I was recently looking at an interview that Dick Cavett did with Billy Wilder around the time of Buddy Buddy, his last movie. At one point, they start discussing WWII, in which Wilder lost his mother, his stepfather and his grandmother, all of whom died in Auschwitz in 1943. “I was here and there was nothing that could be done,” he says, hauntingly. “It’s very strange how people react to all that,” adds Wilder. “A friend of mine told me that he went to see The Diary of Anne Frank, the play. And he went with a young man, not necessarily German—he was European, I think, or maybe American. After the play, my friend said, ‘Would you believe that things like this could happen?’ And the guy just looked at him and said, ‘Well, let’s hear the other side. This is just one man’s perspective. Let’s not rush to judgment.’ How quickly it is forgotten.”

The art of cinema developed in the shadow of two world wars that left whole cities in ruins, millions dead, and many more millions displaced or shattered inside and out. During those years, the movie business developed on the back of the art form, forever knocking on its door, intruding, prodding, strongarming, insisting on its right of ownership. When Lewis Milestone showed the first cut of his adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front to Universal executives, someone in the room wondered about the necessity of the “downbeat ending.” Milestone sarcastically suggested that maybe he could shoot a happy ending where the Germans won.

In the case of All Quiet, the director prevailed. Universal later went ahead with an adaptation of Remarque’s sequel, The Road Back, directed by James Whale. In the middle of production, 60 cast members received a letter from Georg Gyssling, the German Consul, informing them that their future films would not be screened in Germany as a consequence of their involvement in the project. The studio later reshot scenes and watered down the film’s suggestions of impending fascism. In the case of The Road Back, the business won. As an aside, it was later revealed that Gyssling was an American spy, but his cover activity kept references to fascism at a minimum and Jewish-sounding names off of credit rolls for too many years.

The moral urgency of accounting for and struggling to justly represent so much wholesale destruction, from 20 million dead in WWI to over three times that number in WWII to those lost in the many horrors that followed, has been an essential part of the story of cinema. That urgency can be felt at the heart of the art form at its greatest. It’s there in many titles restored over the years by The Film Foundation that have dealt either directly or indirectly with the wars and their aftermaths. These include Milestone’s classic and Whale’s compromised sequel (returned to something close to its original version with the Library of Congress’ 2015 restoration), George Stevens’ adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, Milestone’s A Walk in the Sun, Herbert Kline, Hans Burger and Alexander Hammid’s Crisis: A Film of ‘The Nazi Way,’ Marcel Ophuls’ The Memory of Justice (more about that in the coming weeks) and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory as well as The Best Years of Our Lives, Jonas Mekas’s Lost Lost Lost and Reminiscence of a Journey to Lithuania, So Ends Our Night (another Remarque adaptation), Visconti’s Vaghe Stella dell’Orsa and Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu.

The heroic spirit of cinema now exists only in the work of individual filmmakers, a few fine threads left from what was once a rope of the greatest tensile strength. The tidal wave of mass-manufactured worldwide entertainment has overwhelmed everything. In common media discourse, the very idea of cinema has been systematically demeaned and sidelined and everything has been reduced to a matter of numbers. Concurrently, the idea of history has been lazily reimagined as malleable, alterable, and censorable. The young man in Wilder’s story would have a lot more company today. And now, we’re in the shadow of another war—or is that an insane revival of the same European war? What is transpiring right now in the Ukraine brings to mind a haunting exchange from the extraordinary 2013 documentary Return to Homs. A young Syrian freedom fighter proclaims victory in the early days of that nation’s uprising and predicts that Assad is finished. Don’t be so sure, cautions the older man he’s talking to, who adds: “These people would sooner drown in their own blood than give up power.” That the comment seems applicable to current circumstances seems blindingly obvious.

But then, when armed conflicts have come to some kind of stopping point, the cinema has often been present as a regenerative force. I have no doubt that it will be there in the Ukraine, probably led by Sergei Loznitsa, maybe invigorated by the spirit of Alexander Dovzhenko’s silent films. It won’t revive the dead, replace severed limbs or rebuild homes, but it will speak from and for the best in us.

- Kent Jones

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ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930, d. Lewis Milestone)
Preserved by the Library of Congress with funding provided by The Film Foundation. 

A WALK IN THE SUN (1945, d. Lewis Milestone)
Preserved by UCLA Film & Television Archive, in cooperation with the British Film Institute, with funding provided by The Film Foundation. Special thanks to: Schawn Belston, Twentieth Century Fox.

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946, d. William Wyler)
Restored by The Academy Film Archive, The Library of Congress and The Film Foundation. Restoration funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation.

CRISIS: A FILM OF "THE NAZI WAY" (1939, dirs. Herbert Kline, Hans Burger and Alexander Hammid)
Restored by The Museum of Modern Art and The Film Foundation, with funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation.

THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (1959, d. George Stevens)
Restored by Twentieth Century Fox in collaboration with The Film Foundation.

LOST LOST LOST (1976, d. Jonas Mekas)
Preserved by Anthology Film Archives through the Avant-Garde Masters program funded by The Film Foundation and administered by the National Film Preservation Foundation.

THE MEMORY OF JUSTICE (1976, d. Marcel Ophuls)
Restored by the Academy Film Archive in association with Paramount Pictures and The Film Foundation. Restoration funding provided by the Material World Charitable Foundation, Righteous Persons Foundation, and The Film Foundation.

PATHS OF GLORY (1957, d. Stanley Kubrick)
Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive in cooperation with MGM Studios with funding provided by The Film Foundation and The Hollywood Foreign Press Association. 

Preserved by Anthology Film Archives with support from The Film Foundation.

THE ROAD BACK (1937/1939, d. James Whale)
Restored by the Library of Congress in association with UCLA Film & Television Archive, Universal Studios, and The Film Foundation. Restoration funding provided by The Film Foundation and the Library of Congress.

SO ENDS OUR NIGHT (1941, d. James Cromwell)
Preserved by George Eastman Museum with funding provided by The Film Foundation. 

UGETSU (1953, d. Kenji Mizoguchi)
Restored by The Film Foundation and KADOKAWA Corporation at Cineric Laboratories in New York. Special thanks to Masahiro Miyajima and Martin Scorsese for their consultation on this restoration. Restoration funding provided by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in association with The Film Foundation and KADOKAWA Corporation.

VAGHE STELLA DELL'ORSA (1965, d. Luchino Visconti)
Restoration by Sony Pictures Entertainment in collaboration with Cineteca di Bologna at L'Immagine Ritrovata, Archivio Storico delle Arti Contemporanee di Venezia and The Film Foundation.

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