Ken Burns is driving in heavy traffic, trying to get from New York, where he was born, to New Hampshire, where he lives and works in bucolic splendor. He made the move in 1979, not to service a grand masterplan but out of financial desperation.
“I was making my first film and starving and rent was going up in New York City and I couldn’t afford it,” the documentary recalls by phone. “I found the connection to nature incredibly important for this labour-intensive work that we do.”
But when Burns’s debut film, Brooklyn Bridge, was nominated for an Oscar, friends and colleagues assumed that he would move back to New York or try Los Angeles. He surprised them. “I made the biggest, the most important professional decision, which was to stay.
“I live in nature. I walk constantly and do a lot of letter writing and speechwriting and script writing and script fixing and editing in my head and that’s very helpful. And I happen to live in a particularly beautiful part of the country.”
Perhaps it is no accident that Burns settled in New Hampshire, a state that inspired Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a quintessential play about the American experience. Something in the New England air has helped him produce epics on The Civil War, The War (about the second world war) and The Vietnam War; cultural studies of Baseball, Country Music, Jazz and The National Parks; profiles spanning The Roosevelts, Hemingway, Muhammad Ali and Benjamin Franklin.
Now comes The US and the Holocaust, a three-part PBS series directed and produced by Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein and written by Geoffrey Ward. Over six hours, it examines America’s flawed response to the Nazis’ persecution and mass murder of Jews, asking what could have been done differently to halt the genocide. Voice actors include Liam Neeson, Matthew Rhys, Paul Giamatti, Meryl Streep, Werner Herzog, Joe Morton and Hope Davis.
It may be Burns’s most didactic film yet as it ends provocatively with images of Dylann Roof, who shot and killed nine African American congregants at a church in South Carolina; white supremacists marching with flaming torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us!”; the killing of 11 worshipers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh; and the storming of the US Capitol by a mob of Donald Trump supporters on 6 January 2021.
“We were obligated to do that because the way we mount this series is we begin with antisemitism in America and racism and the pernicious slave trade and xenophobia and nativism and eugenics,” he explains. “We’re obligated then to not close our eyes and intend this is some comfortable thing in the past that doesn’t rhyme with the present.”
Burns has been sounding the alarm about the threat to American democracy since a commencement address at Stanford University in California in June 2016. Six years and one Trump presidency later, he is more worried than ever.
“After three previous great crises, I think we’re in the fourth and perhaps the most difficult crisis in the history of America. The three being the civil war, the great depression and the second world war, the institutions were not under assault as they are today and that makes the fragility of Benjamin Franklin’s statement, ‘A republic, if you can keep it,’ all the more relevant
“But I am also talking about Britain. I am also talking about the rise of the right in France. I’m talking about Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Bolsonaro in Brazil and a tendency.”
Burns adds: “The story of the Holocaust reminds us of the fragility of democracies but how, as frustrating as they can be, there is nothing more important than maintaining those democracies – constitutional, parliamentary, whatever they might be – in the world because we see from human history that the authoritarian regimes have killed by a multitude of 100 more of their own citizens than democracies have. Not that democracies haven’t done bad things and will continue to do bad things, but they don’t do them on the scale of autocracies.”
Burns’s 1990 masterpiece The Civil War blended black and white or sepia-toned photographs with period brass and string music and voice artists including Morgan Freeman, Julie Harris, Jeremy Irons, Arthur Miller and Sam Waterston. The richly voiced narrator was David McCullough, a venerated historian who died last month. The series was as evocative as stepping into a Victorian house in which nothing has been touched or altered for a century.
But a generation later there is talk of that remote sepia world bursting into full colour. Earlier this year the New York Times asked, “Are We Really Facing a Second Civil War?” and the New Yorker magazine pondered, “Is a Civil War ahead?” Last month a survey found that more than two in five Americans believe civil war is at least somewhat likely in the next 10 years. What does Burns make of it?
“Certainly, lots of the smoke that preceded the American civil war is proceeding now: the increasingly vitriolic rhetoric, the isolated, sporadic incidences of violence. That’s true also of Nazi Germany. I’m not saying that it necessarily could go that way but it could go that way so I think, borrowing gratefully from our beloved Deborah Lipstadt [a historian interviewed in The US and the Holocaust]the time to save a democracy is before it’s lost.”
Indeed, The US and the Holocaust was originally supposed to be released in 2023 but Burns accelerated production for several months, “much to the consternation of my colleagues, just because I felt the urgency that we needed to be part of a conversation.””.
The result does not feel hitched. It is a characteristically masterly combination of film and stills, first-person accounts from witnesses and survivors and interviews with historians and writers. One memorably observes that while the US was exemplary in fighting fascism, it was less so in caring about the victims of fascism.
The film demolishes the notion that ordinary American citizens could not have known about the horror unfolding in Germany. The persecution of Jews was widely reported in newspapers and on the radio (there were 3,000 articles about the mistreatment of Jews in 1933). Many Americans marched in protest and boycotted German goods and some performed acts of heroism to save individual Jews.
But the fusty state department found the scale of Adolf Hitler’s final solution too incredible to believe. Congress was seemingly content to follow public opinion rather than lead it. That opinion was partly shaped by vocal anti-Semites such as Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, and Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic.
While 225,000 people eventually found refuge in the US, many more were denied entry. The family of Anne Frank, whose diary would chronicle life under Nazi occupation in the Netherlands, had sought sanctuary in the US but were refused visas. Otto Frank, Anne’s father, then decided he had no option but to arrange construction of the family’s hideout in Amsterdam. They were eventually caught.
Burns adds: “It’s new scholarship that the Franks were assiduously trying to get into the United States. Otto Frank was begging people and, if we’d let him in, as he certainly should have been – the quotas were not filled – maybe Anne Frank would be alive and be a great writer. Who knows what would be the circumstances of that? We had to tell people just what happened in this event.”
As the Nazi atrocities worsened, America hardened its borders. Senator Robert Reynolds of North Carolina declared: “If I had my way, I would today build a wall about the United States so high and so secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country upon the face of this earth could possibly scale or ascend it.”
Building a wall is an undeniable echo of Trump’s presidential campaign launch in 2015, repeated countless times since. The film describes anti-immigrant sentiment in the 1930s and 1940s rooted in fear of being “replaced” – a foreshadowing of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory that now animates the far right.
Burns, who is fond of a quotation often attributed to Mark Twain – “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” – reflects: “As we worked on the film, it became increasingly clear with a great deal of anxiety and urgency just how much nearly every sentence was rhyming. The conservatives who installed Adolf Hitler were certain they could control him; in a few months they were either dead or completely marginalised. It is a telling story: he wished to make Germany great again.
“[President Franklin] Roosevelt had to combat an isolationist America First committee. We meet characters like Breckinridge Long, this implacable antisemite and assistant secretary of state in the Roosevelt administration’s state department who does everything he can to obscure or bury news about the coming Holocaust and make it increasingly difficult for refugees who are fulfilling the requirements.
“He’s always changing the requirements, raising the bar, moving the goalposts. He reminds me a little bit of Stephen Miller [a senior adviser to Trump] in the previous administration.”
Six million Jews were killed. America, proudly a nation of immigrants, symbolized by the Statue of Liberty and welcome mat for “huddled masses”, fell short of its ideals. “Although the United States let in 225,000 people, more than any other sovereign nation, we could just by fulfilling the quotas – the meagre quotas, the pernicious quotas – have let in five times that much and still been, in my opinion, a failure .
“That’s not entirely on Franklin Roosevelt, that’s on the Congress and the people of the United States who consistently voted against it, even when the horrors were revealed. When the concentration camps were released and the footage came back, only 5% of the American public were willing to let more people in.”
Burns, who has won dozens of awards, is now 69, an age when many people have retired to empty nests. But back home in Walpole, New Hampshire, he is a single father caring for two daughters aged 17 and 11 (he also has two daughters aged 39 and 35). And, along with his stalwart colleagues, he seems hungrier and more prolific than ever in documenting America for the small screen.
Their next big project will be about the American Revolution, which could hardly be more timely as the left claims 1619 and the right claims 1776 as the nation’s birth certificate, and as the Broadway hit Hamilton recasts the origins story with a hip-hop beat.
Then what – or who – else is on Burns’s wish list? “Oh, my goodness,” he says. “if I were given a thousand years to live, which I will not be given, I will never run out of topics in American history.”