WWII and Humanity at its Worst

It seems every filmmaker wants a crack at WWII.

Considering its historical significance and high moral stakes, it makes sense that people still have a taste for dramas centered on its events. The challenge for writers is to find a fresh angle on such an already well-covered topic.

I used to think the topic of WWII had been exhausted, that nothing new could come from a story set during this timeframe. But every now and then, I find a book or film that contributes to the canon of WWII stories—instead of simply repeating it.

My latest such discovery was the British series “Island at War,” released in 2004.

What immediately sets “Island at War” apart from other WWII films is its unfamiliar territory, in the most literal sense.

The entire story takes place on the fictitious Island of St Gregory in the English Channel during the German onslaught against Great Britain. This arrested my attention instantly. Think about it: we’ve seen and read countless stories about WWII from the perspective of mainland Europe, of Great Britain, of Germany, of the Jews, and of America—but seldom do we hear about anyone who fell inbetween. “Island at War” gives us a believable glimpse of what German occupation meant for the thousands of real-life islanders who found themselves somewhere “inbetween.”

Anyone who has seen the classic WWII films probably thinks every German invasion happened with guns blazing. That’s what I incorrectly expected to witness at the beginning of this series, especially after the initial air raid. But after the harbor bombing scene, in which we see the effects on three islander families, things go eerily civil. Yes, the Germans land and begin repurposing buildings and homes, but with none of the violence that defines our historical recollection of Hitler’s Germans. Along with the English protagonists, we experience a strange blend of indignance and relief: indignance at the presumption of the invaders in confiscating houses and shops, and yet relief that things are not worse.

This conflict of emotions set the stage for an incredibly human portrayal of the people on both sides of the war.

The dynamic between one German officer, Lieutenant Walker, and a German Jew, Zelda, fascinated me the most. We have seen similar relationships depicted in films like Schindler’s List. Think of the power Amon Goeth, a German officer, holds over his Jewish house servant. While his fascination with Helen is not necessarily romantic, Goeth finds her interesting enough to keep alive—despite knowing she is a Jew. He even debates with himself the possibility of her human dignity, in one of the most brilliant monologues I have ever seen. And yet he persuades himself that her status as a Jew justifies his routine cruelty towards her, making his interest in her more pathological than genuine.

What’s different about the German soldiers in Island at War is the range of human emotions they display. Fear. Pride. Lust. Compassion. Courage. Grief. Uncertainty. Guilt. While not equally expressed by all characters, these feelings and drives show up in unexpected ways that make even the bad guys seem human. Take Lieutenant Walker for example: he proudly touts his abhorrence for Jews, having bought into the racist propaganda of the Nazi Party. And yet he becomes enamored with an islander girl named Zelda, who has managed to conceal her Jewish identity. As Zelda rebuffs his constant romantic overtures, Lieutenant Walker becomes increasingly determined to win her over (although it is clear that he ultimately wants to get her in bed, as he does with most other women). Without even trying, Zelda gains power over him. He even appears to respect her for it, conceding that he will be content to simply “get to know her better.” For a moment, we see a flicker of nobility in him.

But when he discovers her Jewish heritage, he races to reveal his knowledge to her—all the while assuring her that her secret is safe with him. I confess I did not expect this reaction. I fully expected him to fly into Amon Goeth mode, beating her and dragging her off to the authorities. Instead, though, he compels her to sleep with him—promising that he will not reveal her secret, but that he needs something in return.

This makes him even more despicable, of course, but in a surprisingly human way.

Even when he realizes this beautiful woman is a Jew, the Nazi propaganda cannot make her less attractive. He cannot, like Goeth, throw aside his interest (albeit a base interest) and consider her unworthy of his advances. Neither does he turn violent. Instead, he very gently (albeit insidiously) manipulates Zelda into compliance. Although his actions are still abusive, they testify to his human passions and desires—and his inability to deny Zelda’s humanity.

There are other Germans in the series that model more noble human emotions and behavior. What is unique about Lieutenant Walker’s character is it shows that to “be human” is not always a good thing. We sometimes speak of an enemy “being human” as if that inherently makes them better. Well, in some ways, it can. But in other cases, it is those human drives that lead people in power to exploit one another. To trample on those more helpless than themselves, while rationalizing it. Perhaps these are the real psychopaths.

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