In the spring of 2003 I came home to find my college roommate sitting on our beat-up couch with a bowl of pasta in his lap. The TV was on, loud, and he barely looked up from his lunch as I walked in the door. This was a typical scene. I asked how it was going and he said, “Fine, I’ve just been watching the War on TV.”
He said this with equal parts amazement and disgust. The war in Iraq was barely a week old and he had been glued to the TV for much of that time. Each cable news network had its own squadron of reporters and photo journalists embedded with various branches of the armed forces. Much of what we were seeing was grainy shots of helmeted newspeople bouncing around in backs of trucks, or night vision shots of explosions that looked like green fireworks.
Even to two children of technology as we, this was spectacular. My memories of the first Gulf War revolve mostly around television: Schwarzkopf, smart bombs, endless Saturday Night Live skits. But this was the first “real” war since the CNN/MSNBC/Fox News triumvirate dominated the airwaves, since technology allowed soldiers and civilians to communicate via the Internet.
And as frustrated as we were with the violence and bravado, we couldn’t help but be amazed that so much of it was unfolding on TV. At least, how much we were allowed to see: I knew the big explosions and shining lights of war weren’t just for show. They helped keep American minds from drifting into doubt, into thoughts of that other war that unfolded on television: Vietnam
Of course things weren’t the same during World War II. Handwritten letters home, film and radio broadcasts created a long lag time between the soldiers on the front and the people back home, and the wireless world we now live in was still the stuff of science fiction. Despite the information received always lagging behind the timeline, by weeks or even months, these records were important for boosting morale (for citizens and soldiers), keeping the citizenry informed and eventually documenting stories of the war for posterity.
Embedded ‘45: Shooting War in Germany takes us back to this era through a patchwork of footage shot by US cameramen during the waning days of the war on the German front. The footage—much of it unseen by the public until now—is held together with textbook-style narration and an endless loop of synthesized string music, the kind found on budget DVD copies of silent films.
The film is informative in the textbook sense: it displays the historical facts of the Allied push toward Berlin and the liberation of the Arnoldsweiler concentration camp much like underwhelming footnotes instead of the major events they were. Furthermore, the film slogs on at a dull pace that is unbroken by interviews or testimonials or any outside commentary as we have grown used to in modern-day documentaries. Instead, the contemporary narrators drone on and on about casualties, Nazi holdouts and infantry positions. To make up for the lack of excitement, the narrators continually refer to banal footage as “compelling”, dramatic” and “captivating” when this is, in fact, untrue. Much of the “unseen” footage bragged about on the box front is little more than a shot of a tank moving across a street, or a soldier taking position among some rubble. A parallel could be made to the trend to release every take of every song of every popular artist of the last 40 years: on the one hand, it’s interesting to hear different ways songs can be interpreted, on the other, some things are better left unheard. Sometimes it’s satisfying just knowing a thing exists.
History is not boring, and it shouldn’t be presented as such, but Kloft assembles his footage as if simply seeing it is enough. In some instances, this is true: the reaction of the German citizenry to the horrors of the Arnoldsweiler concentration camp is compelling and this is the film’s finest moment. According to the film, Allied forces demanded citizens tour the facility to see firsthand what their government was doing. The stark black and white footage of the shock on peoples’ faces is haunting and moving. Sadly, the rest of the film lacks this emotional impact.
When it’s presented with little enthusiasm and no flair, this footage becomes as boring as a school lesson—just an invitation to put one’s head on one’s desk and nap. Director Michael Kloft (The Tramp and the Dictator) presents his subject as an unwelcome assignment rather than a story he’s excited to tell. There is drama in some of the footage, to be sure: the haunted faces of German citizens unsure of where their country is headed; survivors of the Nazi regime’s brutality. Each image, each person, has a story to tell – more than can be said in any single documentary—but this film doesn’t even begin to tell even one of those stories. Even the cameramen whose footage, no doubt acquired at great personal peril, has been patched together to make this film, receive little more than a name check.
Strangely, Embedded ‘45: Shooting War in Germany includes footage shot by a young Russ Meyer, director of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and connoisseur of all things busty, but even a master of exploitation like Meyer can’t inject any life into this film. After all, he was still cutting his cinematic teeth at the time, and Meyer’s signature buxom beauties were no doubt in short supply among the ranks of the infantry on the front lines.
Instead of distinguishing itself from the rest of the History Channel crowd, Embedded ‘45: Shooting War in Germany is simply another visual record of World War II—important for serious students of history, perhaps, but of little interest to the average viewer.