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It would make me happy, or at least relieved, to report that Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein’s new PBS documentary The U.S. and the Holocaust was inessential viewing — that this six-hour cautionary tale about what happens when the United States fails to live up to its humanitarian ideals both domestically and on a global stage just didn’t have anything fresh or relevant to say.
Unfortunately, at a moment at which “America First” rhetoric and anti-immigrant, anti-refugee sentiment remain fervent, as one state after another uses coded language to outlaw the teaching of any piece of our history that dares to deviate from a discernibly false narrative of American exceptionalism, The U.S. and the Holocaust stands as one of the most vital projects in Burns’ five-decade relationship with PBS.
The U.S. and the Holocaust
Directors: Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein
Smartly constructed and packed with avenues for future research and investigation, the three-night series may be the most viscerally affecting film to carry Burns’ name. It isn’t surprising how much sadness it induces, nor the sheer amount of anger it generates. But it’s a tremendous relief that the filmmakers find sources of inspiration and heroic interludes to stave off soul-draining exhaustion.
One of the interesting things about Burns’ career at this point is the way that he’s told so many stories that each new film feels at least partially like it’s communicating and intersecting with an earlier project, either filling in a crucial gap or germinating what was previously a small seed. The U.S. and the Holocaust could be a sequel to Burns and Novick’s 2007 The War, an expansion of 2016’s Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War (directed with Artemis Joukowsky), a largely missing chapter from 2014’s The Roosevelts: An Intimate History and a career-arcing complement to 1985’s The Statue of Liberty, all while standing devastatingly on its own.
The first installment of The U.S. and the Holocaust has a lot of groundwork to lay, and I’m suspecting there will be at least some viewers who are impatient to jump into the multi-tiered tragedy without the historical refreshers on waves of American immigration restriction — “Exclusion of people and shutting them out has been as American as apple pie,” historian Peter Hayes says — and the Nazi rise to power.
The reality, though, is that the directors and their talking heads recognize that even if the series takes its time to get to Kristallnacht, by the time we got to the events featured in the second night, it was already too late. American nativism was already entrenched in the halls of power, immigration quotas were already the law of the land and American distrust for “otherness” had already established a coded and not-so-coded language that will be familiar from headlines and viral “news” segments today.
Many of the points of negligence or complicity that drive The U.S. and the Holocaust will also be familiar. Could America have let in more refugees earlier? Could America have entered the war earlier? Could American military strategy in the war have more directly targeted the Nazi death camps? Could we have saved 6 million lives? Could we have saved hundreds of thousands? Could we have saved 937 people (the number of passengers on the St. Louis, the refugee-laden vessel refused entry to American and Canadian ports before being sent back to Germany)?
At nearly every point, the documentary is simultaneously damning and pragmatic. (Some parallel domestic failures, specifically Jim Crow laws and eventual Japanese internment camps, are readily acknowledged but probably insufficiently explored.)
The answers for why the St. Louis couldn’t find safe harbor, for why Auschwitz wasn’t bombed, for why the State Department visa system was so inflexible probably won’t make most modern viewers happy, but the directors are too smart to exclusively look back damningly with 20/20 hindsight. At the same time, they’re too smart to let historical figures off with the idea that this second-guessing is only hindsight. Over and over again, The U.S. and the Holocaust makes it clear that the knowledge necessary to mitigate parts of the tragedy was widely available and either ignored or disbelieved — public polling data is a key piece of this tale — or, in cases like the Riegner Telegram, malevolently buried.
Burns, Novick and Botstein aren’t vengeful. Maybe I wish they were. Maybe I wish they forever salted the ground when it comes to names like obstructionist State Department official Breckinridge Long or eugenicist (and landmark environmentalist) Madison Grant or Nazi appeaser (and American hero) Charles Lindbergh. Sure, they’re condemned, but I’m here for utter evisceration. Probably it’s for the best that for any time dwelling on a bigoted congressman or a hate-spewing priest, as much time or more is spent on heroic figures like Varian Fry or John Pehle and the War Refugee Board. This is not just a documentary about the human cost of American failures, nor, obviously, are all of the failures American.
Several of Burns’ recent films — Hemingway and Benjamin Franklin in particular — have felt a little entombed by the lack of first-hand sourcing. While The U.S. and the Holocaust has top-notch historians aplenty, with Deborah Lipstadt among many standouts, the series is at its most potent when it’s letting survivors and relatives of survivors tell their stories. Subjects like Daniel Mendelsohn, Sol Messinger, Susan and Joseph Hilsenrath, Gunther Stern and Eva Geiringer dig into the darkest parts of their youth and the truncated branches of their family trees. These are the voices that need to be heard and the miracles that need to be acknowledged, juxtaposed smartly with the much more widely known story of Anne Frank. My initial instinct was that the use of the Frank story, complete with narrated reading from her diary, was somewhere between sentimentalizing and pandering. But it’s quickly evident that she’s there to reinforce how many heartbreaking commonalities there are between the lives that were saved and the lives that were lost, and some of the narratives overlap in ways that are breathtaking. I spent most of the last chapter on and over the brink of tears, mostly sad and sometimes closer to relieved, and I’m pretty sure I won’t be the only one.
The U.S. and the Holocaust isn’t some dramatic overhaul of the Burns formula. The blending of impeccably selected archival photos and filmed footage, nearly unwatchable in some cases for topical reasons, are accompanied by a reliably cogent Geoffrey Ward script and Peter Coyote narration. The cast reciting letters, speeches and writings in voiceover includes Burns regulars like Meryl Streep, Paul Giamatti and Josh Lucas, plus newcomers like Werner Herzog. What sells the series is its emotional immediacy, forcing a historical and contemporary examination of America’s long-professed aspirations and the consequences when we fall short. You may not want this series, but it’s still and always distressingly necessary.
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