D-Day to Berlin

D-Day to Berlin (Written and produced by George Stevens, Jr., 1994) World War II was in full color for participants, though until recently filmed history was mostly black-and-white. After his death, four hours of previously-unviewed Kodachrome reels shot by famed director, and later Academy-Award winner, George Stevens were found by his son. George Stevens Jr., a renowned producer and director himself, has crafted this footage into an award-winning documentary. His narration is accompanied by commentary by members of “Stevens’ Irregulars,” a professional film crew under Lt. Colonel Stevens that General Eisenhower selected to cover D-Day and subsequent European theater events.

Colonel Stevens and his Hollywood colleagues were principally responsible for producing the definitive Army film history of these events. Stevens, at the last minute, also brought along a 16 mm camera and a bag of Kodachrome film. His color record permits us to experience this war from a perspective that is lacking in black-and-white footage.

The documentary opens with official films of D-Day, then it switches to color. The impact, for this viewer, is akin to the abrupt black-and-white-to-color transition in The Wizard of Oz. I feel transported to another world.

What we see is the way the war looked to those who were there. We experience a naval captain reading from Henry V’s band of brothers oration prior to the Utah Beach landing. Then Stevens provides Ernie-Pyle-insights into life as a soldier: the sense of camaraderie, the lousy grub, and unglamorous carnage. Like Pyle, Stevens conveys the ‘smell of death.’

His color film of thousands of German prisoners in Normandy is swiftly followed by the jubilant liberation of Paris: the joy of Parisians, the triumphant parade of the 28th Division, and the hunting down of Nazi SS. These color portrayals are in magnificent contrast to the black-and-white footage that was, until recently, our only film record. Years later, Stevens referred to August 25, 1944 (when he entered Paris with Free French forces) as the “greatest day in his life.”

The euphoria of August (’the war will be over by October’) to the stunning shock of the Battle Bulge is poignantly captured. Color photos of the dead provide vivid faces to the 68,000 U. S. casualties. The devastation is everywhere, as recorded in the plight of fleeing Belgian civilians and the physical and human carnage. The sparseness of Christmas 1944 is recorded in the eyes and the gait of U. S. soldiers.

Stevens records the spring offensive, including candid photos of the 22,000-soldier parachute drop across the Rhine. He then covers the discovery of the world’s largest underground factory, where V-1 rockets and V-2 engines were manufactured, as well as prototype German jet fighters. Soon after comes the largest surrender of German troops in Western Europe: 320,000 men, including 25 generals and field marshals. In color Stevens records the faces of a defeated army. He also captures the flush of Allied victory, as East met West near Torgau. U. S., British, and Russian flags are intermingled, with dancing and effusive celebrations.

Nothing cushions the shock of Stevens’ color footage of the Dachau Holocaust camp. The mounds of bodies, the walking skeletons, and the search for (and, often, killing of) SS guards is recorded with an unforgettable starkness. As one of Stevens’ Irregulars expressed it: “You wanted to hate all Germans.” Stevens records the first Dachau religious ceremony, conducted by a rabbi. On a personal note, Stevens detours into the Dachau post office, returning with the April 29th hand stamp that marked the day of liberation.

In Berlin Stevens captures the expressions of defeated and frightened Berliners, as the Russians consolidate their military occupation. He also scans the shattered architectural remnants of the Third Reich, as well as the 1936 Olympic stadium, where Hitler once hosted the world. Before disbanding, Stevens’ Irregulars frolic at Hitler’s Berchtesgaden hideaway, where Stevens concludes his color filmage.

Whether, like me, you first watched WW II black-and-white newsreels in theaters, or whether you are a person who has garnered a visual impression of World War II from The History Channel , D-Day to Berlin is a ‘must see.’ This 50-minute color gem permits you to witness and feel WW II events as they were experienced by the participants. The commentaries of members of Stevens’ Irregulars heighten the sense of actually being there. One WW II veteran, who received this documentary as a Christmas morning gift, watched it thrice before Christmas dinner.

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