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The Greatest Documentary

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The Greatest Documentary

The World at War, a 1973 series, remains an essential primer on history’s deadliest conflict. Spring 2016
Arts and Culture

In the mid-1990s, 50 years after the end of World War II, the American essayist Lee Sandlin asked friends what they knew about the conflict. To his surprise, “Nobody could tell me the first thing about it. Once they got past who won they almost drew a blank. All they knew were those big totemic names—Pearl Harbor, D day, Auschwitz, Hiroshima—whose unfathomable reaches of experience had been boiled down to an abstract atrocity. The rest was gone. . . . What had happened, for instance, at one of the war’s biggest battles, the Battle of Midway? It was in the Pacific, there was something about aircraft carriers. Wasn’t there a movie about it, one of those Hollywood all-star behemoths in which a lot of admirals look worried while pushing toy ships around a map?” For Sandlin, this broad ignorance demonstrated “how vast the gap is between the experience of war and the experience of peace . . . . [N]obody back home has ever known much about what it was like on the battlefield.”

With the 70th anniversaries of victory in Europe and the Pacific marked last year, that gap has only widened for most Americans, but for the tiny percentage who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s easy to sympathize with Sandlin’s respondents, who might have done well to remember all those totemic names. The war’s enormity is intimidating on multiple levels—historically, empirically, morally—and time and distance have made it no less so. Yet the sense that we are, as Sandlin put it, “losing the war,” doesn’t reflect a lack of relevance or waning public interest. Seventy years after its end, World War II, the definitive event of the twentieth century and perhaps of the entire modern age, remains enormously consequential, as the West was reminded in 2014, when Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and menaced independent Ukraine, dredging up in the process unresolved conflicts involving the Nazis. New works on the war continue to emerge yearly, from sweeping single-volume histories by Max Hastings, Andrew Roberts, and Antony Beevor to more specialized studies. In a time when even the most educated adults watch impressive quantities of video, films and television series about the war abound, as well as new documentaries, some featuring colorized archival footage.

Documentary may prove to be the most likely form in which younger generations first learn about the war. If so, the place to look for the definitive treatment isn’t forward but backward, to The World at War, a 23-hour opus that debuted in Britain and the United States in fall 1973 and is said to be showing, somewhere, as we speak. The film was lauded as “the best war documentary ever shown on television”—faint praise when it appeared, given slim competition. Over 40 years later, though, the film remains vital, even as subsequent scholarship has made its omissions more apparent. In an age in which every impetus pushes us toward screens, rather than pages, The World at War can help us understand something, at least, about the deadliest conflict in history.

The series’ prevailing feature is comprehensiveness. Consisting of 26 episodes, each 52 minutes in length, it covers the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, the outbreak of war in Europe, the fall of France and the Battle of Britain, and the German invasion of the Soviet Union; Japanese expansionism in the Pacific, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the early Pacific war against the United States; the U-boat war in the Atlantic and the North African, Italian, and Burmese campaigns; life on the home fronts in Nazi Germany, Britain, the Soviet Union, Japan, and the United States; the fighting on the Eastern Front, the greatest land battle in history; the Allies’ invasion of France and push eastward to Berlin, as well as the collapse of the Third Reich; the sanguinary battles on the Pacific islands; and the Holocaust, the Bomb, and the aftermath. Though most illuminating when seen together, the episodes are freestanding and can be watched in any order.

The World at War was the inspiration of Sir Jeremy Isaacs, then a young British producer for the BBC’s principal competitor, Independent Television. A decade earlier, the BBC had produced The Great War, a pioneer of historical documentary. But Isaacs and his team objected to its loose treatment of archival footage, especially the intercutting of staged battle scenes from films like All Quiet on the Western Front, without identifying them as such. With the guidance of Noble Frankland, director of the Imperial War Museum, The World at War became a model of historical accuracy in its use of such sources. Isaacs also wanted to range far beyond the British experience, to avoid triumphalism, and to construct a strong narrative, focusing on the experience of people who had lived through the war or played key roles in it, while steering clear of scholarly debates. He understood that television was better at providing the “what” than the “why.” His components: narration, by Sir Laurence Olivier; extensive and often astounding archival footage; and interviews with civilians and veterans as well as with key political and military players, but—with one exception—no historians.

The choice of Laurence Olivier as narrator lent gravitas to the production and enhanced its commercial appeal. (FREMANTLEMEDIA/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK)

This format packs an enormous amount of information into each installment. “Distant War” focuses on the struggle in Britain to respond, first, to the Nazis’ invasion of Poland, which precipitated a British (and French) declaration of war on Germany—but not much help for the Poles. “We’d gone to war for the defense of Poland,” says Lord Boothby, but “in the event, we did nothing to help Poland at all. We never lifted a finger.” Amid British failures in the Norwegian campaign of spring 1940, Neville Chamberlain is replaced as prime minister by Winston Churchill—who, as first lord of the admiralty, had played a key role in these failures. In “France Falls,” we watch as refugees—mothers with babies, old women—make their way on the roads of northern France. One girl, perhaps ten, walks with a wooden leg and cane while helping her younger sibling. We see the German entry into Paris, and Hitler’s lone visit to the capital, where he stares blankly at the Eiffel Tower. And we watch as the Nazis parade into Paris.

Alone” chronicles the Battle of Britain, as London and other British cities are bombarded by the Luftwaffe. Civilians take cover, some in the subway system. Middle-aged survivors gather in a pub to swap recollections. “The bomb that hit you, you never heard,” one says. “You can get used to anything,” says another. A man remembers seeing Churchill walk down Green Street in London, where he came upon a group of women trying to recover belongings from a destroyed home. “We can take it,” the prime minister told them. “We’re the ones taking it, mister!” they shouted back. The home-front material on Britain is especially rich—from the impact of the blackout, rationing, and mass conscription to clips from British comedies, images of posters warning about spies, and popular songs. Gracie Fields sings “The Thing-Ummy Bob,” celebrating war production work: “It’s the girl that makes the thing that drills the hole/that holds the spring that works the thing-ummy-bob/that makes the engines roar./And it’s the girl that makes the thing that holds the oil/that oils the ring that works the thing-ummy-bob/that’s going to win the war.” Couples wearing gas masks dance the jitterbug.

The war’s immense scale is best captured in the material covering the Eastern Front. “The Red Army in 1941,” Olivier tells us, “was the largest in the world—in tanks it outnumbered, in airplanes it equaled the rest of the world’s armies put together.” But in the first few days of Barbarossa—the initial German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941—the Wehrmacht destroyed 2,000 Russian planes, most on the ground, shutting down the Soviet air force. The Germans wiped out 6,000 Russian tanks in two battles in July. Half a million Russians died in the first two weeks of the invasion. By the end of September, nearly 3 million had perished. No country but the Soviet Union could have withstood these losses. Hitler’s plans called for victory within four months, but the Germans stalled near Moscow with the arrival of the Russian winter, for which its troops were ill equipped. And Stalin had more manpower to call upon: his elite Siberian divisions. They ski into the frame, fully armed, called to the defense of Moscow.

In “Stalingrad,” covering the gigantic battle that raged from August 1942 to February 1943, the German Sixth Army at first routs Soviet forces, but the Russians, their resistance more effective than the previous year, turn to urban warfare and house-to-house fighting—“gangster methods,” one German soldier complained. Still, the Sixth Army pins Soviet forces against the banks of the Volga River, and the Luftwaffe turns the city into a heaping ruin. Once again, though, the Germans, losing 20,000 men a week, cannot administer the killing blow before the weather turns, and the German Sixth is eventually encircled by two Soviet armies. Joyous Red Army troops embrace one another—but Olivier informs us that the joining up of the eastern and western armies had happened so quickly that the Soviets had “no time to film it.” What we’re seeing is a reenactment.

“The Germans were now eating raw horse flesh,” Olivier says. The Sixth Army’s commander, Friedrich Paulus, signals Hitler: “Troops without munitions or food. Effective command no longer possible. Collapse inevitable. Army requests permission to surrender in order to save lives of remaining troops.” Hitler responds: “The Sixth Army will do its historic duty at Stalingrad until the last man.” Hitler had expected Paulus to shoot himself; instead, the general surrendered. Amazed, General Shumilov asks Paulus for proof of his identity and proof of his command of the Sixth Army. “Germans are funny fellows,” a Russian soldier says. “Coming to conquer Stalingrad in shiny leather boots. They thought it would be a joyride.”

In 1930, says Marquis Kido, billed as the “emperor’s chief adviser,” Japan “entered what might be called her convulsive period of history.” Ultranationalists took power and transformed the military through the “patriotic societies.” We see footage of these young men training in martial arts and other disciplines; their fanaticism conjures ISIS. Confident after its conquest of Manchuria in 1931, Japan invaded China in July 1937, taking Peking and Shanghai, before advancing up the Yangtze toward China’s then-capital, Nanking, where in December the army committed one of the century’s infamous atrocities, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Chinese. Japanese troops shoot victims execution-style. “Even the Nazis were shocked,” Olivier says with a hint of irony, “and offered to mediate to prevent further bloodshed.”

In the Pacific episodes, we learn, among other things, that Midway was indeed “something about aircraft carriers.” Only six months earlier at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had destroyed much of America’s Pacific fleet—but not a single U.S. aircraft carrier, since those vessels were out at sea on December 7. At Midway, American planes launched from those same carriers destroyed four of the Japanese carriers that had launched the Pearl Harbor attack. The smashing victory, accomplished in the “fatal five minutes” that saw all four Japanese carriers ignited by American bombs, put an end to Japanese advances in the Pacific and set the stage for Allied victory. As the Pacific battles proceed, we see wobbly American planes making one treacherous landing after another on U.S. ships or in the sea. The American assault on Iwo Jima is shown in revelatory color. “If ever hell looked like anything,” one veteran says, “it must have looked like Iwo Jima.” We see marines climbing down rope nets; marines crowded together on amphibious landing crafts, some with faces painted green, headed for the island; and overhead shots of the formation, which looks like a skywriting message on water. In the distance, Mount Suribachi, under heavy shelling, looks impregnable. The island’s terrain resembles a landfill. Grisly scenes of the carnage are also seen in color. The Americans would bloodily fight their way toward mainland Japan, island by island.

The war had turned against Japan and its ally Germany. Hitler spent more time at his “wolf’s lair” in the German countryside, where, in 1944, the plot to kill him came within a whisker of succeeding. But the generals’ plot was not the only form of resistance. Some Germans hid Jews from the Gestapo. One, Christabel Bielenberg, sheltered a Jewish couple in her cellar. Fearing for her children, she told them that it could only be for two days. Awaking on the third day, she found that the couple had already gone. They were apprehended trying to buy a rail ticket, and sent to Auschwitz. Wringing her hands in memory 30 years later, she says: “Hitler had turned me into a murderer.” Emmie Bonhoeffer remembers friends’ reactions when she tells them that Jews are being sent to their deaths: hold your tongue, they say, or they’ll send you away, too, and your children. “A dictatorship is like a snake,” her husband warns her. “If you put your foot on its tail, it will just bite you. You have to strike the head.”

Whether it’s footage of Russian soldiers in the Battle of Kursk, crawling on their bellies to avoid bombardment and cutting through German fortifications with what look like lopping shears, or desperate scenes shot inside German U-boats under attack from depth charges; or testimonies, ranging from Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary, giving intimate details of the Führer’s final days in the bunker, to a surviving Japanese soldier, who remembers the bitterness he felt when, going off to what he felt was his certain death, he receives a good-luck belt from a young woman and wonders why she can’t just sleep with him instead, The World at War’s richness of detail rewards repeated viewings.

Yet its impact would have been lessened without a shrewd aesthetic approach. Crucial to the series’ enduring power is its style.

“Down this road, on a summer day in 1944, the soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community which had lived for a thousand years was dead. This is Oradour-sur-Glane, in France. The day the soldiers came, the people were gathered together. The men were taken to garages and barns, the women and children were led down this road, and they were driven into this church. Here, they heard the firing as their men were shot. Then, they were killed, too. A few weeks later, many of those who had done the killing were themselves dead, in battle. They never rebuilt Oradour. Its ruins are a memorial. Its martyrdom stands for thousand upon thousand of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, in China, in a World at War.”

With these words, read by Olivier, The World at War begins. The invocation of Oradour, with its declarative style reminiscent of Hemingway’s opening to A Farewell to Arms, is typical of the series’ spare approach to language and use of narration to render events, not editorialize on them. Though various directors and scriptwriters helmed the episodes, this spirit prevailed. Excluding interviews, the scripts averaged 1,500 words—only about ten minutes’ reading time. The commitment to economy proves effective.

“Bread was now made with sweepings, cattle cake, sawdust. People ate soap, linseed oil, the paste for wallpaper. Frozen and silent, Leningrad refused to die.”

“The Germans murdered Jews and Communists. They murdered those suspected of supporting the partisans. They murdered hostages. After battle, in retreat, they just murdered.”

“Russia was saved by its soldiers and by its people. But in the earth, never to welcome the coming of peace, lay 20 million dead.”

“Germany was an ant heap some giant had kicked to pieces.”

Perhaps the most vivid example of this frugal eloquence comes at the end of “Inside the Reich,” where Germany’s crumbling fortunes spark the creation of the Volkssturm, or “people’s storm”—a rounding up of every remaining male to fight for the fatherland. We see thousands being sworn in, and then Goebbels speaks, exhorting them “never to strike our colors and surrender like cowards” (Goebbels, who would poison his six children, pronouncing on cowardice!). Goebbels then reviews the men parading by. Olivier: “The Volkssturm trudged out through that same Brandenburg Gate which had seen the soldiers march back from Paris four years before. They went towards the Russians—keeping their thoughts to themselves.”

The man reading these words was among the most honored performers in the English-speaking world—and for most viewers, The World at War is intimately associated with the sound of Olivier’s voice. Isaacs had wanted a journalist to do the narration, but he was persuaded to secure Olivier, for his commercial appeal and for the prestige that he would lend the project. The British writer Taylor Downing, in his definitive book on the series, argues that, to contemporary ears, “Olivier is one of the weakest links in The World at War” because his reading “introduces a sense of theatricality, of listening to a performance . . . that can grate with the viewer today.” This judgment seems unlikely to be shared on both sides of the Atlantic. Americans may be suckers for British accents, but to American ears, Olivier’s narration combines singular gravity with an elevated diction that seems equal to the vastness of events. If anything, Olivier’s reading suffered from insufficient theatricality. Downing himself cites Isaacs’s concern that the actor’s voice kept “fading away at the end of the line.” Olivier was trying not to be overly dramatic; sometimes, he succeeded too well. But from the moment he begins, with Oradour, he commands our attention and earns our trust.

The same could be said for the musical theme, composed by Carl Davis and best remembered in tandem with the opening montage, in which images of faces melt into one another against a background of fire. Isaacs wanted music that could convey “every sort of emotion, including compassion and endurance.” Davis’s music was not sentimental, however—unlike, say, the fiddle melodies of Ken Burns’s Civil War—and the documentary was scored sparingly throughout, mostly refusing to cue emotions.

With so little manipulation of mood, the “talking heads” segments—the interviewees—must carry their own power. Though most of the political and military participants were practiced at speaking with media, the ordinary civilians were not. Born early in the twentieth century—and some in the nineteenth—they don’t talk in the more self-conscious manner of interviewees today, who, even if anonymous, are familiar with the ubiquity of video, the vague notion that we could all be recorded at any moment. They suggest a bygone world, and they remind us that The World at War was made before documentaries were thought of as “movies.”

For some of the talking heads, any adornment—of music, graphics, or other contemporary flourishes—would have been almost obscene. It is a disarming experience, in one’s living room, to watch and listen to former SS officers; to Hitler’s valet; and to Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and munitions chief, who had narrowly escaped execution at Nuremberg. Released from Spandau Prison in 1966, he appears in several installments, lending the film inside perspectives available nowhere else but prompting, at least in this viewer, a recurring question: Shouldn’t you be dead?

The presence of Speer and so many other major players—from Lord Avon (Anthony Eden) and General Curtis LeMay to Admiral Karl Dönitz and Japanese diplomat Toshikazu Kase—highlights another of the series’ defining strengths: its proximity in time to historical events. The World at War possesses firsthand power no longer attainable. And the nearness of yesterday is never better illustrated than in the emotionally grueling, groundbreaking “Genocide.”

When the series debuted, the Holocaust had not attained the cultural preeminence it now holds. The 32-minute French documentary Night and Fog appeared in 1955. The 1961 Hollywood drama Judgment at Nuremberg became one of the first mainstream films to show footage of the camps. But by and large, few Holocaust films had garnered even a fraction of the audience that Schindler’s List would one day command. And, though Holocaust denial was already well under way, no major program about the event had ever been shown in Britain, let alone in prime time.

The early sections of “Genocide” focus on Nazi anti-Semitism and the rise of groups like the SS. This history is related in good part by Karl Wolff, an SS officer with close ties to Heinrich Himmler who had served prison time but was now free. Wolff describes witnessing a mass shooting with Himmler and seeing bodies fall into the pit. Himmler watched with aplomb until some blood and brains of one victim splashed onto the SS commandant’s coat, and he turned away, disgusted. An SS lance corporal, Richard Boch, observed an Auschwitz gassing. He remembers the screaming and the “blue haze” that escaped once the door was opened. “They had to tug and pull very hard to disentangle all these people.” When another group was brought in, Boch, revolted, asked his compadre to take him away. (A postscript notes that Boch was exonerated of crimes and “commended for steadfastly refusing orders to take part in the killings.”)

Eventually, “Genocide” becomes the story of survivors. Avraham Kochavi, a Polish Jew and Auschwitz survivor, describes the conditions of the railway cars that transported Jews to the camps and how, concerned with protecting his father, he beat other passengers to keep them away. “I didn’t care about the suffering of others, their cries, their threats—only that father should get up.” Another Polish Jew, Rivka Yosilevska, tells an inconceivable story of surviving a mass shooting, at which her mother, father, sister, and young daughter—who was forced out of her arms—were murdered. Yosilevska spent an entire night in a pile of corpses, alive. Czechoslovakian Jew Rudolf Vrba, who, incredibly, escaped from Auschwitz and authored a famous report on the camp, watched as lorries transported a group of Jewish women, already skeletal, to the gas chambers. Some cried out in terror; others tried to jump out of the lorries. A rabbi’s son, Moshe Sonnenshein, standing with Vrba, called out: “God—show them your power—this is against you!” But “nothing happened,” Vrba remembered. Sonnenshein then cried: “There is no God.”

The unfortunate souls whom Boch had described separating the dead in the gas chamber were members of the Sonderkommando, Jewish death-camp inmates tasked with hauling bodies, burying corpses, and the like. To cooperate was to survive another day. “No one who hasn’t gone through such a thing,” says Dov Paisikovic, a Hungarian Jew, “can imagine what the will to live is; what a moment of life is. Every person, without exception, is capable of doing the worst things just to live another minute.” He relates how the victims fought one another during the gassings to try to survive. When Olivier’s narration returns, it sounds as if, this once, the great actor is baring his teeth: “The industry of death had useful by-products. Women’s hair was packed in bales, gold teeth melted down, artificial limbs and spectacle lenses recycled for the German war machine. It all helped.” Paisikovic concludes: “When the Americans entered, I weighed 42 kilos . . . . I bless every day that I continue to live because every day that I live is pure profit . . . . I was dead in the camp—and reborn after the liberation.”

Liberation did come, in 1945, for survivors of the camps and of the war itself, though the years ahead saw plentiful suffering, especially for inhabitants of what historian Timothy Snyder calls the bloodlands—the swath of Eastern Europe between Berlin and Moscow, subject to the brutalities of both Hitler and Stalin. These and other agonies—of those bombed to death or deformity, slaughtered or enslaved, mistreated or maligned—have become an increasing focus of cultural memory and scholarship. The World at War offers enough military history to please traditionalists, but it also focuses intently on human costs, reflecting some of the transition already under way in the early 1970s, when the full breadth of this catalog of savagery was not yet understood. (The Soviet archives hadn’t been opened, for example.) By now, fascination with human victims and Allied (not just Axis) sins can overwhelm other considerations, especially regarding the brute reality of the war’s necessity.

In this context, the appearance of the series’ lone historian—a thirtysomething, long-haired Stephen Ambrose—is compelling. Perhaps Isaacs reconsidered his reluctance to use historians; maybe the cataclysm needed some framing, after all. Ambrose offers a timeless judgment: “The most important single result of World War II is that the Nazis were crushed. The militarists in Japan were crushed. The fascists in Italy were crushed. Surely justice has never been better served.” This was not triumphalism but empiricism. Ambrose’s words were broadcast just as the relative hopefulness of the postwar era had begun to sour. Britain was headed for a strife-ridden period of inflation and labor unrest, and the United States, already scarred from Vietnam, had Watergate and other woes to face. The generation that won the war felt the ground shifting under its feet. Ambrose’s verdict sounds almost preemptive now, like an attempt to shore up a people’s self-confidence: Whatever else you’re going to apologize for, don’t apologize for ridding the world of these monsters. Yet 40 years later, we’re less certain about everything—sometimes, it seems, even about this.

Reading even the deepest histories of the war, Lee Sandlin felt that “some essential truth is still not being disclosed. It’s as though the experience of war fits the old definition of poetry: war is the thing that gets lost in translation.” War can never fully translate to those who don’t experience it, but The World at War is a valuable primer on the objective truths of what occurred and the realities that those truths imposed. The more elusive truths, of meaning and morality, we’re still working out.

Top Photo: The film best captures the war’s immense scale in episodes covering the fighting between German and Soviet forces on the Eastern Front. (BBC/PHOTOFEST)

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