Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Battle of the Sexes?

A present for myself: the DVD collection "The World At War," a mid-70s documentary of the events of the Second World War. On 11 separate discs, it includes the 26 hours of the original documentary, plus as many hours of extras, and it constitutes the definitive video documentary of this event in history.

My wife has basically declared that she would sooner (to quote a Robert DeNiro flick) have her appendix removed with a grapefruit spoon than to have to watch any part of this series. Chock full of original film footage (all of which is, naturally, in black and white), adorned with painfully minor-key theme music, and dealing with human-wrought death and destruction on a most massive scale, there is virtually nothing here for her tastes.

I wonder at this.

History. The very word served as a kind of sleep aid for me during high school. It now baffles me that history is so often presented in this sleep-inducing way, when it seems like it OUGHT to be fascinating; it's such a window into humanity. A novel is all very entertaining, and the brilliant ones do indeed shine a light on things normally hidden; but history is at its fundament simply what is, what has been. The interpretation of it is another matter, but to trace the footsteps of our species is to inspect the most basic building blocks of the collective human psyche. But it seems so gender-biased that the boy likes war history and the girl does not! Still, there it is.

A year out of high school I decided on a lark to read William L. Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" from my parents' bookshelves (I still wonder at how it got there, since neither of my parents seem probable readers of this type of book). This was the first thousand-plus page book I had even considered reading, and it didn't escape me that if I were assigned this very book for a class I would have followed my usual practice of attempting to pass said class without doing any of the required readings or homeworks. But no one was coercing me, and it seemed like a grand adventure.

And boy, was it. Is it. I'm not a war buff per se, and many of the details about military strategy and troop movements and so on threaten to anesthetize me anew. But looked at in a wide shot, war is the most fascinating of subjects. The political maneuvering and diplomatic triumphs and breakdowns leading up to hostilities; the upheaval of national mobilization; the utter drama of invasion and conquest; heroism and frailty. It's every good and bad thing in us amplified to a grotesque degree: Humanity for Dummies. And the video version is like Humanity for Dummies for Dummies. Perfect!

I'm about a fifth of the way thru it so far. The stock footage is mesmerizing. I have a near-obsession with black & white photography, and also with the period of the '20s & '30s generally, and so much of this documentary plays to those interests. It was the instability following the First World War that enabled the Nazis to come to power, and the tumultuous conditions--riots in the streets and devastating poverty and rapid governmental turnovers--make for compelling pictures. While I have not one shred of agreement with any part of the guiding Nazi philosophy (the idea that any meaningful measure of a person's capability or the value of their contribution to humanity can be gleaned from their race seems disproven as soundly as we can know anything) I find the marches and rallies magnetically fascinating, maybe a bit like being unable to tear one's eyes away from crime video or graphic footage of plastic surgery. The Nazis were most adroit in their use of symbols and ritual, and as a 16-year-old I would have been sucked in as surely as virtually every German lad was. I lay awake many hours pondering this unsettling realization.

I'm glad that someone bothered to toil over an epic video production that 51% of the population of my house, anyway, has no interest in watching! The lessons, however painful, are vital and warrant an occasional re-learning, especially if that re-education can prevent a recurrence of the horror. Now if only there were as good a documentary about Vietnam that we could have sent to certain influential people a couple years back...


BrianAlt said...

I too wish I had a better understanding of troop movement and military tactics.

But that's only because I'm playing a ton of Civ IV and I would be better at it if I could coordinate the movement of my army better.

I had a friend in high school who loved playing those military simulations with the little chits on the hex boards. I always thought he was nuts for liking those. In a way I still do.

matty said...

Why is there that huge gap between men and women when it comes to war history? I love the stuff and haven't met any ladies who gave a crap about hearing me ramble on about Buford and his calvary on the first day of Gettysburg. But alas, what can we do but shrug?

I had never heard of this documentary and it must have set you back a pretty penny. I love all that stuff too. I'm jealous.

The amazing thing about history...I watch 80 somethings stumble around in the neighborhood and they seem eldery and fragile. But during WWII they were on top of the world. So many expierences but we only see them now as Old.

Just saw something too about the guy accused of being the concentration camp guard Ivan the Terrible, and he looks like a nice little old man, but back in the day he wouldn;t think twice about shooting you in the head.

wunelle said...

The DVD set can be got off of Amazon for roughly $115, tho it lists for $150, I think.

I also think about these soldiers dying off now but at that time they were quite the young studs. I guess that's why a documentary like this does such a service in preserving both what happened and how things were back then.

Similarly, in old Humphrey Bogart movies I love how candlestick phones were the cell phones of the day--state of the art!

The Retropolitan said...

Next up: "The Winds of War". Relive WWII with Robert Mitchum.

wunelle said...

Actually, an excellent idea!