Touring The Century With Bill Moyers

PrintPrintEmailEmail

EVERY TELEVISION documentary on the twenties seems to spend a lot of time on crazes, always including marathon dancing—those dispiriting contests in which heavylidded couples held one another up as they shuffled back and forth. Watching one such program with my parents many years ago, I innocently asked my mother what it had been like to take part. “What kind of girl do you think I was?” she answered, with what I remember as genuine outrage.

It was my first inkling that old film doesn’t tell the whole story. I have never stopped watching documentaries—the simple fact that there is authentic footage of Leo Tolstoy or Queen Victoria or San Francisco before the earthquake still seems miraculous to me. But I do now know that the use television usually makes of it is pretty bad: the same weary snippets of newsreel spliced together on the cheap, with narration either portentous or patronizing, and sometimes both at once.

There have been honorable exceptions: Victory at Sea was one; The Great War was another. Beginning January 18, public television presents a third. A Walk Through the Twentieth Century With Bill Moyers is an ambitious series of twenty programs, of which I have seen thirteen. All are worth watching; some are extraordinary.

One characteristic of our century is incoherence; it’s impossible to get a handle on. Moyers and his collaborators (including the historian Bernard A. Weisberger) have wisely rejected simple chronology in favor of programs that wrestle with ideas. Their subjects range from war to public relations, the Presidency to world’s fairs, and even the format differs from show to show. Some rely heavily on newsreels; two follow the stumbling advance of civil rights through the eyes of the actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis; still others are composed primarily of the recollections of men and women who made or reported history, or simply witnessed it.

Moyers himself provides the only continuity. The conventional wisdom is that ideas and intelligent conversation make bad TV; within the industry, human beings with something to say are dismissed as “talking heads.” Moyers knows better and has proved it time and again. His is an earnest presence—at forty-nine he still has something of the air of the Baptist divinity student he once was—but it is also intelligent, humane, and intensely curious. He seems genuinely affected by what he sees and hears, and more important, he possesses the mysterious power to pass along his amusement or astonishment or horror intact to the viewer.

There is no way to convey all the pleasures of this series in this space, and it seems churlish to list their (mostly minor) flaws. But a few generalizations suggest themselves.

Several programs make it plain that the camera’s eye is no more objective than our own. It sees what its masters want it to see. A program on newsreels (inevitably called “The Reel World of News") shows how a steady Saturday-night diet of fashion shows, touchdowns, and random disasters helped mask the reality of the Depression, but the point is most effectively made in “The Propaganda War,” an examination of German and American efforts to explain World War II to their people on film. Fritz Hippler, who supervised movie-making for the Nazis, is the repellent and fascinating subject of the first half of the hour. We first see the genial and dapper seventy-year-old sauntering along his street in Berchtesgaden in a blue blazer and pointing out the site where, to his great regret, the Allies obliterated Hitler’s mountainside retreat. Most of his films, with their marching legions and wet-eyed zealots, were meant to inspire the Fatherland and impress its neighbors with the futility of resistance, but he is best remembered for having made The Eternal Jew, a virulent epic intended to whip up anti-Semitism among the Germans (whom Joseph Goebbels thought insufficiently devoted to the cause, compared, for example, with the French). “With this fact I have to live all my life,” Hippler says with an uncharacteristically long face. Why does responsibility for this particular movie haunt him? Because it got him into a lot of trouble with denazification courts after the war.

His American counterpart was the Hollywood director Frank Capra, who made the Why We Fight series for the U.S. Army. It was his ingenious notion to turn Hippler’s own film against its makers: The same storm troopers march in Why We Fight, Hitler delivers the same shuddering harangues, but shrewd editing and narration render them by turns laughable and thuglike, not heroic. Capra is an honest man, and even this brush with propaganda evidently still bothers him forty years later; he brought photographs of the heaped dead of Dachau with him to his filmed interview, as if to demonstrate to Moyers and the rest of us (and perhaps even to himself) that it had been all right for him to enlist his skills in the struggle against such frightfulness.