At this point in his prolific career Ken Burns has amassed an extensive oeuvre, filled with excavating deep dives into the American experience, films that will likely become staples in domestic and foreign classrooms for years to come.
That said, it would be fair for one to assume that with thirty-five films in the can (and six new efforts on the way) his perpetually expanding cannon would have a reasonable number of miscues, or lackluster projects. But I must say, although I have not experienced all his titles, Burns, in my opinion, has been rather consistent in delivering a sustained level of quality and integrity, in his bare-knuckled approach to filmmaking.
Notwithstanding superb gems like, The Civil War, Baseball, Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, Jazz, Unforgiveable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, The Dust Bowl and Hemingway, his latest endeavor, The U.S. and the Holocaust is the most compelling film Burns has delivered. The touching three-part documentary befittingly takes the United States (and its WWII allies) to task, for their negligent response to Germany’s inhumane assault on the European Jewish community. Full disclosure, my grandfather, Jerome (Jerry) Netburn, who I did not have the pleasure of meeting, was a Russian Jew who fought in World War II, but one does not have to be born of Jewish ancestry to voice displeasure in the loss of, approximately, six million innocent lives…
Burns pays condoling homage to those precious souls, by allowing the surviving voices, and the relatives of those that were taken, to candidly do the heavy poignant lifting in the film, while the expository assignment is delivered by the steady, warm, consoling voice of, Peter Coyote.
One of the many memorable and intriguing scenes in the film takes place in the third episode, near the film’s denouement. A scene that culminates the documentary’s in-depth Anne Frank thread, that stretches throughout the film’s three episodes. Burns recalls the famous quote, that not only illustrates Miss Frank’s insurmountable courage in the face of utter evil, but also, her resounding allegiance to that intermittent institution called, Humanity:
“I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.”
Burns then juxtaposes the Frank quote with an assertion that exerts the brutal agency of hindsight, a statement that comes from, Mrs. Eva Geiringer Schloss, a holocaust survivor and one of Ann Frank’s childhood friends:
“What she said, that she still believes in the goodness of mankind. I said, how can she? If she would have survived, she wouldn’t have said that.”
I feel Mrs. Schloss’s conclusion is justifiable, in the sense that Miss Frank unfortunately was taken from us sometime between February and March of 1945, five months before Harry S.Truman’s abominable assault on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The devastation of that ghastly week could have altered Miss Frank’s romantic faith in people being, “good at heart.” I’d be willing to bet it has, to some degree, influenced Mrs. Schloss’s sentiments, as well as the post WWII asseveration, “Never Again!” that appropriately continues to bellow from Israel and the global Jewish Community.
Knowing this film is one that every humanitarian, (who can endure the devastating 6 hour and 58-minute account) should partake, I will avoid going into further emotional detail that makes the series the touching, compelling document that it is, and explore one of its most intriguing characters, the 32nd President of the United States: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
As I said earlier, Burns takes the United States to task for the morally irresponsible way the U.S. chose to rescue the European Jews. I say the U.S., but in essence, Burns has placed most of the blame at the presidential feet of Roosevelt, and his brilliant film thoroughly shows why he is not wrong for doing so.
FDR is one of the most extolled presidents in this country’s young history, and calling him out, in the name of nearly six million innocent souls, at a polarized moment when half of the country is baking in a volatile nationalism, is both courageous and apropos.
Burns did the same, (to a lesser degree) in his lovely series, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, for the thousands of innocent African American lives that were lynched during FDR’s unprecedented 12-year watch. The film cites an infamous meeting, where the great human rights activist, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt and NAACP leader, Walter White tried to get FDR to endorse an anti-lynching bill. According to Burns, in the meeting, FDR told White: “If he came out for the anti-lynching bill, he would be unable to pass legislation the whole country needed, including African Americans.”
The new “legislation” the president was referring to, included his legendary New Deal, policies that, in the end, did not lift the U.S. out of the throes of The Great Depression, entering the war and rescuing the Jewish people from unmitigated genocide is what ultimately achieved that. Proof that foiling crimes against humanity has its rewards.
Most avid readers and film enthusiasts of 20th century art, vividly understand how devastating The Great Depression was, and I humbly consider myself an instantiating member of that ilk. However, in my opinion, a financial crisis, even a global one, does not absolve a man of his moral obligation to obstruct the inhumane persecution of thousands of innocent lives.
I don’t want what I am about to say to sound as if I don’t have any respect for Mr. Roosevelt. The truth is, there’s a part of me, the anti-neoliberal part, that believes he was the last great American president and perhaps the best one this country has ever produced. Having said that, only an early 20th century white man, could look in the eyes of a black man, and tell him that the gross national product is more important than the murder, rape and slaughter of his people.
Today, this country could use the compassion of a female president, especially if she is one of the illustrious members of, “The Squad.” But clearly, in the mid 1930s Mrs. Roosevelt had a better grip on moral obligation than her venerated husband. But I politically digress.
Whether it’s 6 million innocent Jewish lives being documented, or the legacy of a great American family, moral integrity is the historian’s linchpin pin. If it is not sufficiently invoked, he or she loses credibility—and with the loss of credibility, their work is in danger of crumbling into burlesque, especially when one considers posterity and the ever-developing narrative new insight is always trying to provide. So far, it seems as if Burns is too forthright and responsible to succumb to that embarrassing fate.
On Burns’ list of future releases, every title is one that is bound to have me fixed in front of my smart screen, but there are two particular films that already have me staring at my calendar: LBJ & the Great Society (2027) and From Emancipation to Exodus (to be announced).
The racial dynamic in the title, From Emancipation to Exodus, like The U.S. and the Holocaust, will demand of Burns heavy doses of the truth, but I’m not sure if a title like, LBJ & the Great Society suggests the same. Lyndon B Johnson is historically attached to, what appears to be, some of this country’s most monumental legislation. But the tragic event that put him in the White House, the assassinations that followed during his short time there, and the pressure he received to stay in the Vietnam war, pressure that came from institutions that were profiting from the war, is enough to question the authenticity of LBJ’s lauded political legacy.
One can only hope that Burns remains consistent and will unearth the truth that lurked underneath the glistening veneer of the Johnson administration. With a 2027 released date, he should have ample time to do so.