Judge Rafael Gamboa wishes he was happier with this DVD than he is.
"In the spring of 1945, American troops had begun to conquer the Third Reich from the west…embedded with the troops were cameramen documenting the action on over 1,000 reels of footage recently unearthed in the U.S. National Archives. The images they captured are astounding."
This two-part documentary by Michael Kloft (The Tramp and the Dictator) essentially catalogues the mop-up operations conducted by the Allied forces as they moved deeper into Germany itself. Urban skirmishes, demolished cities, smoking wreckage, shell-shocked civilians, and ghastly concentration camps form its subject matter, moving from town to town through time until the Fuhrer's suicide and the German surrender. The major enticing factor of this film, the footage "unearthed" from National Archives about the days just before the end of the European war, is also its only enticing factor. It's what keeps this from being another forgettable documentary about the World War II, but it doesn't keep it from being mediocre.
To its credit, the film doesn't pretend like it is anything it isn't. All it wants to do is present this previously unreleased footage to you as simply as possible, to avoid taking away from the power of these rare images. It uses a simple and no-nonsense style of credits and menu interface. Its earnest attempt at honesty is reflected in the back of the DVD case; most films that don't have any special features will nonetheless advertise interactive menus and subtitles as such. Embedded '45 instead has the guts to be honest and call them (gasp!) technical features, which I highly appreciated. It's an example thousands of content-barren DVDs should follow, instead of pretending they're fooling anyone.
The footage, for the most part, is engrossing. Much of what you see here you won't see in most typical documentaries: rare images of dead American soldiers taken by cameramen defying the government ban, a German tank caught in a spectacular explosion in the streets, and soldiers enjoying a skinny dip during a lull in the fighting. Landscapes of mind-boggling destruction figure prominently, including a huge collapsed bridge whose ends had leapt up to the shores like the beached remains of a leviathan. The cities depicted range from nearly pristine havens to piles of ashen rubble. Images of stiffened, smoldering corpses of soldiers and mutilated Holocaust victims will remain engraved in your memory, for better or worse. Probably of most credit to the filmmakers is the inclusion of footage of Nazi prisoners that hasn't been edited to take away their humanity.
The music is also mostly good. Much of it manages to be haunting, meditative, and respectful. It melts into the background and does a beautiful job of enhancing the images. Except, of course, when it doesn't. There is one particular track of music that's obviously the obligatory action track, except it sounds entirely videogame-esque, dripping with a dose of cheese that imposes itself awkwardly over sections of the film. It would probably be less noticeable if it had been used only during moments of fast movement and gunshots and the like, but unfortunately it was also used in an attempt to give the more conventionally "boring" images some vitality, which detracted from those portions of the film.
The documentary suffers from the narrative subject matter it chose, and the manner in which it was presented. Much credit goes to the filmmakers for choosing to work on a project that wasn't D-Day, Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Midway, or the Battle of Britain. They chose a period of the war that is often breezed through in most WWII documentaries and gave it a thorough exposition. The problem is that there is a reason this is an unpopular section of WWII history: it is narratively uneventful and undramatic. The Allies had won the war in all but name, and were merely laboriously cleaning up the tattered remnants of Hitler's once deadly legions. There is no dramatic tension in a situation like this, which is why no blockbusters have been made about this. It's a problem for which a documentary like this has to compensate in order to maintain the attention of the audience, and here is where the film fails.
The first mistake is the length of the film. While the "unearthed" footage contains everything I mentioned earlier, it also contains an exhaustive plethora of Allied soldiers advancing and German prisoners being rounded up. This makes up roughly a third of the 108-minute content, which is excessive and contributes greatly to the problem of wandering attention. When your combat footage is minimal, swamping it with completely unexceptional footage that's already pervasive in other documentaries is a bad move. It also seems to contradict the emphasis on the uniqueness of the footage.
The second mistake is the notion that since a narrator with a British accent is always a good thing, having two is even better and will cure all attention problems. While Nick F. Bolton and Emily Clarke-Brandt are both very fine narrators, switching back and forth between them to break up monotony just isn't good enough. The script requires them to talk quite a bit, and eventually their voices will inevitably become background noise if there isn't anything else thrown in to make things more engaging. Personally, I find map graphics to be helpful. If you keep mentioning city names and paths of advancing or retreating armies without ever showing the viewer where exactly these places are in relation to other places you mention, it's incredibly difficult for your audience to feel a sense of progress, especially when the film lapses into repetitive footage so often. Throwing in a few maps here and there with a few simple arrow animations on it would have helped greatly.
And finally, probably the biggest mistake this film made was a lack of interviews. Yes, some personal letters were narrated, but this would often get lost in the rest of the narration. I can't even begin to imagine how amazing this documentary would have been if they had included interviews with some of the surviving cameramen who shot this footage. Just that alone would have made this a much more dynamic work, and would have powerfully enforced the unique nature of the images by avoiding interviews with soldiers and civilians that conventional documentaries use. And if that wasn't possible, more typical interviews still would have helped greatly.
The film showed more promise than it delivered, and left many tempting possibilities entirely ignored. However, I still think it is worth watching. Not worth buying the disc, but certainly a rental, if you're a history buff; others might be too bored. The court will release Embedded '45 on parole once it lops off thirty-five minutes from its running time and includes personal interviews. Until then, the defendant will be confined to rental isolation without bail.
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