From the News column of the April 2009 issue of Perspectives on History
New Film on Secret Meetings of World War II Will Premiere on PBS in May
KCET, Los Angeles, April 2009
The dramatic story of the secret meetings during the Second World War between Joseph Stalin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill is sought to be told afresh in a new film, WWII Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis, and the West, which has been coproduced by KCET, Los Angeles, and the BBC. The six-hour program will be broadcast in three episodes of two hours each on PBS TV, starting on May 6, 2009.
Using documents that became available only recently from archives in Germany, Britain, the United States, Poland, and the former Soviet Union, and juxtaposing conventional documentary elements with dramatic re-creations, award-winning historian and filmmaker Laurence Rees (Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State; Nazis—A Warning from History), who wrote and directed the film, tells the unknown story of Stalin’s backroom dealings—first with the Nazis and then with Roosevelt and Churchill. The technique of combining traditional documentary features with re-creations that are based on scholarly research—authenticated by such academic advisers as Robert Dallek—enables Rees to give viewers a new understanding of war-time negotiations, through insights into the personalities of the protagonists, as those are brought out by the actors.
For the dramatized sequences in the film, Stalin is played by Alexei Petrenko (Lilacs, Doktor Zhivago, 12, Grachi, The Russian Idea); Churchill is played by Paul Humpoletz (Losing It); and Roosevelt is played by Bob Gunton (24, Shawshank Redemption, Desperate Housewives). The drama director is Andrew Williams.
The re-creations are intertwined with a propulsive documentary narrated by Keith David that draws on fresh research in the Soviet archives and on the testimony from witnesses of the time who have not spoken publicly before, including former Soviet secret policemen, Allied seamen who served on the Arctic convoys and Red Army veterans who experienced hand-to-hand fighting on the Eastern Front.
A dedicated web site for the series (www.pbs.org/behindcloseddoors) will be launched on April 29, 2009—a week before the broadcast begins—to offer viewers an in-depth look at the complex negotiations between Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill. The site will provide documents, first-hand accounts, interactive maps, and an extensive collection of primary source material, including archival photos and video. Visitors will be invited to “go behind closed doors” to learn about the secret agendas and outcomes of key WWII meetings and conferences—beginning with Ribbentrop’s first visit to Moscow to meet with Stalin in 1939 to the Big Three’s momentous talks at Tehran (1943) and Yalta (1945). Fans of documentary filmmaking will also be able to watch special behind the scenes Q & As with series director Laurence Rees, historian Robert Dallek, and actor Bob Gunton, while history buffs can explore the research challenges involved in uncovering top-secret conversations that occurred more than 60 years ago. The web site will also offer resources for students and teachers. And utilizing the content provided on the web site, standards-based educational materials developed specially for the series will invite students to analyze key topics, including the motivations of the leaders, key events on the Eastern front, and the perspectives held by the Allied leaders as they balanced their national goals with the need to defeat the Nazis.
A companion book World War Two Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West (Pantheon Books) will be published on April 28, 2009. The television series itself will also be made available on DVD.
—Adapted from press release from KCET, Los Angeles.