Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars: Lawrence Olivier
Director: Sir Jeremy Isaacs
Audio: Stereo
Subtitles: English
Video: Color and B&W, Full screen standard 1.33:1
Studio: A&E Entertainment
Features: Deleted scenes, trailers, annoying promotional previews
Length: 26 hours,
Eleven disc box set
Release Date: August 24, 2004

“Down this road [in France] on a summer day in 1944, the soldiers came.  Nobody lives here now.  They stayed only a few hours.  When they had gone, a community that had lived for a thousand years was dead.”  

Film ****

Before I launch into my review of this amazing, epic documentary of the origins and events of World War II, I want to dedicate this review to my grandfather, Col. Frederick H. Wiechman, who was a surgeon in the U.S. Army in WWII.  He was the son of German immigrants to the United States, but did not hesitate to fight Nazi Germany and was even in occupied Germany toward the end of the war.  I also want to dedicate this to my Uncle Leo Juro, who recently passed away and was a survivor of the Bataan Death march and a POW for three years.   Because of men and women like them, our nation survived a conflict that gave us the atom bomb and genocide, and the world owes them a debt that can never be repaid.

The above quote is the very first thing we hear in The World At War.  Originally broadcast in 1973, these 26 episodes are not about USO dances or politicians, but death and destruction as well as the disruption and altering of all humanity forever.  One of the most chilling images is from Christmas 1933 and comes across the screen in the very first episode. Thousands of Germans with food in their bellies for the first time in years and faith in their new government singing Silent Night in its original tongue with a large cross atop a tree, but a much larger, glowing swastika high above it. 

Slowly, cunningly, as charismatically as Satan himself, Hitler convinced his country to worship him without flinching.  But the even more incredible feat was that as he began to gobble up Europe, other nations never even questioned it, and the German intellectuals who did were murdered.  He took a nation that was broke, militarily impotent, and forbidden to even build an army, and rebuilt it into possibly the leanest, meanest fighting machine in history and nearly conquered Europe, exterminating races as he went.  Only Britain, America, and the USSR stood against him (though the USSR left him alone until he attacked them outright).  The world watched his terrorism against the Jews, intellectuals, gypsies, and even his own officers in his naked ambition to rule Europe and only fought back when it was almost too late.  It was assumed that fighting him was pointless.  According to many interviews with Germans who fled Germany, most people did not realize Hitler’s true ambition until it affected them personally.   It was just unthinkable, a failure of imagination on the part of all of humanity.  Those who did see the danger, and watched the books burn, wisely fled. 

I was honored to recently review a wonderful A & E special on Winston Churchill (see that review here), who was the lone voice in the wilderness, warning Europe of Hitler’s evil.  While Chamberlain and other leaders signed treaties to let Hitler have his way, Churchill warned of the apocalypse.  Now, in this excellent special, we learn about Churchill’s nemesis, and see that Churchill was all too correct.  

One of the strengths of this series is that fifteen of the most important battles of the war are presented in great detail, but other episodes are reserved for discussing history other then the fighting itself.  One of the most moving sections from an episode called “Remember” and shows footage of German soldiers separating men from women in a simple procedure which probably happened countless times.  There is no narration or sound, only the obvious anguish of these people being separated, possibly forever.  These simple people, minding their own business, who owned practically nothing, now lost each other as well.  There were countless casualties of this war who never even went to battle.  This is a grim reminder of the consequences for nations who do not arm and defend themselves and to those who stand by and watch dictators have their way. 

Video ***

This is hard to rate since the footage is so old and mostly black and white, though some color footage was shot toward the end of the war.  I have to give three stars just for the monumental effort of sifting through so much footage and avoiding use of too many newsreels, which were mostly staged anyway.  They were never able to go through all footage available, but much of the footage had never been seen anywhere before, and the overall flow of the thousands of feet of film is very smooth and the transfer to DVD is excellent, with an overall high quality I did not expect.

Audio ***

Just stereo, but very even and easy to understand.  So many documentaries (even those of Ken Burns) often have uneven levels or muffled sections, but I did not find any of those here.

Special Features ****

The most interesting feature, which I recommend the viewers see first, is the new “making of” retrospective special with producer Sir Jeremy Isaacs in which he describes his filmmaking philosophy and the plan of the entire work.  For instance, only original footage was used, although we now have the inimitable Sir Lawrence Olivier narrating.  I enjoy his narrative because it is neither melodramatic nor cold, but just right.  Mr. Isaacs also explains how he wanted to take away all the sugar-coated memories that so many people have of the war and show it only for what it was. 

While some newsreel footage was used, he shows some frankly terrible examples of them in his documentary so that we can see the contrast between what folks at home saw versus the real thing.  They were probably meant to be light and encouraging to the allies who saw them, but they showed no bullets firing and rarely any bodies burning.  Features include: The Making of The World at War; bonus documentaries: "Secretary to Hitler," "The Two Deaths of Adolf Hitler," "Warrior," "Hitler's Germany: 1932-1939," "Hitler's Germany: 1939-1945," "The Final Solution," "From War to Peace"; 30th anniversary feature-length retrospective film; biographies; Timeline; and a gallery of photos from the Imperial War Museum collection.

Summary :

One of the few documentaries I have seen which is so epic in scope, rich in detail, yet still exciting from beginning to end, this is indeed an indispensable set for any historian or anyone who simply wants to see how terrible this war truly was.  It also reminds us how dearly past generations paid for our current freedom and inspires us to be courageous in present and future conflicts.

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