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‘I Won’t Work on a More Important Film,’ Said Ken Burns of New Documentary

Sarah Botstein, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick produce and direct The U.S. and the Holocaust
(From l.): Sarah Botstein, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick produced and directed ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust.’ (Image credit: PBS)

The Ken Burns documentary The U.S. and the Holocaust premieres September 18 on PBS. The film examines the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany, the eugenics movement in the United States and race laws in the American South, and what the American people did, and did not do, as the Holocaust took root.

Burns told B+C there’s always a certain “exuberance” when one of his projects is finished, but The U.S. and the Holocaust is different. “I won’t work on a more important film,” he said. “I hope other films I’ve done are as important. I hope what I’m working on now will be as important. But I know I will not work on a more important film.”

Inspired in part by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibition (opens in new tab), there are three two-hour parts to the documentary. Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein are the directors and producers. 

Work on it began in 2015. “It was seven years ago that we got down on one knee and proposed to it,” said Burns. 

In press materials, Novick said: “Exploring this history and putting the pieces together of what we knew and what we did has been a revelation. During the Second World War, millions of Americans fought and sacrificed to defeat fascism, but even after we began to understand the scope and scale of what was happening to the Jewish people of Europe, our response was inadequate and deeply flawed. This is a story with enormous relevance today as we are still dealing with questions about immigration, refugees and who should be welcomed into the United States.”

Previous Burns films, including 2007’s The War and 2014’s The Roosevelts – An Intimate History, have touched on the Holocaust. But this one goes deep on the horrific tragedy, and the U.S.’s role in it. “We set out to ask several questions,” Novick told B+C. “One, what did we know, in what way did we find out and to what degree was that information heeded? And two, what did we do?”

Prior to the Holocaust, Jewish people were clamoring to get out of Germany, and Novick said the U.S. was not all that welcoming. “We didn’t let in more than a fraction of the people that we could have,” she said. 

The film is timely in 2022 despite the events of it happening close to a century ago. It touches on nativism and anti-immigrant attitudes, and of course anti-Semitism, all relevant issues today. “When you do history, everything is timely,” said Burns. “There isn’t a film I’ve worked on in the past 45 years that we haven’t been aware, while working on it, that it resonates with the present. None more so than this one.”

Added Novick, “The times we studied [in the film] were times when democracies were in peril, and they are now.”

The U.S. and the Holocaust is a production of Florentine Films and WETA Washington, DC. Peter Coyote narrates and Liam Neeson, Paul Giamatti and Meryl Streep are some of the voice actors participating in the documentary. 

All three parts are available for streaming at 8 p.m. Sunday, September 18, when part one airs on linear TV. Part two was scheduled for September 19, but moves to September 20 with PBS covering the Queen Elizabeth funeral. Part three is scheduled for September 21. 

The film represents Botstein’s directorial debut. “At the center of our narrative is the moving and inspiring first-hand testimony of witnesses who were children in the 1930s,” she said in press materials. “They share wrenching memories of the persecution, violence and flight that they and their families experienced as they escaped Nazi Europe and somehow made it to America. Their survival attests to the truth of the remark made by journalist Dorothy Thompson that ‘for thousands and thousands of people a piece of paper with a stamp on it is the difference between life and death.’”

Burns was asked if he has any concern about American viewers dealing with a range of personal challenges, be it COVID-19 or economic woes or something else, not having the stomach for six hours on the Holocaust. He was quick to dismiss that notion. “If people are watching Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon, they can watch this stuff, for crying out loud,” he said. “This is a riveting story.”

Burns’s films include Hemingway, Muhammad Ali, Jazz and Baseball. He said his latest film has changed him “in personal ways that are hard to articulate.”

“We’ve made a significant piece of work,” Burns said, “that is difficult and shocking and moving and heroic.”

Novick called the documentary “an important chapter in our history.” Historical figures who pop up in it include Franklin D. Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford. Scholars who add their perspective to The U.S. and the Holocaust include Daniel Greene, Rebecca Erbelding, Peter Hayes, Deborah Lipstadt and Daniel Okrent. 

“It is revelatory to understand how our country exists in the space between our ideals and the reality,” Novick said. 

The film offers America a unique look in the mirror. “This is us,” Burns said. “We consider ourselves the greatest country on Earth. If we are, we have to be self-critical. We have to examine the corners of our darker past.” ■

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.