Friday, April 15, 2011

Apocalypse: World War II Blu-ray Review

Anyone that’s followed my reviews for awhile is aware of my interest and fascination with World War II. (In fact, I have another WWII film to review after this one)!  Because of that, I’ve seen a lot of WWII footage from such masterpieces like The World at War(see my review here) and Victory at Sea (here) so I was very surprised to see footage that I had never seen before.


Film (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

There have been many collections made about World War II which is perfectly understandable as it represents the worst event in human history.  There’s also the fact that each nation has it’s own views on that event and it’s own way of justifying the actions taken.  I find it all endlessly fascinating but also remarkably sad.  What first sets Apocalypse: World War II apart from the other collections is the fact that this film was made from a French point of view which is something that I haven’t seen before.
Most other documentaries have been from the American or English point of view and the footage (with some exceptions) have been mostly from their film units which limits the focus.  The makers of Apocalypse: World War IIsomehow managed to find new footage that hasn’t been seen before which is just one of the reasons this program is unique. There is a massive archive of film in France that contains footage shot by the French Army Film Unit  but is now known as ECPAD.  Much of the footage was listed as Top Secret at the time and not shared, but there was also a lot of film that was discovered as historians and archivist kept working though the stacks of film until they got to the bottom of the stacks which hadn’t been seen until now.  With over 600 hours of film to sift though, this film only ended up using 6 hours worth so there is still a lot left over.
Not only is a lot of the the footage new but they also decided to colorize and restore every shot with the exception for the Holocaust scenes.  This was a huge and potentially unpopular endeavor considering how much flack The World at War received when it re-framed the series for Blu-ray.  While I’m sure there are many people who will complain about the colorization of this series, I personally enjoyed seeing the images true to life.  This wasn’t a quickie colorization process as they painstakingly retouched every frame and carefully added the correct colors to the shots based on an image database that contained over 25,000 pictures of all aspect of the war including, uniforms, planes, vehicles, tanks, etc. to remain accurate.
The series provides a solid overview of the entire war and could be viewed as the cliff notes version of The World at War.  I do not mean that disparagingly at all but this doesn’t quite get into as much detail as the other set does which for a lot of people is a good thing.  This series also doesn’t features as many first person accounts either which is unfortunate but there are a couple of people that it does focus on.  This series does a great job covering the war year by year, all across the world.  The majority of the film seems to be focused on the beginning of the war and kind of rushes through the very end but perhaps that was due to the footage that was available.
It’s also obvious that despite being a French film, the directors were able to obtain film from England, the U.S. (there’s even film from the legendary John Ford included), Japan, and Germany.  They’ve also obtained some excellent footage from home movies from all of the parties involved in the war which adds another level of poignancy to the scenes.  I noticed that being a French series, more attention was paid to the French contribution to the war and the events and resolution of being occupied by Germany which of course is natural and understandable.  That viewpoint is one that hasn’t been seen before and adds something new to the viewing experience.   All of these unique changes add up to a fantastic package for those interested in this part of history.

Video (4 out of 5 stars) 

Trying to evaluate this category is fairly impossible.  Not only has the film been colorized, but the different stocks of film also make it difficult.  There’s even some actual color film that was shot by Hitler’s mistress at the time, Eva Braun which looks a lot different than the colorized scenes.  The 1080p (1.78:1) transfer looks good for it’s age and the team did an excellent job on the restoration.  While I’m sure the decision to colorize it will polarize audiences, I for one liked it and thought it added an extra impact.  It’s bad enough to see dead bodies strewn about but it’s more visceral when you can see red blood everywhere.  I think the added color also adds a sense of immediacy to the viewer as a lot of people will dismiss black and white films and remain detached.  It’s a lot harder to remain detached when you are seeing these horrible events in color.  By not adding color to the Holocaust scenes, the directors tried to show sensitivity, but part of me thinks they should have colorized those scenes too.  I think people should see what it looked like so they can fully comprehend the insanity and horror of the Final Solution and to make sure that nothing like that ever happens again.

Audio (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

This  series had the best sound I’ve heard so far for a World War II documentary.  The series’ Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is very impressive and I was constantly turning my head to figure out of a sound I had heard was from the series or something else.  The sounds of battle are especially impressive and there is a lot of cross channel panning which adds a lot of immersiveness to the film.  The dialogue is crystal clear and not overwhelmed by either the music by Kenji Kawai or the effects.  I liked that all of the speakers were used and not only during the battle scenes.  This was an excellent mix.

Special Features (3 out of 5 stars) 

There’s over two hours of extra video to watch that is mainly propaganda footage shot by the French Army Film Unit.  While it’s interesting to see from a historical perspective, I can only take so much staged action.  I would have rather that they had added a lot of of the missing 600 hours that was cut from the series.  All of the extras are also in standard definition.
  • Original ECPAD Documentaries – Footage shot by the French Army Film Unit that shows the soldiers in staged sequences.  It’s a nice glimpse into the past but I would have rather it been the missing footage that wasn’t included in the series.  All of these are in French with English subtitles.
  • Making of Featurette – A rather strange behind the scenes look at the making of the series that starts off rather amateurish when the directors (Isabelle Clarke and Daniel Costelle) have to tell the cameraman how to frame their shot (while being filmed!).  They also complain about each other and how long it took to make the series.  Once you get past them, then it gets more interesting as they show the viewer how they restored it and colorized it.  It’s hard to understand why the opening footage was even included in this segment but it’s a rare thing when the project is undermined by its own directors!

Final Thoughts (4 out of 5 stars) 

I really enjoyed this series and highly recommend it to anyone interested in History or people that just want the broad strokes of the conflict.  The added color, restored visuals, and remixed sound add quite a lot to the experience which combined with the French perspective, makes this unique and original.  I just wish the extras had been more than propaganda footage since that lowered the final score.  Despite that, this is a very good series and I highly recommend it!
Apocalypse: World War II comes out on Blu-ray on March 29, 2011 so pre-order your copy today!

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