Apocalypse: Second World War Blu-ray review

Three years in the making, Apocalypse tells the story of WWII through painstakingly restored and colourised archive footage. Here’s Luke’s review…

A cursory glance to the lower, learned reaches of your EPG will confirm there is currently no shortage of World War 2 documentaries available. Every facet of the deadliest war in human history has been explored in minute and forensic detail, making any further additions to the existing swathe of in-depth accounts require something new and unique to garner any kind of hype.

Apocalypse: The Second World War has succeeded in this respect, however, and the most eagerly-awaited WW2 account of 2010 has now arrived on Blu-ray and DVD.

Almost three years in the making, its trump card is in its use of hours of previously unseen footage, which has been painstakingly restored and colourised, giving the events portrayed a sense of clarity, realism and immersion rarely before seen in a World War 2 documentary.

Seventy-eight percent of the footage has never been released before, and through it we are given unparalleled access to one of the darkest periods in our collective history. The footage used was all recorded by the soldiers, civilians and journalists of the time, and the complete absence of re-enactments or genre stalwart taking heads immediately gives the series a sense of pacing that makes it feel much more accessible than some of the more esoteric accounts of the war. And the variety and quality of some of the footage the producers have managed to piece together is, at times, startling, removing the veil of distance that has allowed us to forget the gruesome realities of a conflict we still, as a culture, know so much about.

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The six-part series documents the entire war, from Hitler’s exploitation of a splintered Germany leading to the rise of the Nazi party in the early 1930s, through to the only aggressive deployments of nuclear weapons in all of human history at Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945. The over-arching scope of the series means the six 47-minute episodes whiz by at a frenetic pace, whilst managing to cram in a commendable level of incidental detail along the way.

Footage of a cosmopolitan, pre-war Germany and sinister scenes of a laughing Hitler entertaining children at parties and playing with his dogs are two of many inclusions that add unexpected depth to what, at heart, is still a strictly procedural account. Never forgetting the human impact of the escalating atrocities, these events are always brought down to the level of an individual. After all, our brains automatically disassociate us from the sheer number of casualties discussed and 50 million dead can seem like something of an abstract concept when discussed arbitrarily.

Instead of giving us demonstrations of coloured arrows moving around on maps, this show reminds us that it was the lives of real people, of families, that were either irreparably damaged or stolen altogether, and is infinitely more powerful as a result.

We are not limited to accounts from Allies either, and details of opposing views within the German ranks, as well as the atrocities committed by both sides, attempt to portray the real human cost on each nation involved. Harrowing footage of concentration camps and brutal anti-Semitic attacks is presented alongside accounts of rape and torture committed by the Soviets, or the British and American use of phosphorous and Napalm on civilian targets in Dresden and the wooden houses of Tokyo.

The series knows that we are already aware of the inherent evil of World War 2 fascism, and instead attempts to paint the overall picture of the worst things mankind has ever done to itself, instead of focusing solely on those committed within the concentration camps. The show, through the mere presentation of factual evidence, still shows Hitler to be a paranoid, maniacal racist, and the acts perpetrated against Jews as the most abhorrent ever committed, but it also shows this to be a conflict with no real winners in the end.

Bearing in mind this is all done through the use of actual footage, it may go without saying that some scenes are difficult to watch, yet it may need to be said anyway. Family viewing some of this most certainly is not.

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At times verging on the sensationalist (which is due more to the biased original photographers than the producers of the programme) but never the voyeuristic, the show does not shy away from showing us the horror of its subject matter. Visceral battles and horrific executions are shown with an almost cold, objective eye, one that serves to bring home the reality of events, but can still occasionally catch you off guard with the remorseless brutality of war.

With the broad brush strokes necessary to cover the entire conflict in six episodes, there are some omissions that are still quite strange, however. The Battle of Britain, the D-Day landings and Japan’s entry into the war are all mentioned in passing, but are not expanded upon, despite all being fairly major events.

Instead we see ample time devoted to Charles de Gaulle and France itself (due to the show’s French origins), and while these too are important details, they are not, truth be told, as interesting, from a non-Gallic perspective, as some of the events glossed over as a result.

The French to English translation occasionally results in some clunky dialogue, too. One scene began, “1942…A little French town, full of little French children,” in an introduction that probably sounded a little less hammy in its original tongue. And while intimate footage of Churchill, Hitler, Roosevelt and Goring is extremely interesting to see, having some of their major speeches read by the narrator instead of using the actual recordings seems incongruous with the show’s otherwise unflinching desire to use original footage, and removes all the power and resonance from some of these iconic orations.

And while the quality of most of the footage is testament to the hard work of the team who spent two and a half years smoothing out each and every frame, it has to be said that the Blu-ray release of this programme is fairly pointless, as, despite the efforts of the programme makers, nothing you will see will even be approaching 1080p (apart from the front menu or the odd map which do, admittedly, look lovely).

The sound also does not benefit at all from the move to Blu-ray for the same reasons, and if you are planning on a purchase, the limitations of Second World War recording equipment negate the need to spend an additional ten pounds on the high definition version.

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Mostly, however, the show succeeds in bringing the Second World War to life in ways few programmes before have managed. It sometimes seems unbelievable that someone would have thought to film some of the events here, and some of the footage is genuinely breathtaking. No amount of Hollywood gloss can ever truly portray the impact of a Japanese fighter pilot’s kamikaze nosedive into the bough of an American warship, or the shuddering impact of a V1 rocket into a row of London houses.

It is the civilian drama that unfolds which is the most powerful, however, and it is this footage which brings the realities of war home. War, death and hostile occupation do not affect nations, they affect individuals, and the programme understands this perfectly, which makes the series a must-see for history buffs and recommended viewing for just about everyone else.


Two features are included as extras on the disc. The first is a ‘making of’ featurette, in French, but subtitled, comprised of 50 minutes of interviews with the writers, producers, and technical team. Occasionally insightful, you get the impression that everyone involved is extremely proud of their accomplishments on the series. However, ten minutes of this inclusion is spent trying to plug the accompanying book for the series, and another ten is taken up with an interview with the chap who did the French narration. Disregarding these, the most interesting aspect of the 30 minutes remaining is a brief demonstration of the painstaking cleanup process that the footage underwent before it was ready to be shown.

The second extra is an hour’s worth of French wartime news footage. This is the kind of propaganda-based reportage that depicts soldiers smiling and joking, as well as speeches from French wartime leaders, and is something for Second World War buffs, but will not be of interest for the majority of non-French viewers.

The extras, too, seem disappointing for such a lavish production, as in the interviews with the producers we were told that, originally, there were 600 hours of footage that was edited down into the six episodes on the disc, and surely, out of 600 hours there was something else that could have been included for those who took the trouble to go out and buy the discs. The footage used in the newsreel featurette is standard definition and in black and white anyway, so they needn’t have restored the footage for any additional extras.

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4 stars

Apocalypse: The Second World War is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.

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4 out of 5