History - but not as we knew it

Using computer wizardry, a documentary presents the attempted assassination of Hitler as 'archive' film. Is such 'sexing up' of the past ethical?
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Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg is meticulous in his planning. It is 12.37pm on 20 July 1944, and the Nazi officer makes absolutely sure that his briefcase is placed right under the spot where his leader, Adolf Hitler, is poring over a huge map of Europe in his briefing hut at his Eastern Front headquarters, the Wolf's Lair in Rastenburg, East Prussia.

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg is meticulous in his planning. It is 12.37pm on 20 July 1944, and the Nazi officer makes absolutely sure that his briefcase is placed right under the spot where his leader, Adolf Hitler, is poring over a huge map of Europe in his briefing hut at his Eastern Front headquarters, the Wolf's Lair in Rastenburg, East Prussia.

But a few minutes later, another German soldier, Colonel Heinz Brandt, accidentally bumps into the briefcase and, thinking it must be in the Führer's way, thoughtfully moves it to the other side of a thick oak table leg. That one, apparently inconsequential act is to have monumental significance.

Moments later, the 2lb bomb contained within the briefcase explodes, kills the four people nearest to it and seriously injures 11 other bystanders. As fate would have it, however, the robust table leg protects Hitler from the worst of the blast and he is but superficially wounded.

The first to emerge, slowly but surely, like a phoenix from the ashes in the aftermath of the explosion, the Nazi leader is triumphant. "I am immortal," he boasts to his dazed followers. "Providence has given me a sign. I am indestructible." And so a simple table leg alters the course not only of the Second World War but of the entire history of the 20th century. It's a moment to chill you to the core.

This sequence lies at the heart of Virtual History: The Secret Plot to Kill Hitler, a documentary to be broadcast on the Discovery Channel on Sunday. But as undeniably powerful as it is, this footage of the Von Stauffenberg plot may yet prove highly controversial, because these moments were never actually filmed; they have been manufactured for the purposes of the programme. Groundbreaking computer wizardry has brought Hitler back to life in a series of vividly convincing "archive" scenes. In the making of The Secret Plot to Kill Hitler, actors play out key scenes involving Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. Then, in the editing suite afterwards, the real faces of the four wartime leaders are "magicked" on to the actors' bodies. In addition, the film stock is artificially aged and degraded to make it look like genuine Second World War footage.

Already, criticism has been voiced of Virtual History's method of recreating footage of events that were not actually captured on film at the time. According to Roger Graef, the award-winning documentary maker, the concept of mocking up archive material is "very dodgy": "It is up to the people at the top of broadcasting and the regulators to insist on the flexibility and willingness to back the authentic, in order to resist the easy temptation of putting everything into an artificial box," he says.

Speaking at the launch of Virtual History in the suitably eerie surroundings of the actual Wolf's Lair (a huddle of ivy-clad concrete bunkers deep in the dense forest of north-eastern Poland, hard by the border with Lithuania), the producers are quick to acknowledge that they are potentially stepping into an ethical minefield here.

"If Discovery Channel can do this, then so can North Korea," says Andrew Roberts, the historian and biographer of Churchill who has been acting as one of a bank of historical advisers to Virtual History. "It's like nuclear technology - you can't un-invent it. It's just a question of what you do with it.

"There's no technology that can't be debased in the wrong hands. Look at how the internet has been abused by terrorists and pornographers. A totalitarian regime could create false history with this. If China wanted to use computer-generated imagery (CGI) to say that Mao won the Second World War, they could. They could put Mao at the Yalta Conference, telling Churchill which parts of the world Britain could keep."

Roberts is at pains, however, to underline the good faith of the team behind Virtual History, which spent over three years and consulted 15 historians, 250 reference books, 150 historical collections and 2,500 period stills in the preparation of the programme. "No responsible historian would take part in a project like this unless the viewers were warned about the technology - and they are very clearly warned at the start of Virtual History.

"I had no qualms about taking part in this. We're always looking for innovative ways to interest people in history. Historians have always used technology to look at the past. Thucydides had scrolls, the nuns of Bayeux had tapestries, Gibbon had novels, and A J P Taylor had television. We're all doing the same thing - trying to recount history as honestly as we can."

Simon Sebag Montefiore, responsible for a lauded biography of Stalin and also a consultant on Virtual History, also rushes to the programme's defence. "I'm very comfortable with this as a method," he argues. "It's a fantastic way of bringing history to people with an immediacy that isn't always found in TV history documentaries. One of our missions as historians is to keep alive the story of Hitler and use it as a warning. Virtual History can only help with that."

The programme-makers underline that every word of dialogue used in the "new" archive material is backed up by several sources. For example, the exchanges in the briefing hut at the Wolf's Lair were taken down by an official Nazi stenographer and many eye-witnesses. The producers argue that they are merely "unlocking" information that is already in the public domain.

The level of detail in the programme is certainly impressive. It reveals, for instance, that Churchill hated loud noise when he worked in bed in the morning, so he insisted that his secretary use a custom-built, silent typewriter and that the guards outside his bedroom door stand on specially designed sound-deadening mats.

No detail, the producers hasten to add, has been fabricated. "What we film is non-contentious," stresses David McNab, the director of Virtual History. "If you create contentious areas as archive, or put words into people's mouths, that's when it becomes unethical."

David Abraham, general manager of Discovery Networks Europe, chips in: "The technology must be used in a responsible way. We can't control how it's used in the future, but we think it's good that in its first outing, it is employed in a rigorous and cautious way. We are not seeking to mislead anyone."

Of course, commissioning editors these days have a mortal dread of boring the punters. In their eagerness to hook the elusive youth vote, they will go to any lengths to avoid what is perceived as the lumbering old way of making history documentaries - filming a line-up of increasingly bearded and dandruff-ridden professors against a backdrop of dusty, dog-eared history tomes. So, is Virtual History merely the latest gratuitous attempt to "sex up" history and bypass the supposed tedium of talking heads? Or is it simply taking to another level such popular dramatised reconstructions as, say, the award-winning Touching the Void and Pompeii - The Last Day?

"If we could have just used Andrew Roberts talking animatedly about the way Churchill used to work in bed, we would have done," Abraham asserts. "But how powerful would that be without the pictures? We make no apologies about our efforts to bring history alive. We all share a passion for telling stories from history. I have a 15-year-old son and he doesn't watch reruns of The World at War - that approach now looks a bit dated. Virtual History creates more of a sense of excitement."

The makers are hopeful that The Secret Plot to Kill Hitler will be just the first episode of many Virtual History programmes. Certainly, The Secret Plot is an attention-grabbing way of announcing yourself. There is, after all, nothing so guaranteed to bring in the punters as any programme with the name "Hitler" in the title.

"It's a brilliant subject because it's got everything," says Roberts. "The plot so nearly came off - Hitler's trousers were shredded in the blast. Had that case not been moved, or had the table leg been less sturdy... there are so many 'what ifs'.

"And the plot is full of class conflict - Von Stauffenberg was an aristocrat while Hitler was petit-bourgeois. It's a story of heroism, too, a terrific tale of a brave man attempting to assassinate a tyrant. The idea of a soldier trying to kill the commander-in-chief to whom he has sworn allegiance also provokes a moral debate - not least whether it would have actually been a good thing for the Allies if Hitler had been assassinated.

"But above all, as we all know, the swastika is box office. Why does that continue to be the case? Because Hitler was the most rapacious, would-be world conqueror since Tamerlane. It's astonishing that Hitler's regime happened within the lifetime of many of us. Our fathers and mothers can still remember the sound of his doodlebugs over London.

"Stalin still has his apologists, who claim that, however horribly perverted, he was trying to bring equality to the world. But Hitler had no redeeming features whatsoever - that's why he remains such a magnetic figure."

"People endlessly return to it because it was the last 'good' war," says Charles Brand, director of factual programming at Tiger Aspect, which made Virtual History. "We were all brought up with it as being our finest hour. It was an inspiring time, the nation pulling together to fight an evil enemy."

Dunja Noack, the German producer of Virtual History, has the last word: "The Second World War is the single unifying event in recent European history. Will we ever run out of stories to tell about the Nazis? Maybe. But one thing we will never run out of is a fascination with that terrible, terrible time."

'Virtual History: The Secret Plot to Kill Hitler' is on the Discovery Channel at 8pm on Sunday 24 October