Several years ago, a German filmmaker, Weiland Schulz-Keil, made a four-hour film for German television about an extraordinary slice of modern American history -- the Public Works Progress Administration, the cultural heart of the New Deal's fight against the Great Depression.

Only because he did is a documentary history of that period now available here.

Under the auspices of the New York Center for Visual History, Schulz-Keil and American producers Olaf Hansen, Lawrence Pitkethly and (now Princeton history professor) Anson Rabinbach prepared a 90-minute version for American audiences, a unique -- and rare -- look at a five-year period in the cultural life of America.

For many years, the PWAP remained under the shadow of attacks by both the right and the left. This and circumstances -- World War II and postwar prosperity -- put an ignoble end to a noble experiment.

"The New Deal for Artists," a remarkable and candid documentary, will be broadcast at 8 tonight on Channel 26.

Orson Welles, who narrates the American version, is uniquely qualified. Spotted as a budding theatrical genius by then-producer John Houseman, Welles, at 19, participated in the Harlem "Negro Unit," and later in a Broadway venture doomed by politics. But his future was assured.

The Public Works Arts Project was the brainchild of FDR brain trusters Harry Hopkins and, through the Farm Security Agency's use of photographers, Rexford Guy Tugwell. It supported, from approximately 1935 to 1940, some 10,000 writers (who produced 3,000 publications), countless actors, directors and producers. We are told that "virtually every American artist born between 1900 and 1915 spent formative years in the arts project."

Among the artists: Joseph Stella, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Ben Shahn and his wife, Bernarda Bryson-Shahn, and William Gropper.

Among the writers: Richard Wright -- his "Native Son" is considered the project's most acclaimed accomplishment -- Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Conrad Aiken, Ralph Ellison, Studs Terkel.

Performing artists: Welles, Houseman, Will Geer, Norman Lloyd, Howard da Silva, John Randolph, Canada Lee, Katherine Durham.

Photographers: Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee.

"New Deal for Artists" is documentary within documentary because even as the art of photography was advanced, the camera eye froze into immortality the misery of those years of dust bowl, migrant farmer, hunger, racism, grief, life and death, poverty -- the relentless, hopeless, write-if-you-get-work poverty of the '30s.

Hundreds of murals, paintings, sketches and sculptures of the era are lost, preserved now only through photographs. There is a palpable shock as the camera cuts from photographs of James Brooks' massive historical mural around the inside circumference of the LaGuardia airport terminal to the terminal today -- the mural painted over with "institutional green."

Candidly and honestly, the filmmakers quote the revolutionary far left's reluctance to participate in such a "bourgeois" project: "Give a hungry man a job," went the revolutionary caveat, "and he'll be less discontent."

Couple that attitude with Martin Dies and his House Un-American Activities Committee on the Red-baiting right, and doom for this unique cultural experiment was inevitable.

All of this is spelled out in a dazzling and moving portrait of a period that deserves its place in the sun.