Comedians Dudley Moore and Peter Cook had drunken alter egos named Derek and Clive, and during the 70s they’d tape their off-the-cuff and very vulgar thoughts for comedy records. One of their exchanges goes something like this (I’m paraphrasing):
Clive: I was watching that Holocaust thing on TV, y’know, that story about Hitler and–
Derek: What a prick he was, eh?
That’s pretty much sums Hitler up, as far as they’re concerned. They were young boys during the Blitz, when he bombed London for 76 consecutive nights in 1940, and it’s clear that experience left a bad taste in their mouths, to say the least.
Meanwhile, I’ve been watching The World at War, a 1973 British documentary series about WWII. I’ve never been a war history junkie and never heard of The World at War until recently. Since then I’ve found a handful of people that know and swear by it as the ultimate visual document of that war—while the rest of us have no idea of it or its importance.
On face value, when I heard the words “World War II,” “British documentary,” and “early 70s,” I imagined the worst. I expected something stodgy, formal, and probably dull. Well, I’m happy to say that’s not the case. This doc is a mother. Ken Burns this ain’t. Just the opposite, thank the Lord Baby Jesus.
Where to begin? OK, for starters, there’s only eyewitness accounts. No book-types recounting shit that happened twenty years before they were born. Nope, this series has interviews with the likes of, say, the Japanese officer who planned the invasion of Midway and Churchill’s personal secretary and Hitler’s interpreter in the negotiations with the Soviet Union. Real “you are there” stories. And since these interviews were done in the early 70s, most of the subjects are lucid.
Next, there’s the archival footage, which accounts for about a whopping 85% of the visuals. According to Jeremy Isaacs, the series producer, there’s no cheats for any of the battle footage. If they’re talking about German soldiers entering Moscow, than the footage we see is of precisely that. I had no idea there was so much freaking footage shot during that war, but the coverage is out of this world. For example, I never thought I’d see footage of the Siberian army—heavily armed and on skis!—attacking the German army on the outskirts of Moscow.
And lastly, there’s the tone of voice, which brings us back to my opening paragraphs about Hitler being a “prick.” As Isaacs explains in the “Making of” doc, “Britain was bombed. Not invaded. Not occupied. Not fought over. Britain’s war was not Poland’s war and not Russia’s war.” That unique experience informs the mood that prevails over the series, and it’s: True, Hitler was a genocidal maniac and vicious dictator—but let’s face it, he was also a real jerk. This manifests itself in droll narration from Laurence Olivier, at times sardonic but always biting. (When I heard he was the voice of the show, I thought that spelled doom—but who knew he could “underact”? His delivery is spot-on, with an undercurrent of opinion and even anger. Again, miles away from the standard PBS play-it-safe tone. How refreshing.)
These three brief clips will hopefully illustrate my points. All are from the first episode, “A New Germany (1933-39).” This clip describes how Hitler’s paranoia in 1934 led to the killing of his peers and the formation of the SS. You can see the filmmakers’ resourcefulness, unusual sense of humor and even their love of Terry Gilliam:
This very brief clip of may give you an idea of Olivier’s dry take on the Nazi way of life. It’s German newsreel footage from the 30s of the League of German Maidens (the female version of the Hitler Youth), and Olivier’s spins it into a reverse propaganda film. Particularly I’m referring to his timing and delivery of the phrase, “…and so on.”
Lastly, here’s a sample of the quality and uniqueness of the archival footage. It’s Eva Braun’s home movies from late 30s (complete with the title card “The Variety Film Show No. 2, Filmed by Eva Braun”). The use of music, followed by silence, is powerful.
Eva and her family may have shot it, but World at War editor Alan Afriat cut it, and somehow the combo is chilling. The edit from this to this is particularly jarring:
Netflix has The World at War, but I went whole hog: someone on Amazon is selling the complete 11 DVD set for under $37. That’s only $3.40 per disk! I’m seven hours in and loving every blood-soaked minute of it. I say if you wanna learn about our grandparents’ war, this is the way to go.