At the end of WWII, my father Paul was in southern Germany as a member of the 216th Anti-Aircraft Artillery-Mobile Gun Battalion. When news of Germany's surrender came, he was ushering German soldiers for transport to a prisoner-of-war camp. His unit was invited to visit a liberated Nazi concentration camp nearby. He declined, but some of the men visited the camp. They returned sickened by what they saw. My father never regretted declining that grim opportunity, while surely most of those who visited the camp wished they had.
Many of the men in his unit ended up casualties of war. They shipped out in May 1943 to North Africa and saw action in Sicily, Salerno, the Volturno River, Anzio, Po Valley, St. Tropez, Rhone Valley, Vosges Mountains, Colmar Pocket, the Siegfried Line and on into southern Germany. Those who survived saw in the concentration camps the aftermath of war and the nature of the regime against which they had fought and the others had suffered injuries or lost their lives.
Throughout the war, many sights the soldiers witnessed were not considered sights to be cherished nor spoken of lightly, if at all. While plenty of movies about the war were made during and after the war, it seems that there has been a new generation of war films as the veterans of World War II are slowly disappearing from our company. These films, like Saving Private Ryan, are more realistic in depicting battle, but also more personal, delving deeper into the character of their subjects and their experience of war. I am thinking of such films as The Railway Man, Unbroken, Hacksaw Ridge, and Fury. New war films seem to keep coming: Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is due out in 2017. Is it because it takes decades for societies to "process" traumatic events and "make sense out of them"? Perhaps more stories will be told, put into books, and made into films. The best do not glorify war or battle but probe deeply into the human capacity for virtue in the midst of the hell that is war.
While many films focus on men, naturally enough, there have been others than deal with the lives of civilians, including women and children, during the period. Sophie Scholl comes to mind. Even Downfall includes the experience and fates of a secretary and wives and children. Modern war goes beyond the battlefield into homes; the Second World War included concentration camps with men, women and children.
But I know of nothing like a recent film about the aftermath of war on women. Directed by Anne Fontaine, the film is set in Poland, where Catholic nuns, raped by Russian soldiers earlier that year, are discovered to be pregnant. The Innocents takes place after the war in December 1945 and mercifully does not depict the atrocity (though it does contain one scene of violent assault, but is PG-13 about it). The Benedictine sisters have to decide "what to do" about this scandalous situation; opinions differ and an unbelieving Frenchwoman Red Cross doctor is enlisted for help.
In our current "Culture Wars" we are told that opposition to abortion is our war against women. The Innocents is an exquisite, powerful film made by women, about women, dealing with an extreme case for abortion: rape. It confirms the heroic nature of the merciful fight for life and reveals these nuns to be soldiers in their own way, enlisted in a cosmic war against darkness and the evil designs of an Enemy who can take credit for both concentration camps and abortion mills.
On the northwest side of Chicago, a relatively new condo-apartment complex has a brand new tenant: an abortion clinic. The thought of living in the same building where abortions are being done is sickening to me. Will any tenants want to move when they find out? Protests are starting. One war may be over, but the fight continues.