Silver Screen Cold War

12 Nov

This list of ‘Ten Cold War Films Worth Watching‘ by James Lindsay at the Council on Foreign Relations infuriated me (OK, maybe not infuriated. ‘Mildly irritated’, perhaps). Not because the films aren’t worth watching (indeed, many of them are solid gold classics that you should certainly view) but that the list was so English-language, US-UK focused in its content. But then again, the same blog brought us ‘The Cold War in 40 Quotes‘. 36 of which were by American figures, representing (as does the film list) the highly US-centric view of the Council on Foreign Relations.

I would still encourage people to watch the films on Lindsay’s list, but I think we can look more widely at Cold War cinema in order to gauge how the experience affected film-makers from a much broader spectrum, in terms of nationality, genre, and perspective. Hence, I present my list of ten Cold War films worth watching. I will admit, the list is still horribly Euro-centric and very personal.

The Battle of Algiers (1966, Algeria/Italy)

‘What!’ you say. ‘This doesn’t have anything to do with the Cold War!’ Well, yes and no. Yes in that The Battle of Algiers isn’t about the Cold War in any meaningful sense. No, in that (in the wider consciousness), the intersections between – and contemporaneous nature of – the Cold War and decolonisation are often overlooked. If you’re going to watch one film about decolonisation struggles, this should be it. A remarkably balanced film that examines both sides (French and Algerian) in the Algerian war with an unbiased lens, it’s a remarkable exploration of guerilla warfare, urban conflict, and clashing visions.

The Bed-sitting Room (1969, UK)

I can say without fear of contradiction that this is one of the oddest nuclear war films you will ever see. An absurdist, at times surrealist, take on a post-apocalyptic Britain, it finds Ralph Richardson slowly mutating into the eponymous bed-sitting room, Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore as the last bastion of British law enforcement, and the marvellous Frank Thornton as the BBC. No, not as a BBC presenter, as the BBC.

Dead Man’s Letters (1986, USSR)

How long did it take the Soviet film industry to depict nuclear war on the big screen? Until 1986, that’s how long. The main character is an historian, writing letters in his head to a son who will never read them. Predicated – as so many movies were – on nuclear war-as-accident, the very first Soviet film of its kind is bleak, unsettling, and gloomy.

Gojira (1954, Japan)

How can you have a list of classic Cold War cinema without this one? Despite the man-in-a-suit based destruction of urban Japan, the original Gojira is much more downbeat and reflective that its cartoonish successors from the Toho studio. Inspired by US nuclear testing in the Pacific, the film muses on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, starkly reflecting on the atomic fears of the time.

Good Bye Lenin! (2003, Germany)

It’s easy to criticise Good Bye Lenin! as somehow making light of the awfulness of the GDR. However, it’s a wonderful comedy with a very light touch that examines the absurdities, idiocies, and contradictions of East Germany. At the heart of the film is a touching story of a young man’s attempt to protect his mother and preserve her life, fearful that the shock of the downfall of communism will induce a fatal heart attack in this most committed servant of the East German state. It’s a provocative, moving, and genuinely thought-provoking film.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955, USA)

A Mike Hammer film isn’t an obvious Cold War cinema choice, but this classic of the film noir period really does encapsulate the fears of the age. Like Godzilla, the heart of Kiss Me Deadly is highly radioactive. Hammer chases a mysterious box, all the while being beaten up, beating others up, and being generally unpleasant (as is the style of the hardboiled gumshoe). However, it’s the feeling of uncertainty, paranoia, and nuclear fear that really makes the film stand out. And it’s where Tarantino got the glowing suitcase idea for Pulp Fiction from.

The Lives of Others (2006, Germany)

A startling exploration of surveillance, paranoia, and loneliness, The Lives of Others artfully brings the world of 1980s East Germany to the big screen. As an introverted Stasi officer becomes more involved with the citizens he is spying on, the corruption and awfulness of the GDR is gradually exposed. Although made well after the end of the Cold War, it is one of the great films about the Cold War and its effects on ordinary people.

Possession (1981, France/West Germany)

Possession comes with a warning: do not watch unless you have a strong stomach and a willingness to endure one of the most viscerally strange films of the 1980s. Set against a background of spying, imminent war, and the streets of West Berlin, Andrzej Zulawski’s magnum opus is a queasy, deeply unnerving horror film about failed relationships, mistrust, and a woman having sex with a disgusting, Lovecraftian monster. It’s an interesting example of how the Cold War influenced a wide range of genres, even horror. If you still go and watch it, don’t say you haven’t been warned.

The Sacrifice (1986, Sweden)

An ambiguous, contemplative film about a man making a bargain with God to prevent nuclear armageddon. The Sacrifice is a wonderful piece of film-making, although you wouldn’t expect anything less from the the great Andrei Tarkovsky (of Stalker and Solaris fame). It’s a hard film to categorise and/or explain, but it is very different from the vast majority of ‘nuclear fear’ movies of the 1980s.

Threads (1984, UK)

Anyone who knows me and/or my research interests could have predicted this choice. Threads is the most visceral, disturbing vision of nuclear war and its aftermath ever portrayed on the screen. What starts as a prototypically British kitchen sink drama set against a background of superpower confrontation in the Middle East takes a horrifying turn as the conflict goes nuclear. The film is less about the nuclear attack itself, but how nuclear weapons are so utterly devastating that they destroy the societal links that bind us all together – the eponymous ‘threads’ of the title. The depiction of Sheffield in the days, weeks, months, and years after the attack is brutal and thoroughly depressing. It is not an easy film to watch, but one that everyone should watch.

2 Responses to “Silver Screen Cold War”

  1. Thomas Ware November 13, 2014 at 12:09 pm #

    You are absolutely right about the Americo-centric nature of the original list, but I think that’s just the nature of American (or British) popular history. People are more interested about things they can familiarise with, you get the same and worse with lists of ‘top ten events in the Second World War’ and things like that. The issue is more with the popularisation of history, which I think it actually quite important lest history becomes an elite subject irrelevant to most people. I’m sure more people would want to watch Doctor Strangelove than Threads, and they would at least learn something that way!

    And the first list inclues On The Beach, which is a diverse in a sense. I think we have to be careful not to lump Australia in with the US and Europe in Cold War and nuclear issues, which itself is a major theme of On The Beach.

    That all said yours is a great list…Goodbye Lenin in particular is a cracking film. Have you seen Die Sonnenallee? Personally I think we’ve all missed a trick not including Forrest Gump and From Russia With Love!

    • malcolmcraig November 13, 2014 at 3:33 pm #

      On the Beach is made by an American studio, with an American cast, an American director, and American screenwriter, and a mostly American crew. Despite the source novel and the setting, I’d still categorise it as an ‘American’ film. I also think that – despite it being a good film – OtB misses some of the nuances of the source material.

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