The 1990s was perhaps the last golden decade. While banks and corporations solidified their political power behind the scenes (reaping dangerous seeds the world would sow in later decades), culture prospered throughout this decade of technological innovation, musical genius, and literary brilliance. The Americans and Russians sat down and drew a line under the Cold War, Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web opened to the public, Oasis released Wonderwall, Wu-Tang Clan released C.R.E.A.M, and Nirvana released Smells Like Teen Spirit.
James Cameron’s Titanic smashed records, Sony brought out the PlayStation 1, and the Chicago Bulls dominated the NBA. It was a decade that relaunched popular culture, and it was the first time since the ’60s that there was a real, established identity again. The 1990s was also the decade of the war epic, and in particular movies about World War II that had ended 50 years prior. Filmmakers managed to accurately capture the true scale and extent of a war that had impacted billions of lives around the world, exposing its brutality, as well as giving voice to the stories of humanity. Here are some of the best WWII films of the 1990s…
Updated on August 23, 2023, by Soniya Hinduja: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.
13 Korczak (1990)
Set against the grim backdrop of the Warsaw Ghetto this biographical war drama directed by Andrzej Wajda is proof of the fact that cinema can be deeply moving and thought-provoking. Korczak highlights the sheer grit and heroism of Janusz Korczak, a pediatrician who fiercely advocated for the safety of children. During World War II, he opened a makeshift orphanage and provided shelter food, and protection to over 200 children stuck in the middle of tragedy bloodshed, and the absolute collapse of nations.
Played masterfully by Wojciech Pszoniak, the documentary shows Korczak refusing to save himself in his final days and working day and night to hold these Jewish children close to his heart. With empathy and minimal dialogue, the film captures Korczak’s strength and compassion even when the fate of these children is uncertain. It’s been almost 25 years since the movie was released, but Korczak’s tale of one man raising his voice against the horrors of war is still impactful.
12 Aimee & Jaguar (1999)
The effect of World War II was felt everywhere, and charting the tricky borders of bomb-scarred Berlin in 1944 is this German drama film that showcases the unlikely love affair between a Nazi officer’s wife and a Jewish woman. Lilly Wust is a housewife and mother of four boys, who finds herself drawn to Felice Schragenheim, an underground fighter. As their love unfolds against the crumbling of the Nazi regime, some things are clear. Lilly won’t have to face any consequences and Felice can finally hope to live.
Directed with much care and intimacy by Max Färberböck, Aimée & Jaguar is sensitive in portraying the danger and discovery of this love affair. Both Juliane Köhler and Maria Schrader are incredible in their roles of multi-dimensional women daring to break the norm in a time when their relationship either meant deportation or death. Overall aesthetic and poignant, the film remains a unique tale of wartime romance.
11 A Midnight Clear (1992)
William Wharton is the eponymous author of the book this movie is based on. Set in the snow-swept Ardennes during Christmas ‘44, A Midnight Clear follows the activities and intentions of an American tank crew and infantry unit sent to occupy a house and stay there to observe the Germans. But when the Germans turn out to be suspiciously friendly, the six men settle into an uneasy cohabitation with the POWs in the lonely chateau.
Director Keith Gordon tries to capture humanity in the film. The soldiers on both sides are loyal to their countries, but the bond they share as men offering quiet acts of compassion leads them to formulate a surrender plan. Featuring a standout cast including Ethan Hawke, Frank Whaley, Kevin Dillon, and Peter Berg, the movie shows how even in the darkest time, men can see each other simply as men and call truces.
10 Mother Night (1996)
Another intriguing film by Keith Gordon, Mother Night is a romantic war drama that stars Nick Nolte as American Howard Campbell. Howard doesn’t care much about the war and wants a peaceful life. He delights in attending upper-class social events with his wife Helga Noth. But his freedom and fun is cut short when the U.S. government delegates him to broadcast the Nazi propaganda on European radio from occupied Berlin. Soon, it is revealed that Howard is secretly working for Allied intelligence.
Above being a somber drama, the film also holds many mysteries that unfold after Howard is recognized and imprisoned as a war criminal in Haifa, Israel. Based on Kurt Vonnegut’s immersive novel, the film grips the audience in Howard’s game of double identity and forces them to question where his deception ends and where reality begins. The movie uses flashbacks and retellings to create an atmosphere of intrigue and stands apart as a mystery thriller.
9 Memphis Belle (1990)
World War II wasn’t all about attacks and infiltrations. Several bomber missions were being carried out across countries to retaliate against the violence caused. Memphis Belle recreates the stunning mission led by Matthew Modine. His crew of the US Eighth Air Force B-17 bomber went on a final fateful flight after being ordered to bomb a heavily defended town occupied by the Allied. The film features stunning shots of aerial wonder and taut action, both of which act as a driving force to tell the tale of those who went above and beyond the call of duty.
Under Michael Caton-Jones’ phenomenal direction, the film allows the audience to experience the immense pressures of fighting in a war that has shaken the entire world. Moreover, the resilience of these young pilots also represents the steadiness of the human heart and its will to never give up.
8 The English Patient (1996)
In contrast to other World War II movies of the 1990s, such as Stalingrad, The Thin Red Line, or Saving Private Ryan, there are very few scenes of the actual war in Anthony Minghella’s Academy Award-winning drama The English Patient. Instead, this romantic wartime tale centers around a badly burned plane crash victim (Ralph Fiennes) as he recounts his life to a young French-Canadian combat nurse (played by Juliette Binoche) caring for him during the last days of World War II.
However, the shadow of conflict looms large over The English Patient. Intriguing flashbacks reveal the traumatic tale of the titular character, a fictionalized version of László Almásy, a cartographer who made maps of uncharted desert areas during the war.
7 Europa Europa (1990)
Agnieszka Holland’s Golden Globe-winning war drama, Europa Europa, tells the incredible but true story of Salomon Perel, a sixteen-year-old Jew (played by Marco Hofschneider) who survived the Holocaust by disguising himself as a pure Aryan German and joining the Hitler Youth.
At the heart of the film is a complex and compelling character study of a young man who, receiving his copy of Mein Kampf, grapples with a profound crisis of identity and fights to stay alive amidst the horrors of the war.
6 Life Is Beautiful (1997)
The Academy Award-winning Life is Beautiful is an incredibly emotive portrait of an Italian Jewish family’s life during WWII, under the right-wing, anti-Semitic ideologies of Hitler and Mussolini. Guido Orefice (played so thought-provokingly by Roberto Benigni, who starred and directed the movie), is a Jewish bookshop owner during Nazi Germany’s “final solution.”
He attempts to shelter his young family from the obscenities seemingly closing in on them. Guido a devoted father, and husband, does everything in his power to distract his son from the realities of war and concentration camps by any means possible in this heartbreaking tearjerker.
5 Stalingrad (1993)
The bloody Battle of Stalingrad, which claimed the lives of over 20,000 men per day, provides an example of the barbarity of war. Camped just outside the Russian city of Stalingrad, were the under-prepared German army.
They were ravaged by the freezing climate, and grossly disadvantaged by the impromptu attack they were due to carry out, Joseph Vilsmaier’s movie, Stalingradis a shocking depiction of the extreme extent of the hardship endured by a German regiment.
4 Underground (1995)
Directed by Emir Kusturica, Underground is a satirical Serbian war movie that pictures the war effort in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. Winning the 1995 Palme d’Or, Underground follows the story of two friends.
They prepare for the imminent German invasion of Serbia, as they gather weaponry and supplies and move underground. After the war ends, Blacky (Miki Manojlovic) the only one permitted outside the underground bunker, fails to notify his friends of the war’s conclusion.
3 The Thin Red Line (1998)
Terrence Malick’s film, the beautiful and poetic The Thin Red Line, suffered the misfortune of being released three months after Steven Spielberg’s warship, Saving Private Ryan. Akin to being outshone by your twin, getting an A in an exam while they get an A+, Malick’s great return to cinema after two decades still doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
Nevertheless, The Thin Red Line did enjoy critical success, and enough people went to see its incredible cast (George Clooney, Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, Nick Nolte, John Travolta, John C. Reilley, Jim Caviezel) that the film made enough money to ensure Malick wouldn’t disappear from cinema again. Set during WWII at the battle of Guadalcanal, the film follows a battalion of American G.I.s as they face an uphill struggle against the Japanese, but the plot is just the backdrop to a poetic meditation on violence and evil.
2 Schindler’s List (1993)
Spielberg, with a stellar crew and ensemble in tow, was an almost permanent fixture on-stage at the 1995 Oscars, picking up a staggering seven Academy Awards for the extraordinary true story Schindler’s List. The screen adaptation of the novel Schindler’s Ark is a tale of heroism, humanity, and compassion. Shot with a monochromatic ambiance, Spielberg directed this heartwarming story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) a factory owner, industrialist, and member of the Nazi party who sympathizes with the Jews being persecuted by Hitler’s fascist regime.
To ensure the safety of as many Jews under his care as possible, Schindler wards off the ever-prominent threat of concentration camps by insisting his the Jewish workers at his enamel factory are fundamental to the German war effort. It’s a breathtaking display from Neeson, though he’s arguably eclipsed by the career-defining performance of Ralph Fiennes as the psychopathic antisemite, Amon Goeth.
1 Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Certain films stick with you, some for a year, others for several, but gradually your memory of them begins to diminish until you’re left with just the reference points and vague recollections. Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is an anomaly, partly because it’s a TV station’s default movie on a Sunday night, but also because it has been justifiably considered to be the best war movie of all time. It’s the atomic bomb of military screenplays. The saga begins with feasibly the most definitive opening scene in war film history and arguably, cinematic history.
When Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) leads his troops onto Omaha beach during the Normandy landings, greeted by a sea of Nazi gunfire, shelling, and booby-trapped fortified defenses. Miller, along with his regiment are instructed to carry out a search and rescue mission for Private Ryan, whose three brothers have all perished during WWII. Spielberg’s showpiece captures the true quintessence of war and its bloody mindless reality. As well as it being a patriotic story of heroism, Saving Private Ryan also serves as a somber reminder of the cost of war: human lives.
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