Darkness Visible:  5 Movies That Capture the Crisis of World War II

From Darkest Hour to Atonement, stories that revisit modern history’s most perilous time

In Darkest Hour, Joe Wright returns us to an extraordinary moment in modern history—the period when the Nazi’s invasion of France threatened not only England, but the entire world as well. Based on a script by Anthony McCarten, the film follows England’s newly appointed British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), as he steers his fragile nation through uncertain times, changing the course of western civilization in the process. For many, the powerful issues explored in this historical drama are just as relevant now as they were for Churchill. Wright “has made not just one of the best films of the year,” writes The Wrap, “but one that will inspire some of us to hold up our fingers in a “V” sign to keep our spirits high.”

Those fateful years when the future of mankind hung in the balance have inspired many of our greatest filmmakers. In preparation for Darkest Hour, as well as to celebrate our 15th anniversary, we showcase five remarkable films that illustrate the heroic ways people around the world rose up to face the challenge of those times. 

Official trailer for Darkest Hour

Atonement stages the grand drama of the Dunkirk evacuation. 

Before Darkest Hour, Joe Wright explored World War II in his Academy Award-nominated epic Atonement. Adapted from Ian McEwan's novel about how a lie over many years ensnares the lives of three people––Robbie (James McAvoy), Cecilia (Keira Knightley), and Briony (Saoirse Ronan)––the film’s second part is set during the war. Betrayed by the people he loves, Robbie signs up to fight the Germans, only to find himself, along with hundreds of thousands of others, trapped along the coast at Dunkirk. With over a thousand extras, Wright captures the surreal, terrifying fate of the British army with a now-legendary five-and-a-half-minute Steadicam shot. “The Dunkirk scene brings the film to a climax,” writes The Daily Mail, “panning across the exhausted faces of British soldiers fleeing the Germans, across dying horses, burning vehicles and a ruined seaside fairground, and summing up what Wright calls 'the sheer waste of war'.”

Get Atonement now on iTunes or at Amazon.

James McAvoy steers the Atonement's tracking shot of Dunkirk.

The Pianist highlights one man’s struggle to survive.

Roman Polanski'The Pianist bears witness to the horrors of Nazi aggression with the remarkable story of how the famed musician Władysław Szpilman (Adrien Brody) survived after the 1939 invasion of Poland. Moving from a comfortable life as an acclaimed radio performer to watching his family shipped off to a concentration camp, and then struggling just to find food in order to survive, Szpilman embodies the terrifying progression of the occupation. Going on to win four Academy Awards––including Best Actor for Brody––the film, even in its darkest moments, never loses sight of man’s capacity for hope. Towards the end, Szpilman, nearly dead from hunger and fatigue, plays Chopin in the icy cold, a powerful moment that, as The New York Times suggests, provides “a glimpse of how the impulses of civilization survive in the midst of unparalleled barbarism.” 

Get The Pianist now on iTunes or at Amazon.

The official trailer for The Pianist.

Hyde Park on Hudson brings home the English/American alliance. 

In Roger Michell’s Hyde Park on Hudson, a seemingly leisurely weekend in 1939 during which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray) entertained the British royalty at his upstate retreat helped determined the outcome of the upcoming war. Beyond sampling hot dogs and Native American dances, King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) have come to America—the first reigning royals to visits the States—with the hope of shoring up financial support against an imminent threat from Nazi Germany. Left alone one evening, the monarch and the president—one with a stutter, the other afflicted with polio—forge a deep, history-changing bond. “These two men of tremendous power and tremendous insecurity open up to each other,” Flavorwire explains. “The writing is so eloquent, the direction so gentle, and the playing so sensitive that the scene becomes utterly enthralling.”

Get Hyde Park on Hudson now on iTunes or at Amazon.

Nations connect in the official trailer for Hyde Park on Hudson.

The Zookeeper's Wife honors the difference good people made. 

Based on Diane Ackerman’s book of the same name, Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife reclaims one of the most heroic real stories of resistance and courage from World War II. After the Nazi invasion of Poland devastates the Warsaw Zoo, its guardians, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain), quietly turn their animal sanctuary into a safe house for Jews escaping the Ghetto. While the two constantly had to deal with Nazi persecution, their work in saving over 300 Jewish refugees lives on as an example for all. The film is “inspiring,” writes the Associated Press, “and comes as a welcome reminder in this time of uncertainty that even in the face of astonishing evil, humanity and goodness can also rise to the occasion.”

Get The Zookeeper’s Wife now on iTunes or at Amazon.

Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and Antonina Żabińska (Jessica Chastain) in The Zookeeper’s Wife trailer.

Lust, Caution looks at the war on the other side of the world

Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution brings to light the conflict in Asia, where Germany’s ally Japan has taken over much of China. Starting in 1938 Hong Kong, the story follows a young drama student, Wong Chia-Chi (Wei Tang), who joins a cadre of young patriots who hatch a plan to seduce and assassinate Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), a special agent of the Japanese puppet government. When the plot is uncovered, the spies disband, only to regroup four years later in Shanghai. Despite their best intentions, the political and personal become inextricably tangled as Wong Chia-Chi and Yee began to fall for each other. To dramatize the impossible cost of trust in such a dark time, Lee paints, according to Rolling Stone, this historic moment as “a fully realized world of Japanese-occupied Shanghai during World War II, of espionage and carnal power games.”

Get Lust, Caution now on iTunes or at Amazon.

The official trailer for Lust, Caution

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