In real life, Winston Churchill delivered his "We shall fight them on the beaches" speech on 4 June 1940, in the shocked aftermath of Dunkirk. In Victory (C4), a strangely dislocated documentary about the end of the war in Europe, he delivered it shortly after the D-Day invasion had begun. The programme didn't say as much, of course, but that was the effect of the juxtaposition of sound and picture; our instinct, watching a screen, is always to read meaning into coincidence, to categorise simultaneous elements as either commentary or illustration. Elsewhere Victory acknowledged this with a perverse literalism: when the historical narrative mentioned that the Poles had helped the British get access to Germany's Enigma code system, the picture showed a Polish pilot stencilling the word Poland on the side of a Spitfire. There was no historical connection here - the Poles told the British about Enigma about a week before war began - but it was clearly felt the image would do in the circumstances. There were other vaguenesses too - at one point the film appeared to show a German cavalry attack (running left to right) encountering Russian tanks (advancing right to left). But although the German army was largely horse-drawn, it seemed far more likely that the cavalry was Russian, part of Marshal Zhukov's counterattacking force. Despite repeated requests to Stalin, Zhukov had no tanks at the time.

What is the status of the image in such cases? Is it a sort of newsreel impressionism, a way of saying, "It looked roughly like this"? Or is it simply vissual filler, a practical alternative to a blank screen or animated map? Whatever the case, the lack of exactitude was dangerously corrosive in a programme like Victory, which had a much graver task of documentation at its heart. It was, at first, a little difficult to work out exactly what its purpose was - given that we've already seen far more specific and detailed accounts of the end of the war - but its origins in the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and its counterpoint between the progress of the war and the fate of the Jews suggest that it was intended above all as an act of commemoration. You couldn't call this focus, exactly - there were digressions into Washington's lack of preparedness for air raids and war- time entertainment in London, both of which seemed a luxurious use of time in the circumstances - but the emotional weight of the programme lay in its use of eyewitness accounts of persecution and genocide. These were sometimes illustrated with vivid power - one survivor recalled his arrival in Auschwitz with his mother and father. Mengele, impatient with the selection, ordered everyone over 45 to remain on the platform. The boy quietly urged his father to lie, but he refused, unable to abandon his wife, who looked much older. As the man remembered the last sight of his mother, the overpowering urge to give her one last kiss, an inset picture of a woman, standing in a crowd on the Auschwitz platform, expanded to fill the screen. The combination of voice and image seemed to offer a poignantly limited resurrection - a restoration of human connection to just one of those blurred faces. It was a way of sharing our awful familiarity with the evidence, reminding us that these people weren't just members of a category - as the Nazis would have it - but individuals. The camera panned across to the entrance gate and the snapshot faded to colour - the gate and railway today, overgrown with wild flowers. Was this a gesture of style, though, or an inspired piece of scholarship? You couldn't tell, and it mattered, just as it mattered when an account of the murder of a blind Rabbi was illustrated by a photograph of a blind man tapping his way through the Warsaw ghetto. Was he the man himself or just a type? The least we owe the dead, surely, is unyielding pedantry about the distinction.

Comments