The Unknown War (1978)

TV Mini-Series  -   -  Documentary
8.1
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Documentary film history of the Nazi-Soviet conflict in world War II.

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1978  

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Sprawling, 20-part documentary history in film of the World War II conflict between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Companion book, The Unknown War, written by NYT reporter Harrison Salisbury. Each episode is about 52 minutes, similar in format to The World at War. The footage was edited from over 3.5 million feet of film taken by Soviet camera crews from the first day of the war, 22 June 1941, to the soviet entry in Berlin in May 1945. Most of these films have never been seen outside this documentary series. Narrated by Burt Lancaster. Chapters: 1. June 22, 1941; 2. The Battle for Moscow; 3. The Siege of Leningrad; 4. To the East; 5. The Defense of Stalingrad; 6. Survival at Stalingrad; 7. The World's Greatest Tank Battle-Kursk; 8. War in the Arctic; 9. War in the Air; 10. Partisans: The Guerilla War; 11. Battle of the Seas; 12. Battle of the Caucasus; 13. Liberation of Ukraine; 14. Liberation of Byelorussia; 15. From the Balkans to Vienna; 16. The Liberation of Poland; 17. The ... Written by Eric Novotny

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soviet union | tv mini series | See All (2) »

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22 June 1978 (USA)  »

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Produced with Soviet cooperation after the release of The World at War, which the soviet government felt paid insufficient attention to their part in World War II. Released in 1978, The Unknown War, sympathetic to the Soviet struggle against Nazi Germany, was quickly withdrawn from TV airings after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. See more »

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The Pros and Cons
17 October 2014 | by (Alaska) – See all my reviews

Having just finished watching this epic telling of what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War I was struck by several things. In the interest of letting others make an informed decision about the recent DVD set I've decided to jot a few things down as Pros and Cons.

First the Pros... The number one reason to get this is for footage not found anywhere else, and lots of it. This covers aspects of World War 2 not even covered in other documentaries that feature the Eastern Front. A small sampling: The Russian attack on Manchuria/Manchuoko (not the small last minute attack western documentaries hint at), Yugoslavia (where over a million people died and yet this material isn't covered anywhere else), Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia (is there another documentary that covers the Czech uprising AFTER the fall of Berlin?), Hungary and the battle for Budapest, the Caucasus Mountain war, the Baltic states, Byelorussia (truly heart-breaking), Romania, and much more about Poland, Ukraine, the big Russian battles and sieges. This material itself would be worth 5 stars were it not for some of the Cons.

Another Pro: It is helpful in understanding a basic Russian perspective of the war (even as the propaganda has seeped into that viewpoint as our own has ours). It becomes clear that from a Russian perspective that the West promised help, it gave a bit, opened up little skirmishes in North Africa and Italy, dithered a lot and didn't really enter the war until June of 1944, when essentially the Russians had it largely sewn up on the Eastern Front. I'm not saying that that is what happened, but I believe I'm correct in stating that it's the Russian point of view even today. But I'm grateful to be able to crawl into that perspective.

Now the Cons... and there are quite a few. First and foremost, Burt Lancaster and Rod McKuen not withstanding, this was entirely an act of Soviet Propaganda, most of which could have been made in the 50s. Yet it does have the Detente flavor to it. The series was shelved for a while after the Soviet Afghanistan invasion. Nevertheless even though made in the late 70s not a word contradicts the essentially Stalinist interpretation, and not a word implicates Stalin in anything. Quite simply there were no Soviet mistakes. And we know far too much to swallow anything like that today. (To be fair, the Left in America hadn't really digested, or wanted to digest, Solzhenitsyn, the dissidents, or the evidence quite yet.) Fortunately Willard Sunderland's two part analysis (about an hour long) largely helps to correct that impression and I would add that as another Pro. Without that this would be an act of largely defused propaganda. And that's another reason why the propaganda isn't quite so bad, it's mostly been so unmasked and there are few old school leftists around anymore (at least in the West).

Other Cons... Sentimentality. There is a tendency sometimes to edit in such a way as to hammer a sort of Germans are Animals while Russians are Innocent Victims. And granted millions of innocent Russians did die, but who was sending all of these folks to the Gulags too? Who was starving Ukrainians? Who was purging the military before the war? Who was executing Polish officers at Katyn? Was it Stalin alone? For a much more balanced view check out Russia's War: Blood Upon the Snow made in the late 90s before Putin revived Russian Nationalism.

And, while there are other nit-picky Cons to observe, the last one I will mention is the music of Rod McKuen. He adds to the sentimentality in truly terrible ways. And at least five times he sings a cheap sentimental ditty over a montage near the end of an episode. Fortunately there are many episodes.

But even with those caveats the Pros win out. There are moments in the visual record that take the breath away. In a shorter and lesser documentary I would've knocked it down to four or five stars. But this is quite an epic. My feeling is that if you can take the Fifties Era pro-Americanism of Victory At Sea then you can surely find much to savor here. Dig in.


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Anyone know if this is available anywhere? louis-godena
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