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Experience World War II in High Def.
In what can only be described as a glut of Second World War-oriented documentaries and documentary series, it's impossible not to pass through a "documentary" section either at a retail or rental outlet, or on Netflix, without stumbling on to a metric ton of "Axis vs. Allies." Sadly, many of the cheaply made productions are barely worth the attention, and those truly world-class productions often get lost in a sea of clones and haphazardly constructed cash grabs. Apocalypse: World War II originally constructed for French television, and promising newly restored and never before seen footage, is the latest effort to hit Blu-ray and DVD. Does this series live up to its lofty claims? Or is this another War series best left to high-school history class.
Facts of the Case
Employing uncensored, declassified, and seldom seen footage, Apocalypse: World War II charts the course of the war from the late '30s and the rise of Hitler's Nazi regime through to the final days and the use of the atomic bomb. With everything presented in breathtaking color, the series endeavors to show you what the world's most devastating war was actually like.
Your typical war documentaries will often narrow their focus to specific individuals, or a particular sequence of events to the point that the whole picture becomes more than a little muddled. Ken Burns' great series, The War gave us a heartfelt look at your average American GI's experience in the war to end all wars, while The World at War was an almost exhaustive look at how the war affected the many nations involved from the closing days of the first "Great War" well into the cold war of the 1950s. Lost in the laser-pinpoint focus or dense globe-spanning encyclopedic study is the general chain of events that constitutes the Second World War. There's never really been a documentary that provides us with a detailed timeline that doesn't deviate from the core events of the conflict: exactly what Apoclaypse: World War II brings to the table. This is a well presented chronological timeline of the events that we typically call the Second World War, and it presents itself in the most accessible and visually captivating package that I've seen in quite some time. This isn't the "jot notes" version of WWII, and it is not an impenetrable barrage of information. The series takes a month-to-month approach that keeps the important events straight, shifting between all of the involved parties as they enter and exit the conflict. Will this series of six episodes turn you into a World War II scholar? No, perhaps not, but it will definitely provide you with the clear and concise history behind the fighting.
Backing up the history is some strikingly breathtaking colorized footage. This footage comes from amateur photographers, military archives, and independent filmmakers rather than wartime newsreels and propaganda footage; it gives us a markedly different perspective on the war. Colorizing is generally seen as a tool of the devil, however here it works incredibly well, providing an atmosphere and immersion not often experienced in World War II documentaries. The footage shown is shocking in its ability to haunt, more often than not, the distant black and white, badly damaged film we see of the era long passed is a time capsule, while here it is cathartic, providing us with one of the closest to life portrayals of the War without going full on into Saving Private Ryan style re-enactment.
The series sound design is exemplary as well. I was on the fourth or fifth episode when the realization dawned on me that this footage was about 80-90 percent silent film footage, with sound effects and such inserted during the construction of this documentary. The sounds used fit the scenes we see perfectly, and the larger guns and cannons reverberate around the room as they explode with violence. The beautifully understated score (by Ghost in the Shell composer and frequent Mamoru Oshii collaborator Kenji Kawai) does get a little repetitive as the series goes on, but it suits the series perfectly and is atypical of what usually accompanies this sort of feature.
The talk of colorized high-def footage and immersive soundtracks would be for naught if the technical specs weren't up to scratch, thankfully that isn't the case at all. Whether you go with the three disc DVD set or the two-disc Blu-ray treatment, Apocalypse: World War II will not disappoint. Varying film stocks are used throughout, and prints range from pristine and clear to heavily damaged, but it all looks surprisingly clear and colourful given the source material. The colorization process goes unnoticed for the vast majority of the footage, while some of the video presented was original full color anyway. The 1080p high definition of the Blu-Ray disc isn't "night and day" compared to the DVD's anamorphic transfer, but there is a noticeable bump in clarity and color depth. That said, the DVDs transfer is top notch as well, slightly softer, and slightly less vibrant, but still no slouch. Either format provides some astonishing looking footage considering the age of the originals.
Sound on the discs is closer again, with very little to distinguish the DTS-HD Master Audio of the Blu-ray disc over the little brother Dolby Digital 5.1 mix on the DVD. This is more a testament to the sound package on the DVD than anything, as what is a pretty solid sounding Blu-ray, with nice separation, suitably punchy low end, and clear narration becomes an excellent sounding DVD by comparison.
Over 50 minutes of additional footage, and a near hour-long making of feature are the only special features, but both are engaging and well worth the look.
The World at War may be a more exhaustive examination of World War II (though it does have a few deviations from the timeline), and WWII in HD is a more star studded and engaging look at America's role in the War, but Apocalypse: World War II is quite simply a stunning look at one of the most important times in human history. It provides us with a detailed timeline of the events that made up the war, and shaped modern society in the '30s and '40s. The colorized images aren't always pleasant or easy to watch, but the unorthodox treatment gives us a uniquely fresh glimpse at a world many of us were too young (thankfully) to have witnessed firsthand. An amazing effort that comes very highly recommended.
Cannot be stated enough: Not guilty!
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