Ken Burns: ‘We’re in perhaps the most difficult crisis in the history of America’

Kadd example en Burns is driving in heavy traffic, trying to move from New York, where he was born, to New Hampshire, where he lives and works in esoteric splendor. He took this step in 1979, not to serve a grand masterplan but out of financial desperation.

“I was making my first film and was starving and the rent was rising in New York City and I couldn’t stand it,” the documentary recalls by phone. “I found the connection to nature incredibly important to this labor-intensive work that we do.”

But when Burns’ first film, Brooklyn Bridge, was nominated for an Oscar, friends and colleagues assumed he would move back to New York or try Los Angeles. He surprised them. “The biggest, most important professional decision I made was to stay.

“I live in nature. I move constantly and do a lot of letter writing and speech writing and script writing and script fixing and editing in my mind and that’s very helpful. And I’m in a particularly beautiful part of the country.” I live.”

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Burns settled in New Hampshire, a state that inspired Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a quintessential drama about the American experience. Something in the New England air has helped him produce epics on the Civil War, war (about World War II) and the Vietnam War; Baseball, country music, jazz and the cultural study of 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 Nazi persecution and the mass murder of Jews, asking what could have been done differently to stop the genocide. Voice actors include Liam Neeson, Matthew Rice, Paul Giamatti, Meryl Streep, Werner Herzog, Joe Morton and Hope Davis.

It may be Burns’ most didactic film, as it ends provocatively with images of Dylan Roof, who shot and killed nine African American congregations in a South Carolina church; White supremacists march with flaming torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, saying, “Jews won’t take our place!”; 11 worshipers murdered in a synagogue in Pittsburgh; and the attack on the US Capitol by a crowd of Donald Trump supporters on January 6, 2021.

“We were obliged to do this because the way we mount this series, we introduce racism and racism in America and the harmful slave trade and xenophobia and nationalism and eugenics,” he explains. “So we’re obliged not to close our eyes and pretend it’s some comforting thing in the past that doesn’t rhyme with the present.”

Burns has been sounding the alarm about threats to American democracy since a commencement speech at Stanford University in California in June 2016. After six years and a Trump presidency, he is more worried than ever.

“After the last three great crises, I think we are in the fourth and perhaps the most difficult crisis in American history. With the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II being three, institutions were not attacked like they are today and This builds on the fragility of Benjamin Franklin’s statement, ‘a republic, if you can keep it,’ and more resembling it.

“But I’m also talking about Britain. I’m also talking about the rise of the right in France. I’m talking about Viktor Orban in Hungary, Bolsonaro in Brazil and a trend.”

Burns says: “The story of the Holocaust reminds us of the fragility of democracies, but how, as depressing as they may be, there is nothing more important in the world than maintaining those democracies – constitutional, parliamentary, whatever – Because as we see from human history authoritarian regimes have killed more than 100 of their own citizens compared to democracies. It’s not that democracies haven’t done bad things and will continue to do bad things, but they do so on the scale of despotism. don’t.”

Burns’ 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 rich-voiced narrator was David McCullough, a respected historian who died last month. The series was as evocative as stepping into a Victorian home in which nothing had been touched or changed for a century.

An immigrant family viewing the Statue of Liberty, used in The US and the Holocaust, from Ellis Island in 1930. Photograph: 1930…/Punjab

But a generation later there is talk of painting that distant sepia world in full colour. Earlier this year the New York Times asked, “Are we really facing a second civil war?” And New Yorker magazine pondered, “Is the Civil War Ahead?” A poll last month found that more than two in five Americans believe there is a possibility of a civil war at least to some extent in the next 10 years. What does Burns make of it?

,Certainly, much of the smoke from before the American Civil War is now ahead: increasingly vitriolic rhetoric, isolated, sporadic incidents of violence. This is also true of Nazi Germany. I’m not saying it can necessarily go that way but it could Gratitude Borrowing From Our Dear Deborah Lipstadt, I Think Go That Way [a historian interviewed in The US and the Holocaust]The time to save democracy is before it is lost.”

Indeed, The US and the Holocaust was originally scheduled to be released in 2023, but Burns hastened production by several months, saying “So much to my colleagues, simply because I felt the urgency to be part of a conversation.”,

The result doesn’t feel rushed. It is a distinctly excellent combination of film and stills, with first-person accounts of witnesses and survivors, and interviews with historians and writers. A memorabilia can be seen that America was exemplary in fighting fascism, but less so in caring for the victims of fascism.

The film debunks the notion that ordinary American citizens could not have known about the horrors that were taking place in Germany. Persecution of Jews was widely reported in newspapers and on the radio (in 1933 there were 3,000 articles about the mistreatment of Jews). Many Americans marched in protest and boycotted German goods and some committed acts of heroism to save individual Jews.

But the furious State Department found the scale of Adolf Hitler’s final solution unbelievable to believe. The Congress was content to follow public opinion rather than lead. That opinion was partially shaped by vocal opponents such as Henry Ford, the 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 asylum in the US, many more were denied entry. The family of Anne Frank, whose diary would describe life under Nazi occupation in the Netherlands, had sought asylum in America, but were refused a visa. Anne’s father, Otto Frank, then decided that he had no choice but to arrange for the construction of the family’s hideout in Amsterdam. They were eventually caught.

Burns says: “This is the new scholarship that Frank was trying to emigrate to the United States. Otto Frank was begging people and, if we let him in, as he surely should have – quota Wasn’t filled in – maybe Anne Frank would have been alive and a great writer. Who knows what her circumstances would be? We had to tell people what happened in this incident.”

Aster, Bronia and Schmiel Jger, circa 1939, used in America and the Holocaust in Poland.
Aster, Bronia and Schmiel Jger, circa 1939, used in America and the Holocaust in Poland. Photograph: 1939/PBS

As Nazi atrocities escalated, America tightened its borders. Senator Robert Reynolds of North Carolina declared: “If I had my way, I would build a wall so high and so secure about the United States of America today that not a single foreigner or foreign refugee from any country on the face of this earth Can’t possibly scale or climb it.”

The construction of the wall is an undeniable echo of the start of Trump’s presidential campaign in 2015, which has been repeated countless times. The film chronicles the anti-immigrant sentiment rooted in the fear of being “replaced” in the 1930s and 1940s—a foreshadowing of the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory that now animates the far right.

Burns, who is often fond of Mark Twain’s quote—”History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes,”—reflects: “As we worked on the film, this became increasingly apparent with much concern. And the urgency of how nearly every sentence was rhyming. The conservatives who established Adolf Hitler were certain they could control him; in a matter of months they were either dead or completely marginalized. There is a story: He wanted to make Germany great again.

,[President Franklin] Roosevelt had to face a separatist America First Committee. We meet characters like Breckinridge Long, this impregnable adversary and assistant secretary of state in the Roosevelt administration’s State Department, who makes every effort to hide or bury news about the impending Holocaust and make it more difficult for refugees. manufactures which are meeting the requirements.

“He’s always changing requirements, raising the bar, moving the goalpost. He reminds me a little bit of Stephen Miller [a senior adviser to Trump] in the previous administration.,

Six million Jews were killed. America, a nation of proud immigrants that is a symbol of the Statue of Liberty and a welcome mat for the “consolidated public,” fell short of its ideals. “Although the United States has given 225,000 people, more than any other sovereign nation, we have exceeded five times by just meeting quotas – meager quotas, harmful quotas – and are still, in my opinion, a failure. ..

“It’s not entirely on Franklin Roosevelt, it’s on Congress and the people of the United States who consistently voted against it, even when the horrors unfolded. When the concentration camps were liberated and the footage came back, only 5% of the American public was willing to let more people in.”

Burns, who has won dozens of awards, is now 69, an age when many have left empty nesters. 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 veteran colleagues, he seems hungry and more prolific than ever at documenting America for the small screen.

His next big project would be about the American Revolution, which could hardly be more timely as the Left claims 1619 and the Right claims 1776 as country birth certificates, and the Broadway hit Hamilton as the original with a hip-hop beat. The story repeats itself.

Then what – or who – is on Burns’ wish list? “Oh, my goodness,” he says. “If I were given a thousand years to live, which would not be given to me, I would have never finished the subjects of American history.”

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