THEY Shall Grow Not Old (BBC1, Remembrance Sunday) was a remarkable feature-length labour of love by the director Peter Jackson. His experience gained on filming Tolkien’s fantasy novels now applied to the grimmest of realities: unfamiliar archive footage from the First World War, each frame hand-coloured and remastered to give it the immediacy of today’s films: the combatants looked like our family, friends, and neighbours rather than our ancestors.
The buffer of jerky, black-and-white newsreel was stripped away: these faces of the long-dead are us, now. It seemed to me that the blood was crucial. We are familiar with the disgusting black-and-white images of corpses, drowned in shell-holes, but seeing the newly dead bloodied crimson affects us instantly. The gaping, bleeding wounds speak to us. The pictures become embodied: we might almost dare to say, incarnate.
Most of the unfamiliar footage was of troops before and after battle, on their way to the front, resting. We saw laughter, comradeship, and horseplay, all of which contributed to the effect of immediate reality. The voices were theirs, stitching together recordings of veterans’ reminiscence, hundreds of snippets creating a tapestry of sound. This was unforgettable TV: a worthy marking of the centenary.
Many of us have learned of a new victim of the conflict: Matthias Erzberger, the German who signed the Armistice on behalf of his nation. Normally, the worst element of historical documentaries is dramatic re-enactment, but, in WW1: The final hours (BBC2, Thursday of last week), the discreet impersonation did not undermine our imaginative engagement with the drama.
Admiral Wemyss and Marshall Foch spoke for the Allies; unlike them, Erzberger was a schoolteacher turned politician. This decent and honourable man was set up. The German military refused to admit that their fighting had failed; so defeat had to be a civilian responsibility. Hindsight enables us to see the appalling errors to which the intransigence of Foch and Wemyss (they refused to lift the blockade, despite German civilians’ literal starvation) led.
During the three-day negotiation, armed insurrection swept through Berlin, the Kaiser agreed to abdicate, the German government collapsed. Erzberger was instructed to sign at whatever cost. The humiliation of the terms led inexorably to the even greater horrors of the Second World War. The narrative of national betrayal pedalled by those desperate to make Germany great again chose to blame not reality but the messenger; so they assassinated Erzberger.
There was hope as well as dire warning: let us hope that the defining image of the weekend’s TV will be the German President shaking the Queen’s hand at the service at Westminster Abbey on Sunday.