Thursday, May 16, 2013

Isaacs' The World At War

There are many who would disagree with me, but I feel The World At War is the best series ever done on the Second World War.  There are certain elements that are swept over briefly, notably the Balkans, the American involvement in China and China in general, the Vichy Government and so on ... but the war is well organized in the 26 episodes offered, and gives a strong feeling of the War's impact.  For a long time, episode 20 gave the most straightforward description of the holocaust one could find.

I have many favorite episodes, notably the 8th (North Africa campaign), the 9th (Stalingrad), the 11th (Russia's rise), the 13th (Italy) and the 14th (Burma).  But every episode is a solid presentation of both ideas and events.

There are two quotes that I consider memorable from the series, and both from the 11th episode.  The first, a writer expressing the attitude of the Russians towards the Germans:

"One can bear anything, the plague, hunger and death, but one cannot bear the Germans. One cannot bear these fish-eyed oafs contemptuously snorting at everything Russian. We cannot live as long as these grey-green slugs are alive. Today there are no books, today there are no stars in the sky, today there is only one thought: kill the Germans. Kill them all, and dig them into the earth. Then we can go to sleep. Then we can think again of life, and books, and girls, and happiness. We shall kill them all. But we must do it quickly or they will desecrate the whole of Russia and torture to death millions more people."

The other is a poem, as spoken by a Russian soldier to his love:

"Wait for me, and I’ll return.  Only wait ... very hard.  Wait as you are filled with sorrow as you watch the yellow rain.  Wait when the winds sweep the snowdrifts.  Wait in the sweltering heat.  Wait when others have stopped waiting, forgetting their yesterdays.  Wait even when from afar no letters come to you.  Wait even when others are tired of waiting.  Wait even when my mother and son think I am no more.  And when friends sit around the fire drinking to my memory, wait, and do not hurry to drink to my memory too.  Wait, for I’ll return, defying every death.  And let those who do not wait say that I was lucky.  They never will understand that in the midst of death, you, with your waiting, saved me.  Only you and I will know how I survived.  It’s because you waited, as no one else did."

These are both spoken by the most consummate of performers, and unquestionably the best voice ever offered a documentary:  Sir Laurence Olivier.  His presentation (though of course you never see him) is exquisite, lively ... and unimaginably touching at points.

Sir Jeremy Isaacs, who is nearly invisible as the producer of the series, founded BBC Channel 4.  I have great respect for him, for his contribution to culture and to the BBC.

The entirety of the show can be watched from this site.  The service is finicky and annoying, but I've just watched it all the way through so I can tell you every episode works.  If you haven't seen it, set aside the necessary time; turn off your television and watch what a 1973 documentary can offer.


Dan Barton said...

There may be those who would disagree with you, but a. they would be wrong and b. I am not one of them. Watching these, which they used to show on weekend afternoons in the late '70s on Channel 9 in New York, got me into history. Best documentary series ever.

Vlad Malkav said...

Ah, History ... Sweet, sweet subject, I could loose myself in it.

This looks promising, I will check that as soon as I can grab enough free time ! Is it spoken clearly ? I'm not a native english speaker so ...

Speaking of things promising ...

I bought your book ! But I didn't have time to read it ... So I kind of found it every now and then, then more often, and even lost half a day of work because I couldn't keep my eyes from it ...

And it is very, very good ! And then some.

Easy to follow, very pleasant to read, clear and yet quite deep ...
This real, breathing world, full of interactions and pieces coming slowly together, very interesting characters, a touch of fantasy of the right kind for the theme, behind a curtain of "normality" (reminding me of Neil Gaiman) ...

Sincerely, it's great. Now, I just have to wait for the next ... When ???

John Klink said...

I watched this series when I was a kid and really didn't appreciate it. But, I remembered it later and have watched it several times as an adult. The greatest thing about it was that it was done early enough that many people interviewed were high officials in the governments of the many sides (notably Albert Speer).

I certainly remember the poems you mentioned in your post. I Googled a phrase from the first poem and the first entry was this site. I was watching another great documentary where it was quoted (World War II: Witness to War -2017). They attribute the first poem to Ilya Ehrenburg, who apparently worked for the Soviet Propaganda Ministry.

I agree that this series is the best for its thoroughness. There are many excellent and more current documentaries that I'd recommend in addition to the one mentioned above: World War Two in Color is excellent. I would say it's as thorough as The World at War. The Color of War is also very good. It's Narrated by Peter Coyote who has a signature voice as well.

(BTW, the link in the original post above is now inactive. The site is there but the content is gone.)