Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2010

World War in HD

By David Luhrssen
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When we think about World War II, we usually imagine it in black and white, as it was recorded in most of the photographs and newsreels we have seen. In recent years, however, troves of archival footage shot in color have made their way onto DVDs and cable specials.

The A&E Channel documentary “WWII in HD” (out now on Blu-ray and DVD) takes a unique approach to the material. The high definition transfer is far less important than the rarity of the mostly in-color footage, much of it presented as the visuals for the narratives of 12 Americans who fought in the war. Their stories are mostly based on diaries of service members and voiced by performers such as LL Cool J, Rob Lowe and Amy Smart. In some cases, the surviving veteran is interviewed.

Some of the footage is shocking. A German cameraman documented the hanging of dozens of Serbs, plucked randomly from civilian life as a reprisal for the guerilla war waged against the Nazis in Yugoslavia. The most interesting of the 12 narratives are the recollections of the Austrian Jewish refugee who escaped to America and reinvented himself as Jack Werner. His story is illustrated with shots of the peaceful, bustling U.S. of 1939, juxtaposed against the carnage of Hitler’s opening moves in Europe. Werner finally enlists in the U.S. Army, hoping to fight the Nazis, but is dispatched to the Pacific after Japan attacks Pearl Harbor. Werner’s comments are incisive. He doubts whether the word “great” can be applied to many members of the “Greatest Generation,” explaining: “The majority of the ‘Greatest Generation’ didn’t know what was at stake.”

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