World War II is a subject that continues to fascinate millions throughout the world. From people in the losing countries to people in the winning ones, everyone seems to be fascinated by World War II. Because of this, there continue to be media of all kinds about the subject, and a viewer interested in it has many options to choose from. Indeed, there almost seems to be a choice overload (a nice problem to have), and it's hard to know which ones are the best.
D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach - Normandy, 1944
"Best" is a subjective term, and what is best in the eyes of one may not be best for another. But if asked my opinion on which documentary is the best, my vote would go to "The World at War," the classic British documentary from the 1970's. From the British and Americans to their reluctant Soviet allies, to the Axis powers of Germany and Japan, stories from all over the world are told, and woven together into a fascinating narrative about the sweeping events of World War II.
I am a connoisseur of films about World War II, and I have enjoyed many Hollywood movies on the subject. (If you have any to recommend, feel free to leave a comment below.) But just as there are advantages to doing quality re-enactments, there are also advantages to the documentary format, particularly for modern subjects like this one. Chiefest among them is that you can show real footage of what happened. World War II is among the most photographed wars in world history, and there is a treasure trove of video footage taken during the war. Even the propaganda films and period newsreels can tell you a great deal about the period, and this documentary makes judicious use of them; but its greatest strength lies in the real footage of its events. All they have to re-enact is the sound - sound re-enactments which are very impressive for the time; and they can let the visual part be told by the (sometimes brutal) honesty of impartial cameras.
American dead at Omaha Beach, Normandy 1944
American dead at Tarawa Beach, Pacific theater 1943
The other great strength of "The World at War" lies in its interviews. At the time I write this, there are still people around to be interviewed about these times, but their numbers are small and, unfortunately, growing smaller. But in "The World at War," only 25 years had passed since World War II; so there were many more interview subjects to choose from. The documentary does not lack for interviews with regular people (like soldiers, sailors, airmen, and civilians); but what sets their interviews apart from others is their interviews with the higher-ups. They can interview top officials in the various governments, as well as generals and admirals from both sides. Whether they're interviewing a prestigious general on the Allied side, or a top Nazi like Albert Speer; it is clear that they took full advantage of their period's wealth of eyewitnesses. Nothing like it, I think, will ever be seen again.
Aftermath of German bombing raids on London, 1941
Stalingrad, 1942 - aftermath of a German bombing raid
Some other things that set it apart from other media are its extensive coverage of the Russian front (virtually ignored in English-speaking media), and its unique take on the Holocaust. Many documentaries have interviewed Holocaust survivors, and this one is no exception; but they also interview concentration camp guards, and even Heinrich Himmler's adjutant. Their coverage is, of course, unsympathetic, and sometimes very disturbing. But this fascinating look into the psychology of the war criminals is something that you're unlikely to find anywhere else. Their interviews with Holocaust survivors are also very compelling - no less than eight of them, from various countries in Europe. Their stories are depressing, but also moving, and a testimony about the truth of the Holocaust that needs to be remembered today.
Starving prisoners in Mauthausen, 1945 - shortly after its liberation by the Americans
Polish dead in Warsaw killed in the Holocaust, 1944
I am not without my criticisms of "The World at War," but I think it's still the best, most sweeping, and most comprehensive documentary ever made about World War II. If you want a visual history of what happened, this is the most in-depth one you're likely to find. And with the dwindling supply of eyewitnesses about this time, there may never be anything like it again.
DVD at Amazon
Other posts about World War II
If you liked this post, you might also like:
Great War miniseries (a similar series about World War One)
Winston Churchill movies (including a great biography of him)
Ken Burns' World War Two miniseries (focusing on United States)
Korean War miniseries (focusing on United States)
Cold War miniseries (a similar series by the same filmmakers)