Tag Archives: Documentaries

The World at War and That Jerk-Off Hitler

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.

Gun-toting Siberian soldiers skiing into battle

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.

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One Day in September and a Confounding Marketing Decision

In 1999, Kevin Mcdonald made the gripping (and Oscar-winning) documentary One Day in September. It’s about the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich when a Palestinian terrorist group held several Israeli atheletes hostage. The artwork for the poster and DVD (which I got at the time) highlights the most indelible image of that tragedy: one of the masked hostage takers on the balcony.

OK, now let’s leap to 2005 when Steven Spielberg’s Munich is released. Starring Eric Bana, it’s a narrative film about the Israeli govenrnment’s secret retaliation attacks after the massacre. I’m in a video store with a good friend, describing One Day in September, which functions as a kind of prequel to Spielberg’s film. I say, “Even the DVD cover is freakin’ chilling. Here, check it out.” I pick it up and do a double take. Y’see, logically, to capitalize on the imminent success of the Speilberg film, Sony Pictures gave a push to the documentary DVD, only for reasons I can’t comprehend, they made new artwork:

Say what? I’ve done some casual research and haven’t found any stills of the terrorists taken with optimum lighting by professional photographers, which leads me to believe it’s as fake as it looks. It’s terribly ridiculous and “Hollywood” when compared to the Real Deal.

In fact, since this unfrightening “re-enactment” still isn’t in the film at all, it’s definitely misleading to the consumer. But the most damaging effect of this new cover is that it’s no where near as chilling as the iconic image that graced the original. Am I on crazy pills or is everything that makes the real picture terrifying—the graininess, the imperfect mask, the inability to see the eyes—completely missing from the new artwork?

It’s becoming a recurring theme on my blog: it drives me nuts when bad things happen to great art, whether it’s a film like Jaws getting an emasculating remix or a fine documentary like this being marketed as something it’s not. I’m reminded of what Norman Bates said about his mother in Psycho: “I don’t hate her. I hate what she’s become.”

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Frederick Wiseman as Adjective

(NOTE: I tried valiantly, but to no avail. This post will mean most to those who have already seen a Frederick Wiseman film. Checking out his Wiki entry will help, however.)

Frederick Wiseman is a documentary filmmaker who got started during the glorious days of the 60s, known as the era of cinéma vérité (though he’s staunchly opposed to that term). His films are narration-free, score-less glimpses into the daily life of American institutions and facilities. These include a hospital, a high school, an army training camp, a juvenile court, etc. These unblinking presentations are seemingly free from judgment, and they tend to be pretty damn bleak.

(Until recently, these films were very difficult to see in a theater and impossible to find on video. Gratefully, that’s all changed. Wiseman’s gotten with the program. Visit his website to see his prolific roster of films—all affordable on DVD, in wonderful transfers–and for those in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint area, you can rent these at the wonderful Photoplay on Manhattan Ave., near Greenpoint Ave.)

Titicut Follies (1967)

Cut To:
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, last week. Since our son will begin pre-K this fall, my wife and I are touring local schools. We’ve been to three, and they have ranged in quality, sure, but I could easily see Harry attending any of them. There’s a fouth, however, that is pretty damn bleak. Debbie frowned upon it immediately and before I knew it, I said, “Yeah, that’s a Wiseman school.”

And it felt so perfect a description. True, he’s frequently showing us depressing situations (i.e. forgotten inmates at an institute for the criminally insane), but I’m talking about the look of his early films. There’s a joy-free heaviness created by the combination of B&W 16mm film stock; low-light situations, including a preponderance of  fluorescents; and economically-depressed locations. The way the light falls down the porous walls, the way the backgrounds—it can only be described as…Wiseman.

High School (1968)

Naturally, my instinct would be to affect it with a suffix, such as Runyonesque or Dickensian, but, no, this time around I don’t see the need. Just Wiseman does the trick.

To me, Wiseman places include:
        •DMVs
        •any Post Office in Brooklyn
        •Greyhound bus stations
        •Chinese take-out restaurants

Hospital (1969)

And let’s not limit this expressive word to just places. It could be any number of things. Who here has had a Wiseman job? Or a Wiseman date? I know I have.

And what about feet? They’re Wiseman. So’s my hairline.

Titicut Follies (1967)

I’d say anything that’s not completely lifeless, but dying nevertheless—well, that could adjective could do the trick.

Food? Shoot. Fishsticks are Wiseman. And so are Necco Wafers. And if you’ve ever taken the bun off the top of a plain McDonald’s hamburger, then you’ve seen the fastfood equivalent of a Frederick Wiseman film.

I’m going to stop before I become the Jeff Foxworthy of Documentary Film Analysis.

Hospital (1969)

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