that numbered among the many victims of the Nazi regime were the party faithful’s own children, raised in a toxic ideology that left them, when it failed, with nothing but a legacy of unspeakable guilt.

“Bicycle Thieves” (1948)
The foundational document of the defining cinematic movement of the immediate post-war era, Vittorio De Sica‘s “Bicycle Thieves” is perhaps also the pinnacle of Italian neo-realism. The street-level story of poverty-line husband and father Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) who semi-miraculously finds work as a bill poster but needs a bicycle in order to remain employed, the simplicity of the narrative scarcely speaks to the oceanic humanity the film evokes. His bike is, of course, stolen, forcing Ricci, trailed by his son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola, in one of the all-time great child performances), into increasingly desperate situations to regain it. The quick, clean lines of the plot mean the film can luxuriate in a sense of time and place, and it brings us to the streets of post-war Rome with an immediacy rarely ever achieved. But mostly, the urgency comes from a complete identification with Ricci’s plight, and an awareness of the metaphorical level on which it can be read: Ricci is a perfect symbol of a man, a class, or a whole nation straying from the right path when desperation meets the corrupting influence of an unjust society. Tracing Ricci’s moods from boredom, to elation, to despair, to desperation, to heartbreaking shame, the film encompasses all shades of light and dark, even absurdity — like the moment when the entire world seems to own a bicycle when Ricci does not. Made in 1948, there’s a sense that shellshocked Italy has not even started to collect itself after the traumas of war and Fascism, summed up in that magnificent, ambivalent ending: Ricci escapes direct punishment due to Bruno’s tears, but as they’re swallowed up by the uncaring crowd once more, their future is bleak, their problems unsolved, and worse, Ricci is tainted — there’s heart-swelling power here, whether you read Ricci as an allegory for crushed Italy, or simply as a man who can no longer look his son in the eye.

There are some truly stunning titles here, and if they have whetted your appetite for more, here are some suggestions for further watching: the other Kurosawa movies in that excellent Criterion Box Set are “One Wonderful Sunday” and “No Regrets For Our Youth,” and fellow Japanese director Kon Ichikawa‘s “The Burmese Harp” is also a powerful end-of-war film detailing the fraught surrender and capitulation process in a Japanese village. “I Was A Male War Bride” details in more humorous fashion the tribulations and bureaucracy among the occupying forces in post-war Berlin; Jacques Tourneur‘s “Berlin Express” uses location photography to great effect in a noir thriller; as does the more straightforward drama “The Big Lift” about the Berlin Airlift, which along with two other titles mentioned in the main list, stars Montgomery Clift.

If “The Third Man” has you hungering for more Vienna-based intrigue, George Sidney‘s “The Red Danube” with Walter Pidgeon and Ethel Barrymore or “Four in a Jeep” starring Ralph Meeker might fit the bill. And “Night People,” with Gregory Peck was the directorial debut of famous screenwriter Nunnally Johnson that is better than its largely overlooked status would suggest. If you want something more in the “extended allegory” category, Luschino Visconti‘s tremendous docufiction “La Terra Trema” works through many of the themes and issues touched on throughout this feature through the prism of a small fishing village and the fishermen’s struggle against exploitation.

And if you’d prefer to take a look at how the victorious nations coped with the immediate aftermath of the war, there are a whole flock of films about that. Probably the best known from the U.S. side is “The Best Years Of Our Lives,” while in the U.K. a very peculiarly British response was comedy, with classics like “Passport to Pimlico” and “I’m All Right Jack,” and even more recent films like “A Private Function” making gentle fun of the privations and hardships of rationing and post-war belt-tightening.

These are all merely the tip of the iceberg, but this feature has been a joy to research, so do please call out other titles you’d like us to consider if we return to the topic in future.

–with Rodrigo Perez

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox