The World at War

Saturday, December 28, 2002 by

For a multitude of reasons, not always the most selfless, everyone from classroom teacher to high-ranking politician regularly asserts the importance of remembering pivotal moments in world history. In fact, invocations to forever recall what has been and gone, usually in order to explain away the actions of the present, seem to grow stronger when a moment presumed to be of similar significance is looming. But while many lay claim to being the best judge, or recommend the most appropriate means, to explain why it’s so crucial to remember, it’s television that most readily informs us how to remember. When it comes to a subject like the Holocaust, moreover, it’s The World at War which remains, nearly 30 years after its completion, the textbook example of best utilizing the power of the small screen to bring the past back to life.

“What we went through will be difficult to understand even for our contemporaries,” an uncredited voice intoned at the opening of this episode, “and much more difficult for the generations that have already no personal experience of those days.” Spoken over footage of a ruined German concentration camp, it was an introduction as striking as it was candid, almost conceding the difficulties in taking on the cumulative memories and associations that have sprung up around one of the darkest periods of human history. Yet what followed seemed far from remote or unapproachable.

The key was the relationship between the images and narration. With a subject boasting so vast an infamy and compass, at no other point in the entire series was it perhaps more necessary to underscore words with pictures. Something else was needed to render the horrific notions and ideals of the Holocaust in full dimension, if only to offset occasional traces of ambiguity entertained – albeit unwittingly – by the commentary.

But trying to stitch together a historical analysis that aspires to being both accessible and definitive involves a cautious management of resources. Sometimes there are occasions when it’s not enough to let a picture or photo speak for itself, no matter how devastating its contents. At the same time, applying sound effects all over a piece of silent film in order to make it seem more alive can backfire horribly if – as happened on several occasions here – the noises call undue attention to themselves.

With this episode, it became clear as the first vintage Nazi propaganda newsreel rolled that what we were to see and also to hear could only be effectively reconciled in a way that was to make immediate and affecting television by the narrator. There was no doubting this was an awesome responsibility – a case, in essence, of ensuring that the obvious needed to be stated in as unambiguous and uncompromising a way possible, but to avoid doing it artlessly or being overtly patronizing. Indeed, almost as if to concede the status and gravitas of such a position, The World at War had signed up one of the most respected British actors of all time for just such a task.

Unfortunately, Laurence Olivier’s much-lauded commentary just sounded perilously idiosyncratic. As it is, a text that continually jumps between the past and the present tense tests the mettle of even the most accomplished of voice-over artists, with the need to sustain an impression of authority rather than indecision paramount. For the most part Olivier seemed to have approached this challenge as if faced with an extended dramatic soliloquy, but to these ears his apparent inexperience in emoting through voice alone seemed to undermine his valiant attempts to master an occasionally tortured and jumbled mass of prose.

On one level the problem was purely semantic. Olivier’s predisposition towards both the ludicrous stage whisper and the booming, pompous-sounding outburst could be explained away as an effort to imbue a rough-edged script with some dynamism and substance. Yet despite his best efforts, the acutely delicate task of re-voicing and articulating contemporary sentiment bordered on the incongruous. “The Jews started the war – now let them clear up the mess,” he snarled at one point, trying to mimic the thoughts of a particular strand of Nazi German society; but what was presumably intended as a statement to shock and startle came over as, frankly, rather lazy contrivance, poorly conceived and badly delivered.

This ties up with a more complex problem, however, that is arguably manifest throughout The World at War but was particularly tangible in this episode: essentially, how to account for, through a perfectly fathomable and self-evident sequence of arguments and witnesses, acts of unfathomable carnage and monstrosity. On the one hand, to even give the appearance of imposing a veneer of logic onto an act such as the Holocaust might run the risk of suggesting it remains an event that can be explained away solely through reason and consequence – in other words, because nobody spoke out or stood up against it, there was an element of complicity at work. From here it’s a short step to painting the entire War as being simply that because “a” didn’t stand up to “b” then “c” happened.

Alternatively, how else to approach something as overwhelming as the attempted gassing of an entire race than by zeroing in on blunt, basic realities: facts, figures, and the raw emotion of those who survived? After all, in some instances allusion and understatement are just not enough. You almost feel that the truth needs to be stated forcefully, and repeatedly, to render plain a context in which we can connect with something that threatens to fade ever further into the past. Holocaust, genocide, extermination – these are difficult subjects of near infinite sensitivity. Accordingly The World at War, viewed today (and we should remember the programme was made in the mid 1970s), seems to have greatest resonance when its crude qualifications and fancy linguistic chicanery is rested, and the spoken words of eyewitnesses, plus original archive footage, are given the spotlight.

It was here, at last, that the programme’s oft-proclaimed triumphs were rendered most explicit. Sometimes protracted clips of interviewees delivering stilted testimony, doggedly translated by an off-screen anonymous voice, felt like the programme was trying too hard to be definitive – as if 5000 words from a rambling politician would have more impact and relevance than 50. Still, out of his own mouth Lord Avon – erstwhile “peace in our time” champion Neville Chamberlain – nigh-on condemned himself and his peers in reckoning a minutes silence in the House of Commons was somehow a fitting response to hearing the first confirmation of the concentration camps. And then there were the reminiscences of those actually there in person, pretending to lie dead underneath a heap of bodies or dodging bullets in one of the many specially-built Jewish ghettos. One woman recalled a dialogue with her daughter: “She said, ‘Let’s run away, they’re killing us, why do we just stand here? Why do people stand and not run away, why are they standing?’ I said to her, ‘Where are we going to run to?’”

The testimony of ordinary people labouring to create an existence in the most extraordinary of circumstances: this remains The World at War‘s enduring instruction on how best to remember the importance of World War II, and the Holocaust. Yet the series also represents a cautionary lesson in the organization of archive material in conjunction with contemporary interpretation. Images, such as a tractor shovelling human corpses, will always stay with you. Words, if layered on too thick or self-consciously pruned back to a bare minimum, can if not chosen correctly disappear from the memory as swift and as silent as the switching off of a television set.


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