Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns says he has a thousand years to live and will never run out of subjects in American history to explore. But of the Emmy-nominated film The U.S. and the Holocaust, directed by Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein — a rock-solid three-part film about how America responded during that horrific time — Burns says, “I’m not going to work on a more important film work.” movie.”
After “The War” (about World War II) and “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” sparked a need for clarification about what Americans thought, did, and didn’t do about the Holocaust, the trio decided to do a deep dive follow -up, which would run parallel with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s similarly themed exhibit. What Burns, Novick, and Botstein soon realized, however, was that a comprehensive, freshly researched retelling of the persecution of European Jews would be as important to their growing film as describing the xenophobia, racism, and political choices Americans made tragically momentous.
“I thought I knew quite a bit about the story,” says Novick, who also served as a co-producer. “But the more we delved into it, the more we realized we didn’t know that much, and we learned about the parallels and complexities between what was going on in Europe and what was going on here.”
Botstein, a longtime Burns/Novick producer who got her directorial debut with The U.S.A. and the Holocaust, recalls her fears about reviving the Holocaust as a documentary subject until the film turned out to be eerily related to today’s Anti-immigrant sentiment “and how a wildly civilized democracy can collapse very quickly,” she says. “I think it turns into a film about immigration and refugee policy. The Holocaust is a devastating and extremely important way to think about it.”
Burns cites two factual parallels that guide the film’s historical narrative. “There’s anti-Semitism everywhere in the country,” he says. “Henry Ford believed Jews were responsible for the death of Abraham Lincoln. The fact that [a majority of Americans] didn’t want to let anyone in, even after watching the films about the end of the gas chamber war. That hurt me deeply. where was our soul Our conscience?”
The other he calls “the metronomic terror” of the Holocaust. Burns says the oft-quoted description “6 million” no longer means anything, and that to convey the magnitude and scope of the murder it is necessary to be precise: family stories told by survivors, some of whom make it to other countries , but most don’t. “You say, ‘Two out of three died,’ or you watch a newsreel where an attractive young Jewish woman looks out the window, her parents come over to her for a second, and you realize that two of those three people are gone. says Burns. “What was the lost potential? Which symphonies were not written? Which remedies were not found? What children were not raised with love?”
Even Anne Frank’s father, Otto, couldn’t bring his family to America, another telling revelation from the film. “Otto was wealthy, he had contacts in the USA, he wouldn’t be a burden to the state,” says Burns. “And he still didn’t get in. She could still be alive today.”
It was also crucial for the filmmakers to differentiate Franklin D. Roosevelt’s role in the country’s refusal to accept refugees and to look at the bigger picture of rising isolationism, the aftermath of the Depression and a tight-fisted Congress on the humanitarian crisis. “It’s incredibly complicated,” says Botstein. “He’s a political being. It’s definitely not the best moment for anyone, but there’s no point in dismissing it wildly either.”
Burns says that holding Roosevelt in the fire ultimately led to admiration for his realpolitik, that staying in power ultimately made a difference — and not doing things he believed in. “You go back and forth [on him], but in Episode 3 when he gives his endorsement to the War Refugee Board, the largest human rescue organization in the entire history of WWII? That’s not a bad thing.”
A brain trust as storied and thoughtful as the Burns/Novick/Botstein team has long been an asset in today’s documentary landscape. But production of The U.S. and the Holocaust became stressful when Burns, coping with the anti-democratic shift in policy in America during the chaos surrounding the 2020 election and the January 6th riot, felt the film should be released a year early to be completed as planned. [PBS premiered it last fall.] “We had to get that out,” says Burns, citing Mark Twain’s observation that while history doesn’t repeat itself, it often rhymes. “When we started doing this in 2015, the United States was different. But it had to be part of a national discussion about authoritarianism and those painful rhymes in history.”
Additionally, all three filmmakers agree that it’s a troubling time to uncover past mistakes in order to create a better future when the very doctrine of correct history has come under attack lately.
“Jefferson said that while evil is bearable, we are willing to suffer evil, so this will take extra effort,” says Burns. “And it seems that now we face obstacles that say, ‘Don’t worry about slavery.’ Do not worry. “We make sure your trains run on time.” And that’s the road to authoritarianism. Therefore, a powerful, open, debated, suffered and joyful story is our birthright.”
Novick says the response to her film across the political spectrum has been reassuring. But she insists, “We’re not going to put our thumbs on the scales like Ken always says. We’ll try to understand what happened. And that can be a really positive force. These are uncomfortable truths that we must face. And if you think people shouldn’t know? We will make sure that people do that all the more.”