Friday, September 11, 2009


It's hard to believe that anything new in the way of World War II documentaries could come to light. One has the impression that everything has been said and shown a thousand times over. But the series of six TV specials entitled Apocalypse, now being shown on the France 2 channel, brings something breathtakingly new to the screen, for two reasons. First, the authors have unearthed amazing previously-unseen footage in every corner of the globe. Second, they've suceeded in manually coloring it so that everything looks natural. On this second point, we often forget that black-and-white photos and films, although we're accustomed to them, remain hugely abstract, maintaining a constant distance between the reality of the viewer's everyday universe (in color) and the artificial formality of the monochrome images.

In this remarkable movie sequence, women are evacuating Strasbourg in September 1939, in the wake of Hitler's invasion of Poland. The evacuation wasn't a spontaneous reaction to enemy presence (since the Nazis were still far away), but rather an official order from the French government, to ensure the future safety of citizens.

A determined middle-aged lady is doing work that is normally performed by a horse. She's well shod in sturdy shoes and thick stockings, but her flimsy mauve blouse and narrow black skirt are not exactly working clothes. Besides, the backwards angle of her arms is hardly ideal for dragging a heavy load. One wonders why this unfortunate woman is performing a horse's job. The explanation, no doubt, is that the massive scale of this evacuation (some 600,000 citizens of Alsace and Moselle between September 1939 and the spring of 1940) meant that work-horses were in short supply.

This young lady in a transparent skirt might have power in her legs and arms, but it's unlikely that she'll be able to carry on pushing that cart all the way to the primary destinations of these fleeing families: the French départements of Limousin, Périgord, Gers and Charentes. Those havens of safety lie hundreds of kilometers to the south. That's a long way on foot, pulling and pushing a cart.

This fellow is riding his bike in the opposite direction to the women with their cart. Is he contemplating a forthcoming bicycle evacuation from Strasbourg? Maybe he's training for the task. Or is he simply out on an excursion, to take in a bit of the action? Could he be an evacuation inspector, checking that everything's coming along fine?

Between the tram lines, where no trams have passed for ages, this confused little dog is wondering what the hell is happening. Should it follow the women and their cart? Or is there a ray of hope that the approaching cyclist might lead the tiny animal back to its former comfortable life in the great capital of Alsace? If we return to the original photo, there seems to be a tiny patch of clear sky above the buildings alongside the tram lines. The hesitant dog, pointing neither north nor south, is wondering: "Is this maybe the end of the tunnel?" Alas, no.

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