I will start off by saying that I enjoyed three aspects of this movie greatly.
Firstly, the technical aspect was absolutely wonderful. I appreciate what Peter Jackson and crew were able to bring to life out of very old, damaged film. He talked about the processes and showed the before and afters in the addendum to the film...they were remarkable. Some of the footage was so dark that one couldn't see what was going on at all. It went from that to showing amazing detail with the restoration.
Secondly, I enjoyed the real-life, first-hand testominies of the veterans. So important to hear it from the people that were there.
Lastly, I was very interested to learn about some of the emotions of the soldiers and how the survivors evolved during these years. This was mostly, and most poignantly talked about at the very end of the documentary.
Even though I have not experienced anything remotely like what they went through, I can empathize with the veterans when they were talking about the end of the war. How they went from +100 in intensity to just calm, quiet, and nothing. What an absolute shock to their systems. The complete opposite of what they experienced with the constant shelling.
It was also very interesting to learn that they and their stories were largely ignored by the civilians back home after the war. The veterans had trouble finding work. They had trouble adjusting to a civilian life after having lived in filth, deprivation, and terror for so long, and unless they were speaking to a fellow veteran, no civilian, even if they found a civilian interested, could understand what they had lived through. The lack of acknowledgement about what they had endured and contributed somewhat reminded me of another documentary about Polish aviators that were in the RAF during WWII and what they said happened to them at the conclusion of the 2nd world war.
So there were things I definitely enjoyed in the movie, and I would recommend the film to anyone interested in history/this period, but the movie, overall, felt a bit flat to me...not as rich as it could have been. It seemed unfinished and hurried to the shelf, which is unfortunate because I'm sure it wasn't hurried at all. There is no doubt it all took a lot of hard work over a long time.
Here are my very respectful critiques as a viewer:
1. It needed subtitles. I have an English mum, and I'm used to listening to English accents, but some of the accents in the film were hard to make out. If it was hard for me in spots, then it definitely was/is going to be hard for the average person who is not used to them. Also, some things that were said were hard to make out because of the competing sounds of the added noises of war. Toning that aspect down during the testominies would have defintely helped and/or added subtitles. I wanted to understand ALL of what the veterans were saying as that was half of the film...side by side with the visuals.
2. There was no time for a breath for the viewer during some parts. The veterans telling their stories were right on top of one another. There needed to be at least a little space in between the stories to allow the viewer/listener to absorb and catch up. There was too much of an audial onslaught/bombardment and it was hard to keep up making the viewer/listener feel like they were running a race at points.
3. Some of the pictures/scenes were overused. I'm an adult with a great interest in history, but I felt slightly irritated at times because I was being shown the same scene/pictures over and over again during some of the film. That became somewhat tedious and boring. Also, the technique of panning over the faces was overdone. More variety visually was needed.
4. No musical score. This was a huge disappointment for me. Peter Jackson talked about this in the addendum. He said he wanted the barest minimum musically as he didn't want any distractions from the mens' stories. I disagree completely. Music enhances the story/stories and visuals. Jackson didn't have to have a full-blown, Hans Zimmer type score, but it would have been much richer to have a bit more in it musically. I would have liked there to have been unobtrusive original music/variations on theme and period music woven throughout.
Two good examples of original music in historical documentaries that come to mind are The Last Days of Vietnam score by Gary Lionelli and 14: Diaries of the Great War by Laurent Eyquem.
5. There seemed to be no overriding theme/message. Peter Jackson said in the addendum he had to figure out in the beginning, and during the process of distilling the many hours of film and audio, where he wanted to take the film. I don't feel like he ever quite got there. As a viewer of a history documentary, I most often don't want to be hit over the head with a political message. That's terribly annoying and Peter Jackson is certainly NOT guilt of that here which is refreshing, but it seemed like I was mostly just being presented with some nifty modern film/audio techniques combined with facts from veterans about the war regarding what they experienced. Both very neat and super important but not enough to push the film into the magnificent category. To me, there didn't seem to be a big theme or conclusion or something that pulled me in to a large degree. And I went in quite hopeful and was looking for it throughout. The finished product seemed to lack some passion, depth, and conclusion.
I guess what it comes down to, there needed to be more fibers in the movie to make it a rich, vibrant, and completed fabric/work. Even though the technical aspects were very amazing (big thanks to Peter Jackson and the other people of the film who brought it all to life from the dusty archives) and poignant moments, there were threads missing, in my opinion, that made the final work, overall, somewhat on the thin side. I give 10 stars to some aspects of the film and 5 to others giving it an overall rating of about 7.5.
Addendum: Some of the visuals that caught my eye/made an impression.
It was touching to see the soldiers so fascinated by the film crews. I loved the innocence in their faces.
I also noted how much so many of them smiled. Here they were going through a complete horror show, but many of them could still smile in the thick of it.
I loved the moustached man pretending to play a bottle, I think, and winking and hamming it up for the camera.
The soldier, amongst his comrades, rocking a child on his knee was so lovely.
The man at the end of the war stroking a dog for both their comfort was beautiful.
The exchanges, sympathy, and respect they had for the German POWs was interesting and touching to learn.
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