[29 April 2011]
My mother was born in 1929. For her generation, World War II was the defining experience of their lives. For me, born in 1963, the defining experience—of the war, anyway—was the 1974 BBC series The World at War. That 26-part series featured in-depth background material on Germany and Japan, talking-head interviews with soldiers from all sides, and the stentorian narration of Laurence Olivier. It was a landmark in my understanding of the war. For better or for worse, my understanding of the 20th century’s most widespread conflict has been formed, to a large degree, by the producers of that television documentary.
In 2009, a group of French producers set out to create their own generation-defining take on the war. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the two efforts, but for those of us born too late to experience the conflict firsthand, what else can we do? The sad fact is, Apocalypse: World War II is a superficial piece of work, a kind of World War II for Dummies, saved from complete irrelevance only by its striking visuals.
Those visuals are the first thing you notice: all three discs are in color throughout, either using colored source material or (much more often) colorized versions of original black and white. The retouching is well done and restrained, utilizing a muted palette of subdued hues that still manage to convey some of the horror of those years.
Too bad the narrative fails to keep up. The first disc opens with 1945 Berlin in ruins, then backtracks to 1932, when Hitler is elected Chancellor of Germany. A potted history of Hitler’s rise to power and aims (humiliate France, gain Anschluss, scapegoat the Jews, eradicate his enemies and consolidate power) takes about eight minutes. Viewers looking for anything resembling, y’know, an understanding of why a madman was so successfully able to gain control of an entire nation will have to search elsewhere.
After a few territory-swiping episodes, war erupts on 1 September, when Germany invades Poland. France and the UK declare war and the familiar storyline follows. But familiar or not, Apocalypse manages to be jarring: it takes a scattershot approach to events, jumping restlessly from Germany to the USSR to Italy to the Allies. Unlike The World at War, which picked one storyline per episode and followed it through in depth—the desert war in North Africa, say, or the RAF’s Battle of Britain, or the Holocaust—Apocalypse follows events chronologically. This seems to make sense but results in the focus skipping from Moscow to Berlin to London to the South of France to Tunisia, all within the space of a few minutes. By the time the viewer is interested in one series of events—will the Germans take Leningrad?—the action is yanked away to somewhere else—look, Rommel’s back in Egypt!
Some moments remain almost unbearably moving, anyway, because of the powerful imagery of the film: the corpses of Polish cavalry, for example, who rode their horses to resist German tanks, only to be slaughtered wholesale. Elsewhere we see interesting glimpses of American and British Nazis marching in support of the fascists, as well as some of their opponents, including a startlingly young JFK.
In May 1940, Germany defeats France, largely due to Franch incompetence. De Gaulle makes a name for himself fighting the advance. Allied forces retreat from Germany’s two-pronged “pincer” attack and evacuate at Dunkirk. Mussolini declares war against UK and France, and in June Paris falls without a fight. This being a French production, there is much made of French “courage” and will to fight, and of course La Resistance and so forth. YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).
Discs 2 and 3 continue the narrative, with the same weaknesses and strengths on display. Relatively little mention is made of the Battle of Britain, and much time is given over to Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s ill-judged invasion of the USSR. This seems fair enough, as 80 percent of German losses were incurred on the Eastern front. Less defensible is the very superficial treatment of Rommel and the desert war in North Africa.
In Russia as in elsewhere, what Apocalypse has to offer are its powerful images. There are striking scenes of Panzer tanks sailing across wheatfields like a fleet of rolling, armored warships. Also touched upon, though briefly (everything is brief here): in the Baltics, many citizens greet the Germans as liberators from the Soviets, some even passing out flowers as the troops roll through. The region’s own anti-Semitism is at work here too, as pogroms round up and slaughter Jews. The same happens in the Ukraine.
Elsewhere, the Russians are not so happy, and neither is the German army. Dust from unpaved roads slows down the advance, and the vastness of Russia begins to take its toll. Stalin initiates a scorched-earth policy, instructing peasants to burn their farms and fields so as to deny the Germans anything useful from the countryside. More powerful scenes follow, as impoverished peasants put their only possessions to the torch in acts of pure defiance. In September 1941, the German advance swings south, taking 600,000 Soviet soldiers prisoner, most of whom will be left to starve and die in camps.
While the Russian campaign is covered in some depth, the Pacific side of the war is laughably weak. When Japan bombs Pearl Harbor—in color this time—the US enters the war, but there is absolutely no background to the events leading to this action by Japan. It comes apparently out of the blue, as opposed to being merely the latest in a long series of military actions against China, Korea, the Phillipines, and so on. Remember, this documentary was made by Europeans, and it shows.
The attention soon returns to Europe, with quick looks in at the Warsaw ghetto and North Africa, and then the final campaigns: Stalingrad, Italy, Normandy. The Soviets close in from the east as the Allies pile on from the west. Sure, we get a few quick minutes about that other war—Midway, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, and even a brief spotlight on the Australians—and then it’s the A-bomb and we’re done.
A word must be said about the narration. It may be unfair to compare anyone to Laurence Olivier, but the fact is that a certain gravitas is appropriate for this most grave of historical events. Doug Rand is, I’m sure, a nice guy, but he is nobody’s idea of grave. With his earnest California inflection, he is a poor choice for this project, and he detracts from it in ways I wouldn’t have predicted.
Bonus features on these discs are thin. French newsreels from the era shine a spotlight on various aspects of the war, such as the North African troops who contributed to the Allied effort, or women factory workers. A longer, “making of” feature mainly focuses on the technical aspects of the film (ie, colorizing of old footage). It’s interesting enough, but frustrating given the narrow scope of the project—I would have preferred another hour about the war itself, rather than self-congratulations about how it was edited.
Ultimately, diehard WWII buffs will want to see this for the footage, and newbies might benefit from the general outlines of the events presented here. For most viewers, though, this three-disc set simply lacks any new insight or compelling material that hasn’t been discussed elsewhere, and in much more satisfying detail.