THE WORLD AT WAR
Review by Mark Wiechman
Director: Sir Jeremy Isaacs
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.”
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
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.
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