Through film, we are frequently given a cinematic and immersive taste of war which no other artistic medium can match. 2022’s All Quiet on the Western Front illustrated the physical and mental exertion of 20th century conflict, exposing the ungodly nature of these acts of essentially needless mass genocide. Edward Berger’s remake hammered home that there was neither glory nor honor in fighting to the death, and that it was merely a sacrilegious ordeal for all of those involved.
Hollywood’s demonstrations of war typically include themes of heroism, selflessness, gallantry, and unflinching camaraderie. With patriotism and nationalistic values often at their very heart, we are given a misrepresentation of what war was and is like for those that risked (and continue to risk) their lives on the battlefield.
Through documentaries, we usually develop a better, less tainted understanding of what fighting is really like. World War Two documentaries have been a popular subgenre over the years, separating the dramatizations and fictitious accounts from the horrifying realities; the long-form documentary miniseries (or docuseries) is often even better at capturing all the details. Let’s take a look at the best WW2 docuseries in TV history.
The French documentary series Apocalypse, similar to that of World War II in Color, is a collage of beautifully restored original footage from the period, poignant and emotionally engaging story-telling, and educationally fascinating all in equal measure. Narrated by La Haine director Mathieu Kassovitz, the film is consisted entirely of real-time footage from World War Two, from wartime correspondents, cameramen, civilians, and soldiers. All the video featured has been fully colorized, bringing the true essence of how the war was brought to life.
Ken Burns has established himself as the master documentarian, so much so, there is even an editing tool specifically dedicated to him on iMovie. A decade before the release of his 2017 10-part series on the conflict in Vietnam, he had produced 2007’s The War, which detailed extensively the American view on proceedings in both Europe and Japan.
While the seven-episode docuseries doesn’t provide a general overview of the war, it hones in specifically on how the war was seen from traditional American towns and recounts the personal experiences of members of these communities who left for war. The documentary identifies and delves deeply into the American war effort both at home (in the shipyards, docks, and munitions factories) and while away fighting.
The Netflix original series Five Came Back draws upon the knowledge of several modern-day icons in the film industry including Steven Spielberg, Guillermo Del Toro, Lawrence Kasdan, Paul Greengrass, and Francis Ford Coppola, who reflect on the stories of five filmmaking greats who enlisted in the US military during WWII.
The three-part series details the experiences of each of John Ford, William Wyler, George Stevens, Frank Capra, and John Huston, all of which traveled to different areas of the globe affected by the conflict to shoot documentaries, and short films on the current war effort. Meryl Streep narrates the three-hour docuseries, which delves into each of the respective director’s works.
In the modern era, everything from television and film, to home video footage and pictures are polychromatic. We take technological color for granted in photography. The days of monochromatic television and film were made obsolete between the 1970s and 80s, and the further back you go in video-graphic history the grainier and more obscure historic footage becomes. Tapes of World War II make it seem like several lifetimes ago, and thus, there has always been a sense of detachment when viewing such footage.
However, World War 2 in Color remasters these recordings and brings them to life, employing these techniques that modernize the war, eliminating that distance and detachment once felt. It evokes real compassion and emotion, being able to see the expressions and 4K detailing of those that fought. The documentary is divided into two series and documents the build-up, duration, and aftermath of the war chronologically, with narration from English actor Robert Powell, the stories of the war that changed the world are told with a commanding sense of authority.
In this definitively groundbreaking documentary series, narrated by the legendary Laurence Olivier, we are offered unprecedented insight into the Second World War. Over 26 episodes, the 1973 documentary offers a multi-perspective view, delving into the tactical intricacies of those playing a real-life, real-stakes game of battleships, featuring interviews with historians, key allied orchestrators, and those from the German and Japanese armies.
The World at War conveys a fully comprehensive analysis of the war, unearthing the issues from its very roots, from the Treaty of Versailles that crippled the German economy to the rise of Nazism under Hitler. Examining how the conflict panned out from both the Eastern and Western fronts, as well as the various military campaigns in Africa, the naval battles between enemy U-Boats in the Atlantic, as well as life under a Nazi occupation in the likes of the Netherlands and France.