17 Best Anti-war Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors
How do you make a film about the Holocaust feel new? How do you make the terrors feel fresh, like it was just in the news, without sounding redundant or without giving into the sensationalized and emotionally manipulative? For Director Jonathan Glazer, the answer lies in not what you show but what you don’t show. The Zone of Interest is shot from the point of view of Nazi Officer Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), who live a dreamy life right next to the infamous Auschwitz death camp. Glazer frames them plainly and without flourish as they ignore (or, arguably, revel in) the glow of burning bodies, the howls of pain, and the billows of smoke coming from the torture chamber a wall away. It’s a powerful, nauseating contrast that turns the question from “How can they do this?” to “Who among us is committing the same things right now?” Who among us is casting a blind eye to the atrocities and genocide being committed at this very moment to our neighbors? The film, which is also a technical feat in terms of the way it’s shot (the crew and cameras remained hidden so that the actors were free to roam, as if in a play) is chilling and thought-provoking, and it will unnerve you for days on end.

Genre: Drama, History, War

Actor: Anastazja Drobniak, Christian Friedel, Daniel Holzberg, Freya Kreutzkam, Imogen Kogge, Jakub Sierenberg, Johann Karthaus, Klaudiusz Kaufmann, Lilli Falk, Luis Noah Witte, Marie Rosa Tietjen, Maximilian Beck, Medusa Knopf, Nele Ahrensmeier, Rainer Haustein, Ralph Herforth, Sandra Hüller, Sascha Maaz, Shenja Lacher, Thomas Neumann

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Rating: PG-13

Persepolis is the true story of Marjane Satrapi, the writer and illustrator whose graphic novels of the same name the film is adapted from. It details in vivid animation the trials of growing up in war-torn Iran, but also, crucially, the joys of being raised by a loving family and the significance of forming one’s own ideals and identity. In between revolving dictatorships and tightening restrictions, Marjane comes into her own and discovers what it means to live a meaningful life.

It’s a testament to Satrapi’s many talents that Persepolis never feels too flat or cynical given its 2D style and bleak backdrop. The drawings impressively morph with Marjane’s every thought, as if the ink itself were alive, and her wit persistently comes through in sharp observations and dialogues. Equally impressive is the film’s commitment to portraying war and conflict in a nuanced manner. In an autobiographical tale that is about Marjane’s coming of age as much as it is about her country’s survival, it’s never been more true that the personal is political.

Genre: Animation, Drama, History, War

Actor: Arié Elmaleh, Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni, Danielle Darrieux, François Jerosme, Gabrielle Lopes Benites, Mathias Mlekuz, Simon Abkarian, Sophie Arthuys, Tilly Mandelbrot

Director: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud

Rating: PG-13

A City of Sadness is a film set in 1945, after Japan is defeated in the war and Taiwan is subject to uncertainties of a changing sociopolitical landscape. It follows the four Lin brothers, who each struggle in this tumultuous period — from Wen-heung, the eldest who gets on the bad side of a local gang, to Wen-ching, who chooses to stand against the Chinese Kuomintang government despite being deaf-mute. 

Instead of turning to the usual machinations of a historical family drama, director Hou Hsiao-hsien shows the vast expanse of Taiwanese countryside through steady, beautiful cinematography. In urban areas, the camera moves in scenes of sudden violence, which it pans toward until it exits frame for us to only hear the screams of people offscreen. There are also quiet interludes that barely last a minute, where dynamics between characters depict the anxiety of the times. Tony Leung, who plays the deaf-mute brother, hasn't refined the craft of subtle acting with his eyes yet, but traces of brilliance are already there. 

The trauma of rapidly changing times, as a nation is exploited from one war to the next, is depicted so clearly. The authoritarian state erodes families, and Hou paints a picture of a society on the brink, a representation of 1940s Taiwan that feels more like a tragic poem than a film.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Chan Chung-Yung, Grace Chen Shu-Fang, Hsin Shu-Fen, Jack Kao, Kelly Ko, King Shih-Chieh, Li Tian-Lu, Mei Fang, Tai Bo, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Tsai Chen-Nan, Wu Nien-Jen, 吴念真

Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien

All Quiet on the Western Front is a period epic that unflinchingly shows us the savagery and senselessness of war. Set at the tail end of World War I, it follows two main stories: that of German soldier Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), whose boyish eagerness for warfare is diminished with each bloody step he takes towards the frontline, and that of Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), the real-life German politician tasked to negotiate a ceasefire between the French and German forces.

Grim and sobering, the movie will leave you nothing less than stunned after viewing. Like 1917 before it, All Quiet on the Western Front relies on the juxtaposition of raw brutality and peaceful quiet to effectively forward its anti-war message. The film is Germany’s official entry for the 2023 Academy Awards.

Genre: Action, Drama, History, War

Actor: Aaron Hilmer, Adrian Grünewald, Albrecht Schuch, André Marcon, Andreas Döhler, Anthony Paliotti, Anton von Lucke, Cyril Dobrý, Dan Brown, Daniel Brühl, Daniel-Frantisek Kamen, Devid Striesow, Edin Hasanović, Felix Kammerer, Felix von Bredow, Gregory Gudgeon, Hendrik Heutmann, Jakob Diehl, Joe Weintraub, Luc Feit, Marek Simbersky, Markus Tomczyk, Martin Němec, Michael Pitthan, Michael Stange, Michael Wittenborn, Moritz Klaus, Nico Ehrenteit, Peter Sikorski, Sascha Nathan, Sebastian Hülk, Sebastian Jacques, Thibault de Montalembert, Tobias Langhoff, Tomáš Weber

Director: Edward Berger

Rating: R

The tragic irony of war — that, if battling soldiers had been born in any other time or place, they may well have been friends with each other — takes center stage in this brilliant drama set in WWII-era Java. It's a theme best encapsulated by Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto in his film debut), the bushido code-following commandant of a Japanese POW camp: “How wonderful it would have been if we could have invited all of you to a gathering under our cherry trees,” he muses to the titular British Lieutenant Lawrence (Tom Conti), one of his prisoners.

Lawrence is the camp’s mediator, and not just because he’s fluent in Japanese; in the culture clash microcosm that is the camp, he is uniquely understanding of his captors’ way of life. That earns him special privileges of sorts from the camp’s often brutal enforcer (Takeshi Kitano), but this pales in comparison to the instant partiality with which the charismatic Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) enjoys, courtesy of a smitten yet deeply repressed and tormented Yonoi. This psychosexual undercurrent bubbles furiously throughout Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, deepening its (already poignant) lamentations about war’s humanity-stripping effect and the self-imposed prisons that are honor and shame.

Genre: Drama, History, War

Actor: Alistair Browning, Arthur Ranford, Colin Francis, Daisuke Iijima, David Bowie, Grant Bridger, Hideo Murota, Hiroshi Mikami, Jack Thompson, Johnny Ohkura, Kan Mikami, Rokkō Toura, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Ryūnosuke Kaneda, Takashi Naito, Takeshi Kitano, Tamio Ishikura, Tom Conti, Yūji Honma, Yūya Uchida

Director: Nagisa Ōshima

Rating: R

Perhaps the most depressing but vital movie produced by animation giant Studio Ghibli, Grave of the Fireflies is a searing and sweeping drama that covers the horrors of World War II through the eyes of teenager Seita and his young sister Setsuko. Between the violence of war and the tragedy of loss, the siblings struggle to preserve not just their lives but their humanity. In typical Ghibli fashion, there are moments of gentle beauty to be found, but instead of conflicting with the overall stark tone of the film, they successfully underscore war's futility and brutality, making Grave of the Fireflies one of the most important anti-war narratives ever told. 

Genre: Animation, Drama, War

Actor: Akemi Yamaguchi, Ayano Shiraishi, Hiroshi Tanaka, Kyoko Moriwaki, Masayo Sakai, Tsutomu Tatsumi, Yoshiko Shinohara

Director: Isao Takahata

This story of a filmmaker who stayed in Aleppo, Syria during the war, got married then had a child called Sama, is a mix of difficult and inspiring.

There are stories of unsurmountable loss, as the filmmaker’s husband is one of the 30 remaining doctors in Aleppo (a city of almost 5 million), and she films many of the victims that come to his hospital. But while this is happening, there are also uplifting stories of resilience and rare but profound moments of laughter and joy.

We’re growing too sensitized to violence in Syria, and this movie, possibly the most intimate account of the war, can stir back a much-needed awareness of the injustices that take place.

When things get really bad in the documentary, it’s hard not to wonder where the humanity is in all of this. You quickly realize that it’s right there, behind the camera, in Sama and her mother’s will to live.

Genre: Documentary, War

Actor: Hamza Al-Khateab, Sama Al-Khateab, Waad Al-Kateab, Waad Al-Khateab

Director: Edward Watts, Waad Al-Kateab, Waad Al-Khateab

Rating: TV-PG

Named for all the connections that form a functioning society, Threads is a harrowing look at what might happen when those ties are rent apart by nuclear war. This British TV movie — released during the Cold War — so violently seized on the nuclear anxieties of the time that its premiere was dubbed “the night the country didn’t sleep.” Depressingly, it hasn’t lost that initial resonance, and so it remains a panic attack-inducing watch.

Threads begins in the kitchen-sink vein of a Ken Loach movie. In the northern industrial town of Sheffield, a young couple from different social classes (Reece Dinsdale and Karen Meagher) discover they’re about to be parents — but looming above their small-scale drama are the clouds of war, as televisions and radios blare out the details of escalating tensions between the US and the USSR. And then, it happens: the town is strategically bombed, and Threads unfurls into an unrelenting nightmare. In the documentary-like approach that follows, it spares no graphic or emotional detail, charting both the personal devastation caused by the bomb and the annihilating impact of the nuclear holocaust on all the vital infrastructure we take for granted. In short, one of the bleakest, most terrifying movies ever made.

Genre: Drama, Horror, Science Fiction, War

Actor: Ashley Barker, Brian Grellis, David Brierly, Dean Williamson, Ed Bishop, Harry Beety, Henry Moxon, Jane Hazlegrove, Joe Belcher, Karen Meagher, Lesley Judd, Maggie Ford, Michael O'Hagan, Nat Jackley, Patrick Allen, Peter Faulkner, Phil Rose, Reece Dinsdale, Richard Albrecht, Rita May, Ruth Holden, Steve Halliwell, Ted Beyer

Director: Mick Jackson

, 2016

It’s always fun to watch something that makes you second guess each move, that shifts seamlessly from one thing to another. Frantz is that kind of film, and as the deceptively simple premise unfolds—a widow befriends her late husband’s friend—you’re never really sure if what you’re watching is a romance, a mystery, or a sly combination of both. 

It helps that Frantz is also more than just a period piece, packed as it is with tiny but thoughtful details. When it is filled with color, for example, it does so in the muted palette of 1900s portraits, making each shot look like a picture come to life. When it talks about love, it goes beyond heterosexual norms and hints at something more potent and, at times, political. And when it takes a swing at melodrama, its actors ground the moment with enough restraint and reserve so that it never teeters on excess. All this results in a well-executed, gripping, and overall lovely film to watch.

 

Genre: Drama, History, Romance, War

Actor: Alice de Lencquesaing, Anton von Lucke, Axel Wandtke, Camille Grandville, Claire Martin, Cyrielle Clair, Eliott Margueron, Elizabeth Mazev, Ernst Stötzner, Étienne Ménard, Jean-Claude Bolle-Reddat, Jean-Paul Dubois, Jean-Pol Brissart, Jeanne Ferron, Johann von Bülow, Johannes Silberschneider, Laurent Borel, Louis-Charles Sirjacq, Lutz Blochberger, Marie Gruber, Merlin Rose, Michael Witte, Nicolas Bonnefoy, Paula Beer, Pierre Niney, Rainer Egger, Ralf Dittrich, Torsten Michaelis, Zimsky

Director: François Ozon

Rating: PG-13

As impressive as Studio Ghibli’s collection of films are, I am still stubborn to believe that Porco Rosso is its most underrated film. Porco Rosso, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, is the story of a World War military aviator-turned-bounty hunter who has mysteriously been transformed into a pig. 

Bright with humor, heart, and flight (Miyazaki is largely influenced and inspired by the art of aviation), Porco Rosso manages to also acknowledge and reckon with the horrors of war. It also boasts one of, if not the greatest, line in any Ghibli film: I’d rather be a pig than a fascist.

Genre: Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family

Actor: Akemi Okamura, Akio Otsuka, Bunshi Katsura, Bunshi Katsura Vi, Hiroko Seki, Mahito Tsujimura, Minoru Yada, Osamu Saka, Reizō Nomoto, Sanshi Katsura, Shûichirô Moriyama, Tokiko Kato, Tsunehiko Kamijo, Yoko Soumi, Yu Shimaka

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Rating: PG

In Waltz with Bashir, director Ari Folman grapples with the trauma and dehumanization of war by examining the role he played in the 1982 Invasion of Lebanon. But his memories are fractured, so in an attempt to piece them back together, he visits his comrades and has them recall the events for him. The result is both poignant and painful, a horrific tell-all of what happens on both sides of the battleground. The film is a documentary, chillingly honest and straightforward, but it's also an animation gem that continues the legacy that Persepolis started and Flee continues. By combining the harshness of war with the lightness of animation, all three films effectively deliver their anti-war message with a much-needed human and personal touch. 

Genre: Animation, Documentary, Drama, War

Actor: Ari Folman, Mickey Leon, Ori Sivan, Ron Ben-Yishai, Yehezkel Lazarov

Director: Ari Folman

Rating: R

Kilo Two Bravo (Originally named Kajaki) is a must-watch for anyone who likes war dramas. It tells the true story of British soldiers in the Afghanistan war who find themselves trapped in a minefield during a mission, with their rescue team coming in a helicopter that might set off mines if it lands. It's a slow, dialogue driven film that is interested in taking you to the war zone more than it cares about entertaining you. Ultimately, it becomes an essay on the horrors of war, and an anti-war war film. Because of this and given the blood and gore, this movie is definitely not for those who would feel nauseated at sight of blood. Great setting, good cinematography, realistic acting and script all do justice to the true story. It's a film that will grip your senses and keep you at the edge of the seat throughout.

Genre: Adventure, Drama, Thriller, War

Actor: Ali Cook, Andy Gibbins, Benjamin O'Mahony, Bryan Parry, David Elliot, Grant Kilburn, Joe Corrigall, John Doughty, Jon-Paul Bell, Liam Ainsworth, Malachi Kirby, Mark Stanley, Paul Katis, Paul Luebke, Robert Mitchell, Scott Kyle, Thomas Davison

Director: Paul Katis

Rating: R

In 2013, following the Ukrainian government’s termination of an EU agreement (in blatant disregard of what its citizens have been calling for), a wave of peaceful protests start to crop up at the country’s capital. Things escalate when the police violently disperse the protestors, but the people of Ukraine are not so easily held down. They fight back, growing in number and conviction each time they do, until an all-out war finally breaks out. 

Winter on Fire documents this series of events, staying close to the ground and allowing bits of humanity to shine through its subjects. In between chilling clips of the clashes, we're shown intimate interviews with people of all walks of life. They're doctors, actors, students, bankers, lawyers, and clergymen, from various classes, races, religions, and genders. Despite their many differences, all of them share one hope: to secure a better future for the people of Ukraine. 

Genre: Documentary, War & Politics

Actor: Bishop Agapit, Catherine Ashton, Cissy Jones, Kristina Berdinskikh, Kurganskyi Eduard, Natan Hazin, Serhii Averchenko, Valery Dovgiy

Director: Evgeny Afineevsky

Rating: Unrated

Based on the 13-episode series of the same name, Violet Evergarden tells the story of Violet, a scribe commissioned to write letters at a time when telephones and computers had yet to exist. Shell-shocked from her time in the war, Violet is exceptionally stoic, except when she remembers Gilbert, her military superior and sometime lover. His parting words were "I love you," and through her letters, Violet has been examining the meaning of the phrase since then. 

Fans of the series will have no trouble following the events of the film, but if you're going in cold without any prior exposure to the franchise, it might take a while for you to adjust to its world. More an amalgamation of multiple cultures than a reflection of just one, the imaginary Leidenschaftlich is filled with Japanese-speaking citizens, in modern-day-influenced clothes, with architecture and vistas that could fit right in 1800s Western Europe. Against this backdrop, Violet attempts to restart her life as a writer. Living often doesn't feel easy, especially when PTSD comes in the form of shocks and painful flashbacks, but loving, as she finds out, might be even harder. A tale of self-forgiveness and forging on, despite all odds, Violet Evergarden is a moving ode to life and love at a time of war. 

Genre: Animation, Drama, Fantasy, Romance

Actor: Aya Endo, Aya Saito, Ayako Kawasumi, Daichi Endo, Daisuke Namikawa, Emi Shinohara, Haruka Tomatsu, Hidenobu Kiuchi, Hisako Kyoda, Jouji Nakata, Kanako Sakuragi, Kaori Mizuhashi, Koki Uchiyama, Kozue Harashima, Mayuno Yasokawa, Megumi Matsumoto, Minori Chihara, Mitsuru Miyamoto, Mugihito, Rie Hikisaka, Rina Sato, Rina Satou, Sumire Morohoshi, Takehito Koyasu, Yasuhiro Mamiya, Yui Ishikawa, Yuuki Sanpei

Director: Taichi Ishidate

, 2023

More shooting and spectacle than story, Sisu is a stunningly shot and unapologetically gory action film set at the tail end of World War II in Finland. It follows former commando turned prospector Aatami (nicknamed "Koschei" or immortal by the Russians) as he retrieves his stolen gold from the Nazis who've occupied and pillaged the nearby town.  

Not much happens in the way of plot, but what it lacks in that department it more than makes up for in action, which easily matches the likes of John Wick. In fact, Aatami is a kind of John Wick with his undefeatable killer moves and trusty dog pal—a reprieve of cute in a sea of endless carnage. But in the long list of grindhouse movies, Sisu distinguishes itself as astutely patriotic. Of course, it's hard not to root for anyone going against Nazis, but Sisu compels you to its side in subtle but powerful ways. 

You'll be reminded of John Wick, Mad Max, and many a Tarantino film watching Sisu, but you'll be struck by the film's singular hero, a stand-in for a nation unwilling to give up in the face of oppression. 

Genre: Action, Drama, Horror, War

Actor: Aamu Milonoff, Aksel Hennie, Arttu Kapulainen, Elina Saarela, Ilkka Koivula, Jack Doolan, Joel Hirvonen, Jorma Tommila, Max Ovaska, Mila Leppälä, Mimosa Willamo, Onni Tommila, Pekka Huotari, Severi Saarinen, Tatu Sinisalo, Vincent Willestrand, Wilhelm Enckell

Director: Jalmari Helander

Rating: R