Judge Adam Arseneau admits that there is nothing funny about WWII, and that there is nothing funny about him having to watch this documentary.
A nation's countdown to victory.
The Last Days of World War II is a two-disc DVD set that chronicles the fall of the Nazi regime in detail, ranging from Hitler's losing ground in Belgium, to the advancing Red Army, to Hitler's ultimate demise in Berlin as the city burned above his bunker. This DVD set also explores a 60-year old conspiracy surrounding the USS Eagle 56, a ship that sank "mysteriously" off the coast of Rhode Island, as well as provides a detailed exploration into the geopolitical connections between Germany and Japan during WWII and the connections between the iconography of the Third Reich and the ritualistic culture of Japan. And you thought history was boring.
The first disc comprises the main feature, The Last Days of World War II, which covers and pinpoints the shifting fortunes of Hitler and his bid to conquer the planet. No one event is considered the final linchpin in the war; rather, the documentary explores (roughly chronologically) the expanding war during its final days in Europe, from the minute to the small in an effort to paint a grand picture of the last days of Hitler's reign. The first part of the documentary focuses on the historical, tactical, and political events that undermined Hitler's triumph and sent the war spinning out of German control; the second part delves into the secret treasure stores of the defeated Nazis, and the tricks and tactics utilized to keep these secrets hidden from the Allies at all costs. Solid stuff, but if you are down with your history, there should be few surprises or shocks here. This documentary contains some horrifyingly graphic and disturbing images from liberated concentration camps; so let the weak of constitution be warned.
While the first feature takes up an entire disc, the supplementary documentaries on the second disc contain some more esoteric history and counter-balance the rather straightforward main feature very well. USS Eagle 56: Accident or Target? tells the long-suppressed tale of USS Eagle 56, a WWI-era submarine-chasing ship that mysteriously and tragically sank to the bottom of the ocean near the end of World War II. Though survivors of the sinking reported seeing suspicious naval activity around the ship immediately before its sinking, the government insisted the tragedy was an accident and closed the matter. Now, almost 60 years after the fact, this documentary interviews survivors from the sinking and pieces together a new theory, which the government has recently confirmed: USS Eagle 56 was sunk by a German submarine, one of the last true conquests of the Nazis, perilously close to the coast of Rhode Island just as the war drew to a close.
The third documentary (and for my money, the most interesting), Last Secrets of the Axis, takes an in-depth look into one of the most powerful, influential, and yet completely invisible figures of the Third Reich—an exploration into a man who has been described as "Hitler's Merlin," Karl Haushofer. Having traveled extensively throughout the Orient prior to World War I, Haushofer became fascinated by the feudal, spiritual, and militaristic might of Japan, and through his position at the University of Munich, was the first to coin the term "geopolitics." He also constructed a doctrine that borrowed heavily from Japanese ideology, and this sweeping social and political manifesto validated the Aryan race's "right" to conquer adjoining lands. One of the first people to whom Haushofer showed his work was an imprisoned Adolph Hitler. Hitler latched onto the ideology immediately, and much of it translated directly into his book Mein Kampf; so much so that historians have even gone so far as to suggest that Haushofer edited, or even wrote sections of, Hitler's book for him.
Of particular importance in this feature is how part of Haushofer's theory was the construction of a pan-continental alliance, comprised of Europe, Russia, and Japan, which could stand up and defeat the Anglo-Saxon threat (the US and the UK). The documentary suggests that the formation of the Axis during World War II was directly attributable to Haushofer's influence within the Nazi party. The film also posits that Haushofer convinced Hitler that the Japanese, despite being very non-Aryan, possessed an ineffable and conquering mentality that was compatible with Aryan ideological and iconographical motivations, and that cooperation would be beneficial to the Third Reich. In essence, it was this unknown Haushofer who set events into motion that, in retrospect, almost caused Hitler to succeed in his global conquest, and almost allowed the Nazis to topple the free world.
For my money, the Last Secrets of the Axis documentary contains the most interesting information and fascinating examination into historical events, and is the best feature on the disc. Using crude computer animation, it illustrates some of the experimental Japanese aircraft designs that were mere months from completion, with staggeringly advanced jet propulsion and wing designs that were ten years ahead of anything the Allies had at their disposal, as well into the secret germ warfare program Japan developed in the mountains of Manchuria. The fact that Japan had perfected a delivery system and stockpiled sufficient agent to infect every man, woman, and child on the planet with the plague is a shocking revelation. Had this been a known fact during World War II, it might have drastically changed the outcome of the conflict (for example, would the US been so quick to launch a nuclear strike against the Japanese?)
Video quality is slightly below what one expects from a History Channel DVD set, which usually look a few steps above their broadcast quality. Even when taking into account the incredibly diverse and varied quality of stock footage and clips that comprise each episode, the transfer overall seems too closely akin to its televised roots, lacking sharpness and definition. In particular, the supplementary documentaries have a rough look to them, with ugly edges and smeared colors. The sound, a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, captures the sweeping violins and lingering-bass-note action-film score in acceptable fashion, and keeps the dialogue sharply to the front and well mixed. The audio is within the expected fidelity for a History Channel documentary—sharp focus on dialogue, an overkill soundtrack, and very little else. There are no supplementary features outside of the three documentary features.
The Last Days of World War II is typical History Channel fare—full of big, overdramatic narration, aggressive soundtracks, oft-repeating stock footage of explosions and tanks and airplanes crashing into things, and so on. No surprises here if you are familiar with the style of History Channel documentaries, which tend to value style over substance. However, the creators always manage to cram enough interesting factoids into these documentaries to give them a measure of legitimate merit. Especially the Last Secrets of the Axis feature, which in itself makes this DVD set worth a rental.
But overall, this DVD is a straight-down-the-middle typical bare-boned A&E offering; nothing to get too excited about, unless you are either a WWII history buff or just really, really wanted to catch the airing of these documentaries on TV and somehow missed them. Excluding those six people, check it out if you dig the history.
Or you can just tune into the History Channel. I hear they show WWII-related stuff once in a while.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• Documentary Feature: USS Eagle 56: Accident or Target?
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