The sea below the plane is an impossibly deep blue. Inside the famous B-17 bomber known as the Memphis Belle, the detail on the faces of the young crewmen is so clear that you can see the blemishes on their cheeks. When anti-aircraft flak explodes around the plane, the rumble can be felt all around.
The footage was shot 75 years ago by filmmaker William Wyler during World War II. But in “The Cold Blue,” a new documentary by Erik Nelson that restores that footage using cutting-edge technology, it feels as immediate and visceral as if it was shot yesterday.
Fathom Events is screening “The Cold Blue” for one night only nationwide on Thursday, May 23 in honor of the upcoming Memorial Day Weekend. In Madison, the film will screen at Marcus Point, Marcus Palace and New Vision Fitchburg 18.
Nelson is a veteran documentary filmmaker who has worked with Werner Herzog on several films (including “Grizzly Man”), as well as his own films, like 2017’s “A Gray Place.” He’s also a self-described “World War II nerd” who fondly remembers building airplane models and watching war shows like “Combat!” on television as a kid.
In an interview, Nelson said he could think of no better tribute to the veterans who served in the Allied air war against Germany than to let modern audiences feel exactly what it was like to be up in those planes.
“I’m an arthouse documentarian and a World War II nerd, and the challenge of ‘The Cold Blue’ was really to connect those dots,” Nelson said in a phone interview. “I wanted to make an arthouse doc that transported people who didn’t necessarily know anything about World War II to that time and place, and yet have enough granular detail that World War II nerds would be like ‘Look at that! Look at that!’”
The foundation of “The Cold Blue” is the raw footage that Wyler (“The Best Years of Our Lives”) shot in the spring of 1943 for his documentary “The Memphis Belle.” The film was commissioned by the U.S. Government essentially as propaganda to justify to the American public the Allied air bombing campaign in 1943 and 1944, in which 28,000 U.S. crewmen died. One of Wyler’s three cinematographers also died.
Nelson knew that Wyler had hours and hours of leftover footage that he never used for “Memphis Belle,” housed somewhere in the National Archives. He convinced Paul Allen, the late Microsoft co-founder who has a passion for restoring World War II aircraft, to finance his research to find the footage.
Once they found the footage, Nelson and his team went to work painstakingly restoring every frame, removing dust spots and scratches, and restoring the color that had faded over the years. There was also a thick blue line, the result of a mishap at the photo lab back in the 1940s, which had to be digitally painted out of every frame.
But there was an even bigger problem; the footage had no sound. So Nelson and his crew (including sound designer David Hughes (whose credits include “Blank Panther”) recreated the sounds, including taking one of the eight working B-17s left in the world up in the air to record the sounds of engine noise and anti-aircraft fire, exactly as Wyler would have heard them.
Nelson said he thinks Wyler would be happy with the job he’s done.
“He risked his life to get this footage,” Nelson said. “To propel to this footage into a new century, to a new generation, in theaters with state of the art sound and visuals, I think Wyler would have been very happy with that.”
Nelson has not merely restored Wyler’s footage, but used it to create his own, very contemporary kind of documentary. While “The Memphis Belle” had a traditional voiceover narrator, “The Cold Blue” is an immersive documentary (Nelson pitched it as “’Koyaaniqatsi’ with B-17s”), with the images accompanied only by onscreen text and interviews from nine surviving former B-17 crewmen remembering their wartime experiences. The great British guitarist Richard Thompson provides an evocative and understated soundtrack.
Nelson said he didn’t watch “Memphis Belle” until he was finished with “The Cold Blue,” and was fascinated to see what Wyler had done with the same footage.
“He put the puzzle together differently than I did,” he said. “We were on the same playing field for a while, and it was interesting and gratifying to see how I either came up with a different way of doing something, or else followed what he did.”
Nelson premiered “The Cold Blue” in May 2018 to an audience that included those veterans featured in the film, at a special screening in Dayton, Ohio where the actual Memphis Belle airplane, also restored to its former glory, was also unveiled. Nelson said he was gratified by the response from the veterans, who felt that he had gotten the details right; one veteran told him that halfway through the film, he felt like he was back in the air on a mission.
“One of the reasons we rushed this out the door is that I wanted to show the film to the guys, the nine guys who are in the film,” he said. “Every year there are 20 to 30 percent fewer people at their reunions. This film needed to get made and needed to get out. I wanted these guys to know that they’re not going to be forgotten.”
The special Fathom screening will include a bonus featurette showing how “The Cold Blue” was made, as well as Nazi newsreel footage showing how the air war looked from the German side.
“The Cold Blue” joins a spate of recent documentaries, including Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old,” and “Apollo 11” in which modern-day digital technology is used to revive and restore archival footage, and make the past feel suddenly present again on the big screen.
“They’re on the same mission trajectory, creating a portal into the past by lovingly utilizing and in some cases, restoring archival footage,” Nelson said. “It’s interesting that all three of us had the same idea at the same time.
“This is a very fraught era in America, and the idea that you can return to the past in a way is addictive for people.”