Weekend homework included watching a couple of VCDs sent to our office by the Discovery Channel, with footage from its soon-to-be-aired “Virtual History” series, which (in the words of the press release) “recreates important moments in world history...with the latest in CGI technology, little-known historical documents and the knowledge of leading historians and film experts to recreate events from history never originally captured on camera”.
The first episode in this series is the two-part The Secret Plot to Kill Hitler, which will be aired on March 12th and 13th. I watched some of this - it’s principally about the failed assassination attempt (by his own men) on the Fuhrer on July 20, 1944, but the cross-cutting structure provides us glimpses of what the four world leaders at the centre of events - Hitler, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin - were each doing on that day. Roosevelt, already in ill-health, has a heart attack on a train and might easily have died. Churchill stays curmudgeonly in bed for several hours after waking, while London suffers aerial strikes. A haggard-looking Stalin tells his closest confidantes his fears that Britain and the US might enter a separate deal with Nazi Germany against the USSR. In his bunker, a depressed Hitler tells his physician he can’t sleep because of bad dreams and the sound of the housecleaner’s broom. One is struck instantly by how tired, how weak, how melancholy and hopeless all these men look; and by how old they all are. (A voiceover comments that the personal health, and even mood-swings, of each of these leaders towards the end of the war had an enormous bearing on decisions that affected most of humanity.)
This was all very interesting from a history-enthusiast’s perspective but I’m always uncomfortable with these attempts to “exactly recreate” what happened. Discovery’s (admittedly ambitious) venture involves, among other things, making plaster casts of the faces of the historical figures involved, using CGI to create digital copies of these, recording and processing the facial movements and dialogue of living actors and then transposing these to the “CGI faces” so that you have the “real” Stalin, the “real” Roosevelt etc moving and speaking in coloured footage presented in a slightly grainy documentary style to make it seem more authentic. It’s an intriguing idea alright, but I’m not sure it’s worth it. More to the point, it feels a little too much to me like an attempt at appropriating the “truth” - like telling the world “okay, this is it, we’ve researched and uncovered everything that really happened on that day, how and why it happened, and what you’re seeing now is Completely Authentic.” Don’t want to get into Rashomon talk here but I think it’s obvious that, with all the best researchers and historians and computer-generated effects in the world, there’s still no foolproof way of knowing the Absolute Truth about that time, about what the people concerned were really thinking and doing at every moment. And this might amount to a pretence to that effect. (Before Discovery sues me, I’m not sure about that; will probably conduct an email interview with a couple of the people behind the films, discuss the ethics and so on.)
Sidenote: I found these films very interesting and well-done in their own right but somehow this business of insisting on “authenticity” reminds me of those goddawful Disease of the Week made-for-TV movies that are still so popular on American cable TV. The ones that are always preceded by the words “Based on a true story”, which alone is apparently enough to make them respectable, never mind their actual quality.