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Unknown War: WWII And The Epic Battles Of The Russian Front, The

Vivendi Entertainment // Unrated // May 24, 2011
List Price: $39.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted May 18, 2011 | E-mail the Author
The Show:
Rarely seen since its original airing in 1978, The Unknown War is a 20-part documentary that examines WWII from the Russian side of the conflict.  It was a direct response to The World at War, a ground-braking documentary that the Soviets felt did not tell the full story of Russia's sacrifice and valor during the conflict.  Soon after the series aired on PBS the USSR invaded Afghanistan and it was pulled from further circulation and has been hard to see since that time.  Luckily Shout! Factory has released this interesting series on DVD and war buffs everywhere can see what they've been missing for the past 30+ years.
On June 22, 1941, two days short of the anniversary of the start of Napoleon's invasion of Russia, German troops crossed the border and began one of the bloodiest campaigns of WWII.  Five million troops were amassed along a front that stretched 1800 miles.  The German Blitzkrieg campaign, which had worked so well in Poland and in other European countries, was devastatingly effective.  The Germans advanced quickly, destroying towns and cities along the way and leaving thousands of dead Russians, both soldiers and civilians, in their wake.

By early October, German troops were miles from Moscow, and it was reported that the soldiers could see the towers of the Russian capital from their lines.  They would not get any further. 
This documentary tells the story of the Eastern Front through the eyes of the Russian people and their commanders.  The Soviet film vaults were opened for this project, and a vast majority of the video is footage taken during the war by Russian cinematographers.  The series was created by sifting through three and a half million feet of Russian newsreel and combat footage, most of which has never been seen in the US before, and that alone makes it a valuable resource. 
The series also does a magnificent job of detailing the vast cost in human lives the conflict cost the Soviets.  By the time the war was over, a staggering 10 million + Russians were killed and this is brought home over the course of the series.  The siege of Leningrad, which lasted 900 days, is fully documented.  The food warehouses were one of the first buildings bombed at the beginning of the siege and the people starved.  There is haunting footage of people casually walking past dead bodies in the streets, and discussions of the bread they ate made out of sawdust.  Unknown to the citizens who refused to surrender, Hitler had told his generals to level the city and leave no one alive.
Other important battles in the Eastern Front are also examined.  The Battle of Kursk the largest tank conflict in history is an exciting chapter.  Here Hitler tried to destroy the Russian army once and for all and literally thousands of tanks faced off in an epic struggle.  Likewise the Defense of Stalingrad, the liberation of Poland, and the Battle of Berlin and looked at in some detail. 

The series is hosted by Burt Lancaster, and while he does a great job narrating the story, the video inserts featuring the actor interrupt the flow of the story.  He's filmed at the site of some famous battle to show what the place looks like today (or as it did in the late 70's) but he often recaps the information that was just given in detail during the first 15 minutes of the show.  That seems a little useless, and the present day shots aren't that interesting.
Also, the show is told from a Soviet point of view and tends to gloss over the negative things that Soviets did during the war.  The German-Soviet Non-aggression Pact is portrayed solely as a way for Stalin to bide his time and prepare for an anticipated Nazi invasion.  No mention is made of the secret protocols which carved up Europe into German and Russian zones of influence and the fact that Russia invaded Poland from the East soon after Hitler invaded from the West.  These are significant omissions, but not fatal flaws.  The meat of the series is still accurate it shouldn't be disregarded for some omissions.
Overall, this is an excellent series that gives an in depth look at the Eastern Front, a subject that often is mentioned only briefly in WWII documentaries.  Even with its flaws, this is an important show.  
The DVD:
The 20 episodes arrive on 5 DVDs, each with it's own slimcase.  The five cases are housed in an illustrated slipcase.
The set comes with the original mono soundtrack.  Compared to modern documentaries, this show sounds thin and unimpressive, but that's largely due to the fact that it was made in the late 70's.  The narration is easy to hear and the sound effects are decent.  About what you'd expect from a TV show from this era.
Since most of the series consists of vintage footage filmed under less than ideal circumstances, the full frame B&W image isn't impeccable, but it does look very good taking its history into account.  The unrestored picture is generally very clear and with minimal print damage.  The contemporary color shots are less impressive, with the colors muddled a bit and a bit faded.
There are a couple of extra, both of which are very good and add a lot to the understanding of the subject matter and how the series was created.  The first is a 25-minute interview with Rod McKuen who co-wrote the script as well composed the music.  It's very informative as well as being interesting.  He talks about working with the Russian historians and authorities on the project as well as what was left out of the project.  It's a great addition to the series.  There's also a 33 minute talk with historian Dr. Willard Sunderland who points out some of the ommisions from the series.  This too was a splendid bonus that helps bring some balance to the series.

Final Thoughts:
There can be no argument that the Russian Army played a significant role in Nazi Germany's defeat.  If Hitler's forces had not been split fighting on two fronts who can say if D-Day would have been successful or what the fighting in France would have been like.  Even so, the events on the Eastern front, while not ignored, are usually downplayed in most WWII documentaries.  This series, devoted to the Russian efforts during WWII, is an important documentary and well worth watching.  Highly Recommended.
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Highly Recommended

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