World War II rises again on PBS in “WWII Behind Closed Doors,” a six-hour documentary that ought to make Ken Burns — who not long ago gave public TV his own exhaustive treatise, “The War” — roll over in his own personal bunker. Also narrated by Keith David, the three-part project awkwardly meshes dramatic reenactments with first-person testimonials and archival footage. Although such re-creations have become increasingly common in the documentary sphere, given the treasure trove of material Burns unearthed, it seems particularly unnecessary in a WWII framework. Ultimately, then, the messenger’s clothes help obscure the message.
Subtitled “Stalin, the Nazis and the West” and scheduled on three successive Wednesdays, writer-producer-director Laurence Rees’ docu meticulously explores the West’s delicate dance with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The program’s breakthroughs in expanding our perspective of the war stem largely from new material brought to light in the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union.
First, Stalin willingly entered into a nonaggression pact with the Nazis. Then, once war broke out between them, he waited with growing agitation for the U.S. and U.K. to establish a second front while the Red Army suffered horrific casualties. Footage shows the Nazis throwing scraps of food to Soviet prisoners (2.5 million were taken in just four months), treating them like animals.
With Germany nearing defeat, the third chapter focuses largely on the Soviets exerting control over parts of Europe they conquered — acting as occupiers, not liberators — while British Prime Minister Winston Churchill fretted about Stalin’s ambitions, and President Franklin Roosevelt looked to disentangle himself from European affairs.
It’s not exactly revisionist history, but Rees does expand on the notion that the U.S. and U.K. sacrificed the people of Eastern Europe in the name of expediency — essentially swapping Hitler for Stalin, leaving them for decades under the thumb of Soviet dominion.
A significant portion of the story is presented through dramatic reenactments, with Alexei Petrenko (Stalin), Paul Humpoletz (Churchill) and Bob Gunton (FDR) playing the three leaders.
Obviously, great care went into detailing these sequences, which were shot in Poland and directed by Andrew Williams. Yet authentic touches like speaking subtitled Russian in smoke-filled rooms can’t obscure how these scenes clash with reality — particularly since they are juxtaposed with clips of the real-life figures. Besides, when watching footage of an elderly woman sobbing as she recalls being raped by members of the Red Army, even the best dramatizations (and the actors are fine) look pallid by comparison.
In tacked-on interviews that close each installment (behind-the-scenes material from the DVD), both Rees and presidential historian Robert Dallek defend the use of this dramatic device — with the latter citing its value in reaching out to younger viewers, rendering history more accessible to them.
Although that sounds good in theory, the truth is most younger people aren’t apt to watch this (indeed, even Burns’ “The War” primarily played to an older crowd). That means “WWII Behind Closed Doors” has needlessly marred an otherwise-interesting production by virtue of a stylistic concession that, when all’s said and done, won’t open many new doors.