From ‘We Were the Lucky Ones’ to ‘Masters of the Air,’ Inside the Rise of World War II TV Shows

When Georgia Hunter first pitched her 2017 book, “We Were the Lucky Ones,” about her Polish ancestors’ fight for survival during the Holocaust, she was told World War II literature was a “saturated” market. This wasn’t meant to dissuade her from pushing forward with their harrowing story, but rather acknowledge that there is never a shortage of novels, films and series trying to reckon with the everlasting wounds of the war.

It was no different when Hunter and producers Thomas Kail and Erica Lipez adapted the book into Hulu’s eight-part limited series, which premiered in March.

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“We knew with this kind of story in particular, you have to go beyond the logline,” Lipez tells Variety. “It was so much about making sure people heard the full story, particularly when we were pitching it. As someone who thought they had a really good Holocaust education, what I knew immediately upon reading Georgia’s book was that embedded in this one family’s story were stories I’d never seen before.”

Finding that new perspective is what binds the five WWII-centric series vying for Emmy attention this year: “We Were the Lucky Ones,” Apple TV+’s “Masters of the Air” and “The New Look,” Peacock’s “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” and Netflix’s “All the Light We Cannot See.” It is a mighty wave of content that comes 85 years after the war began with Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939, an event depicted in “We Were the Lucky Ones.”

The series follows the Kurc family, who find themselves flung across four continents over nine years as they try to find their way back to one another. Considering the scale, Hunter calls Hulu’s commitment to her family’s story and the experience of the Jewish diaspora a “leap of faith.”

“This is just an ordinary family that gets dropped into this horrendous and extraordinary time,” Hunter says. “They were forced to survive and find ways to keep living throughout — like the fact that they were having babies and making music and falling in love.”

Living under extreme circumstances, during and after the war, is what drove Todd A. Kessler to develop “The New Look,” a series that examines the lives of fashion designers Christian Dior (Ben Mendelsohn) and Coco Chanel (Juliette Binoche) as they confront the Nazi occupation of France and find their footing in the post-war creative boom.

The series has inspired contentious conversations about the moral implications of Chanel’s association with the Nazis during the war, which Kessler says led to the “most harshly expressed” critiques of his career. But the showrunner was less interested in passing judgment on how someone survived, and more invested in putting audiences inside the interminable uncertainty of life in an occupied city — a painfully timely mission with global crises like Ukraine.

“It’s not as if, two years into the occupation, the French knew they only had two more years to go,” Kessler says. “It could have lasted another five years; it could have been their lifetimes or the rest of the 20th century. They didn’t know, so how do you survive? There are lots of stories that dramatize concentration camps and the tragedy of those lives that were destroyed. There are many stories of Americans portrayed as saviors. But this show is what happens in your day-to-day life when your entire existence changes.”

“All the Light We Cannot See,” based on Anthony Doerr’s bestselling novel, similarly follows Marie-Laure (Aria Mia Loberti), a blind French girl living in the fortified city of Saint-Malo, who secretly broadcasts coded radio transmissions for the Allies while she cautiously walks the same streets as the Nazi occupiers.

Hers is also a love story in the most extraordinary of circumstances, as Marie-Laure finds herself drawn to a young Nazi soldier tasked with hunting down illegal broadcasts. “The Tattooist of Auschwitz,” likewise, finds tension and beauty in the unexpected emergence of love. Based on the novel by Heather Morris, the series features Harvey Keitel (and Jonah Hauer-King in flashbacks) as Lali Sokolov, a camp survivor whose job was to tattoo identification numbers on the arms of prisoners. Now in his 80s, Lali is grappling with his memories of Auschwitz-Birkenau, specifically his relationship with a fellow prisoner named Gita (Anna Próchniak).

Showrunner Claire Mundell says the guiding principle for the series was to tell a story from a survivor’s instinctively guarded point of view.

“The trauma didn’t end when the camps were liberated,” Mundell says. “Survivors had to live with that every single moment of every single day. But because we are only telling this through Lali’s memory, we can only see what he remembers — the light and the dark. The fact that these two people faced with the constant threat of death could dig so deep and connect with one another was, for us, an act of defiance against the dehumanization that was being meted out against them.”

masters of the air
masters of the air

Perhaps the most traditional of the WWII series, “Masters of the Air,” still finds a new vantage point on the U.S. military angle. “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific” exec producers Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman piloted the series, but it was actually Spielberg’s father who kept beating the drum for them to cover the Army’s Eighth Air Force and the Bloody Hundredth pilots that took heavy losses flying missions.

“World War II really is the best example of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong,” Goetzman says. “Great stories come from that war. They can symbolize anything you want to tell about the world we’re living in today or about the world’s past. That’s probably why we are attracted to it as storytellers.”

While it is mere coincidence that five World War II series are on the release schedule within weeks of each other, none of their creators are surprised by it — nor do they see viewers’ fascination with the subject ending anytime soon.

“I think this time period will be relevant for the rest of humanity,” Kessler says. “It was such a distinct moment and experience that united the world, and universally, we know that there is no shortage of tyrants that will continue to resurface.

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