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REVIEW : A vivid look at WWII : A History Channel doc puts the war in personal terms. It and a second series also feature fresh footage.

November 13, 2009|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

Time was when Ken Burns documented something, it pretty much closed the subject. Yet two years after Burns took on World War II in his seven-part "The War," two ambitious if not equally soundtracked series are marking Veterans Day. The Smithsonian Channel's six-part "Apocalypse" premiered Wednesday night, and "WWII in HD" begins Sunday night on the History Channel.

Both tout new, never-seen-before footage that has been digitally refurbished, often colorized and, in the case of "WWII in HD," presented in high-definition. I know film purists are supposed to eschew such tinkerings, but for the most part the various refurbs are almost disturbingly effective. Hitler never looked so human, Allied and Axis soldiers alike appear woefully young and grubby, and you've never seen a battleship blown up until you've seen it in HD.

Though they cover the same topic, the two series are different in tone, format and imagery (it was a very big war, after all). "Apocalypse," narrated by Martin Sheen, is a straight-up chronology of events, an impressive if galloping attempt to tie up multiple threads, beginning in the early 1930s when Berlin was still a shining beacon of culture and tolerance.

Things move right along, via newsreel clips, chronicling the rise of Hitler and the decisions that led to Germany conquering much of Europe. Footage from amateur French and British filmmakers provides extraordinary glimpses of life both in the army and in the occupied cities and balances somewhat the inevitable horror of the Nazi film library.

Press for "Apocalypse" promoted footage that for years had been considered too shocking for public viewing. Certainly, the imagery from Babi Yar and other mass executions is nightmarish, but the most unnerving aspect of the German footage is the fact of it -- the cold act of documenting murder makes it even more monstrous.

More surprising, and perhaps even more affecting, are the various bits of "home movies," snippets of life on the front and the attempts to maintain daily life in the midst of war -- one clip shows Parisians refusing to look at the Germans as they photograph each other in front of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe; in another, families torch their own farms during Stalin's scorched-earth campaign.

"WWII in HD" takes a more Burnsian approach. Narrated by Gary Sinise, the 10-hour, five-night series follows a dozen Americans through their personal experiences in the war. In early episodes, we meet Jack Werner (voiced in youth by Justin Bartha), an Austrian Jew who fled Hitler. He joins the U.S. Army to fight the Nazis, only to be sent to the Pacific. The bloody battle at Guadalcanal is told through the writings of war correspondent Richard Tregaskis (Tim DeKay), the campaign in North Africa is chronicled by Army Capt. Charles Scheffel (Ron Livingston) and the life of an Army nurse is embodied by June Wandrey (Amy Smart).

Grounding the series in the discrete adventures of these individuals keeps "WWII in HD" from becoming simply a welter of dramatic images so crystalline as to appear surreal. Werner, for example, winds up in the Aleutian Islands, fighting an obscure battle; likewise, Wandrey gives voice to the nurses who were often the last people to speak to so many sons and lovers and fathers.

"WWII in HD" is masterfully edited to make it seem as if you are watching specific narrative events unfold (a disclaimer at the beginning informs viewers that, though the images are real, they are often used in a representational manner), so masterfully in fact that at times you forget you are watching a documentary, which may not be a good thing. We are accustomed to a visual equation in which grainy, blurry and jerky equals authentic, amplifying the tragedy, pathos and shock. The cleaned-up versions are so cinematic that it's tempting to react to them as if they were a feature film -- moving, yes, but not necessarily real.

Fortunately, if the hooks of these two films are the vivid imagery and new footage, it is the people who explain why, more than 50 years and many subsequent wars later, we remain so fascinated with WWII.

Everyone who lived through it, or died in it, had/has a story, and most of the stories are worth telling. Which will take a while.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'WWII in HD'

Where: History

When: 9 p.m. Sunday; 9 and 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday

Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language and violence)

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