War is a limit-experience for human communities. In the modern era this has often meant nation states, which during periods of total conflict become communities of bounded fate. In these circumstances, human relations are pressurised both toward and away from the purely utilitarian or economic such that liberal capitalist societies face a paradox: war demands the temporary suspension of precisely those values upheld during peacetime (self-enterprise, profit-seeking, individual rights) in favor of what the philosopher Heiner Mühlmann has called “maximal stress cooperation”, and a communal (if not communistic) ethos. Such is the ambivalence – beyond the aporia – of the “state of exception”, for war represents not only the dystopian violence kept outside the normative social order but also requires (and often engenders) an atavistic social cohesion.

It is no surprise, then, that art, myth, song, and other forms of cultural ritual take on far more importance during wartime than peace, the way hymns or prayers might for families in extremis. The very mixture of hell and hope, sacrifice and camaraderie, is an emotional alloy in turn deployed by those selfsame hymns, myths, and, since the early twentieth century, films. From the rousing sermon at the end of Mrs. Miniver (1942) to the final documentary requiem of American Sniper (2014), some of Hollywood’s most affecting (if ideologically controversial) moments have arisen from the framework of war. For the art critic John Berger, the collective experience of the Battle of Britain brought out the best of a generation’s artists. “God forbid we need a war to make art,” Berger once said, “but we do need a certain sense of purpose, a sense of unity.”1 But what happens when it is precisely war that gives rise to art? What new modes of patronage, representation, and aesthetic experience does war produce?

Five Came Back (Netflix, 2017).

These are questions recently broached by two very different film histories: Five Came Back, a slick 2017 Netflix docu-series based on the bestselling book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris, and Front Lines of Community: Hollywood Between War and Democracy, a dense academic study by the German film professor Hermann Kappelhoff. Though stylistic opposites, the two take up the same question of Hollywood’s involvement in World War II (though Kappelhoff is also interested in Vietnam and ends his book with a brief discussion of Iraq). Both also consider the specific aesthetic modalities American filmmakers employed to bring about a sense of national togetherness, alighting on similar titles, notably Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series and John Ford’s wartime documentaries. Kappelhoff may speak of “an affect-theoretical understanding of the poetics of genre” while Harris adds anecdotal varnish to Hollywood lore, but neither seems afraid of the charge of nostalgia. Each project in its own way wants to recuperate an understanding of cinema as a communal and political adhesive – not only a manipulation machine or zeitgeist thermometer.

Five Came Back is the blockbuster. Previously the author of another garlanded Hollywood history, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of New Hollywood (curiously also structured around five case-studies), Harris focuses on the wartime work not only of Ford and Capra but also William Wyler, John Huston, and George Stevens. The writing possesses the graceful fluency, but sometimes also the facility, of consummate narrative nonfiction, using character, biography, and the telling detail (Darryl Zanuck’s blue Chevrolet in North Africa, Wyler’s quiet homecoming via an old Icelandic flophouse) to illuminate larger historical questions – a mixture brought out in the expertly choreographed if slightly over-produced feel of the Netflix documentary.2 The audiovisual adaptation does allow for some welcome additions, however, such as the precise editing of voiceover to clips and the inclusion of stunning archival and newsreel footage. Most notably, the series features five contemporary filmmakers who serve as spiritual sons and admiring interpreters of their adoptive fathers. The pairings are themselves illuminating: Paul Greengrass speaks for John Ford; Guillermo del Toro for Frank Capra; Seven Spielberg for William Wyler; Francis Ford Coppola for John Huston; and Lawrence Kasdan for George Stevens. In these segments, the reputational transaction is at least partly reciprocal, as each contemporary auteur is able to imbue their own brand with a classical aura and backshadow, as when del Toro speaks of the pathos of Capra’s “little man” political melodramas or when Greengrass points out the distended shakiness of Ford’s camera in the The Battle of Midway. The outstanding moment of actually-speaking-of-oneself-when-describing-an-idol comes when Spielberg discusses Wyler’s privately held memory of his Jewish roots and his eventual turn to politically responsible art after years of outstanding but relatively apolitical storytelling.

The all-male cast of Five Came Back surely caused pointed discussions during the production process (likely leading to the smart if delimited casting of Meryl Streep as narrator), but the apparent need to rely on the “star system” of contemporary name recognition also points to a deeper tension between the frivolity of entertainment and the ambition of “serious art,” which is the documentary’s conscious and unconscious theme. It is a tension given explicit treatment in any number of moments – whether Ford’s shame for not having served in World War I, Wyler’s breakthrough with Mrs. Miniver, or George Stevens’s longing to transcend the romantic comedy – but it also allegorically surrounds the project as a whole, which often tonally resembles one of those solemn, reverential tributes played during the Oscars. (The industrial allegorical reading of Mrs. Miniver, provided by Jerome Christensen, sees the film’s final rose competition as a not-so-subtle argument for the Oscars to go on even during war––a decision that clearly worked in Mrs. Miniver’s and MGM’s favor.3) In this sense, Harris’s project is quite literally academic: until the double whammy of #Oscarssowhite (in 2015) and #Metoo (in 2017) a similar honorific nostalgia was still the bread-and-butter of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Bathed in the same neoclassical affect, Five Came Back would have been a sure sell during the Obama presidency (when the book was released) for a very different reason than why it might appeal to us today under Trump (when the Netflix series aired). And as with any neoclassical structure of feeling, the series runs the risk of idealisation through rose-tinted selection, a tendency that was itself parodied by the actually existing classical cinema, as in Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, about a pampered director who wants to finally make a “picture of dignity” and released in 1942, the same year Harris’s five filmmakers were assessing their own professional futures.

Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, 1942)

For Berger, it was the visual and plastic arts that most thrived during the war, precisely because “the artist and his public came closer together than they had been for generations.” The pictures he had in mind were those like Henry Moore’s Tube Shelterers, a series supported by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, the funding agency headed by Sir Kenneth Clark. Moore’s drawings created a spectral, liminal collectivity: an underground world of privation, sleep, intermingled bodies and dreams. For many Americans, however, the key art of World War II was not painting or sculpture but the decidedly mass (and American) artform of moving pictures. The transatlantic, cross-medium contrast is revealing. By the time Hitler’s troops marched into Poland, high European modernism (whether in literature or the fine arts) was already well past full swing and arguably exhausted. When the United States entered the war, however, its homegrown cinematic institution was just entering its golden years. This is a fact that hits home each time it is newly recognised: World War II occurred smack in the middle of the classical Hollywood era. It can seem like a truth so obvious as to be hiding in plain sight, but the sense of camouflage has been helped along by the insistence of neoformalist scholars such as David Bordwell, the foremost interpreter of classical cinematic form, that the war was effectively incidental to any technical achievements.4

The connection between war and cinema is in fact multifaceted and profound. This is a truth appreciated by Herman Kappelhoff, and the strength of his scholarship is that it longs to provide a rigorously articulated theoretical framing for the kind of communal affect held by the cinema during wartime, and to do this without recourse either to the smug critique of manipulation theory or the desiccated formalism of genre typology. In this sense, Kappelhoff shares Harris’s basic (and to my mind, correct) premise that filmmakers such as Capra and Ford – or, for that matter, Spielberg, whose Saving Private Ryan also receives ample attention – can play a fundamental role in holding together the sentiment of a polity; and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Such an admission is often only whispered in contemporary critical theory (as in the final pages of Fredric Jameson’s “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture” or “The Dialectic of Utopia and Ideology”), although it came to the fore in the late writings of the American pragmatist Richard Rorty, whose final political turn undergirds much of Kappelhoff’s own analysis, if only at an intuitive level. What is admirable here is the desire to chart new political and theoretical ground. Whereas popular histories like Five Came Back more or less take ideas like the “national mood” for granted, eschewing all theory for biographical anecdote, and thus rendering the social mechanics of cinema invisible and/or clichéd, Kappelhoff wants to offer precise theoretical formulations for what he calls the “affective mobilization” involved in war cinema (as well as its “affect typology,” “affect constellation,” “affect modality,” and any other number of technical-sounding terms translated from the German).

The upside of this approach is that it opens a door to patient theoretical reflection that remains closed in the popular histories, whose aim is simply for you to keep turning the pages. The downside is that a methodological defensiveness pervades the text, which often reads like an extended “methods” chapter or the transcription of a proseminar. The idea of a transcription applies most of all to the prose, at least in English translation, which is functional but often paratactic, turning the book into more of a database (to be scanned) than a narrative or argument (to be read). The dutiful assembly of a theoretical apparatus can quickly become an academic parlour game – add some Rorty here, Cavell there, maybe some Deleuze and Dewey – such that it risks mistaking writing the recipe for the cooking itself, let alone the meal. And yet, Front Lines of Community is perhaps best appreciated as a handbook of sorts, which is to say a generous storehouse of concepts, typologies, and citations (surely reflecting years of research) that future scholars might build on and put to their own use.

The book is strongest when theory and practice merge, as in the discussions of individual films. Kappelhoff begins with readings of three neoclassical war movies – Saving Private Ryan (1998), Windtalkers (2002), and The Thin Red Line (1998) – but his analysis is most exciting in relation to the films actually made during WWII, meant for an American civilian and military public being taken to war. The key move here, which structures the book as a whole, is to view the American war film not as a self-enclosed genre but as a privileged site for meditation on the foundational aporias of the modern liberal social order. Referencing Rorty’s metaphor of the platoon film in Achieving Our Country (1998), Kappelhoff writes that “war films open up a historical perspective in which the permanent battle over the boundaries of community can be reconstructed as an inner conflict within liberal democracy.” (p. vi) And, furthermore, Kappelhoff wants to show that this conflict will occur not only on the level of narrative signification but also that of shared emotion, feeling, and affect. For Kappelhof, a genre is “a space of experiencing competing senses of the communal” (p. 349). This move strikes me as exactly right, even if (for all its heavy lifting) Front Lines of Community does not engage with dissenting views either from the left (such as Walter Benn Michaels’ long-standing philosophical disagreement with Rorty’s anti-foundationalism) or from the right.5 Kappelhoff’s title alludes to Helmuth Plessner’s The Limits of Community, a plea for civility and tolerance published in 1924, only three years before Carl Schmitt’s infamous essay, “The Concept of the Political,” which goes unmentioned in Kappelhoff’s analysis but can serve as a dark mirror to his more liberal preoccupations.

It is here that Kappelhoff’s status as a German professor of American cinema sets him apart from his Anglo-American counterparts. There are different taboos and different elephants-in-the-room on either side of the Atlantic. As Linda Williams wrote in her review for Film Quarterly, if Kappelhoff were an American, his “championing American individualism, freedom, and democracy might seem facile.”6 And yet it is that capacity to see the American war effort not simply as a prelude to postwar imperialism but also as a genuine campaign against fascism that allows him (and Harris as well) to draw out a persuasive distinction between Capra’s wartime propaganda and the work of Leni Riefenstahl. As both authors discuss, Triumph of the Will (1935) not only spooked Capra, it also goosed him.7 Only after appreciating the power of axis propaganda did the Italian-American filmmaker decide to appropriate the enemy’s own messaging, placing it within a far more heteroglossic and Socratic documentary frame. Kappelhoff convincingly draws a further distinction between Riefenstahl’s fascist aesthetics, which imagined the human body sublimely fused into the military corps of the state, and the American liberal aesthetics of war, always already bearing (in its affective contradiction) an ambivalent relationship to the martial virtues.

As I understand it, Kappelhoff’s argument here is that this ambivalence manifests itself most pointedly in the pathos surrounding the suffering and sacrifice of the individual soldier, as typified in the “affect image” of the shell-shocked face. Such a face is the emblem of “the price we pay for freedom,” as the common American saying goes. And this “price” need not be equated with mass surveillance or endless conflict; more fundamentally, it discloses the double projection individual soldiers inhabit in the (civilian) liberal imagination: both hero and victim. To extrapolate even further, we might say that the entire discourse surrounding PTSD in veterans – a discourse that kicked off after World War I but runs through films such as Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) all the way up to Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2015) – is also a tacit admission of the self-contradiction that war represents for liberalism.

American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2015)

Kappelhoff begins his book with a short discussion of Don McCullin’s famous portrait of an American soldier’s thousand-yard stare (a photograph taken during the Tet Offensive that also graces the book’s cover); but it was not until far later that the metonymic significance of this image in relation to his larger argument comes into focus. Once it does, a powerful gestalt emerges, one that retroactively helps to bolster Kappelhoff’s overarching ambition to see “film analysis and genre theory as cultural-philosophical disciplines.” (p. viii) That an image, once it can philosophically jump off the page, accomplishes what lengthy methodological excurses cannot is something none other than Rorty, ever the pragmatist, would have understood. A priori reasoning rarely convinced anybody that their thinking was wrong or circular, but the more or less successful (which is to say convincing) application of a methodology has the power to jolt people out of their intellectual doldrums.

This is an important point to remember in 2020. A powerful jolt is precisely what film studies presently needs, for in its current state the discipline risks dying at a generational and methodological impasse. After the excesses of “theory” and the compensatory narrowness of “post-theory,” a renewed interest in the imbrication of political feeling and audiovisual narrative seems like the right place to start. And while neither Harris’s sepia-toned retrospective nor Kappelhoff’s dense primer can be said to be paragons of a future criticism, each has something to contribute, and one can imagine a middle space between the two, neither too cumbersome nor too facile, where the general and the particular meet. During the long neoliberal era the work of too many academics, like that of Hollywood filmmakers before America’s entry into the war, remained existentially cut-off from the realities of the ordinary people around them. The rising generation of intellectuals and scholars faces a different scenario: not only a scorched earth academy but new patterns of digital information and misinformation, new online collectivities, and a desperate political need for historical clarity. What this situation will ultimately produce, intellectually or politically, is anybody’s guess. Meanwhile the long postwar settlement brought about by the end of World War II is faltering. We all hope for world peace but the ominous question remains: what films, and what film histories, will be written about the wars of the century to come?


  1. See Joshua Sperling, A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Work of John Berger (London, Verso, 2018), p. 7.
  2. Then again, when has a Netflix documentary ever not felt over-produced?
  3. See Jerome Christensen, America’s Corporate Art: The Studio Authorship of Hollywood Motion Pictures (Palo Alto, Stanford, 2012), p. 125.
  4. The camouflage was given a different hue by Adorno and Horkheimer, whose wartime primer on the culture industry seems more of a piece with late capitalist Hollywood kitsch than the deep artistry of the many studio films being made in the very city to which the German duo had fled.
  5. Walter Benn Michaels, “Rorty’s Politics: From Achieving our Country to Making America Great Again,” Pragmatism Today 10:1 (2019).
  6. Linda Williams, “Front Lines of Community,” Film Quarterly 73:1 (Fall 2019).
  7. Harris tells us he needed special clearance from the Signal Corps to see the film at the Museum of Modern Art.

About The Author

Joshua Sperling is a visiting professor of cinema studies at Oberlin College. He is finishing a book on art and politics in the work of John Berger.

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