As film-makers go, there are few documentary makers to compare with Ken Burns. Born in 1953, he’s produced a string of innovative, impeccably researched, forensically detailed films about the events and characteristics that have made America the country it is.
Starting with The Civil War in 1990, he’s covered Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009), Prohibition (2011), The Vietnam War (2017), and Country Music (2019) among other subjects. His films make use of written and photographic material contemporary with the era, include interviews with key personnel and – where it exists – footage from newsreel and television. His series on The Vietnam War – dubbed the first television war – uses television footage to particularly powerful effect.
He’s invented a technique now frequently used in documentaries called the Ken Burns Effect – the animation of a digital photograph by adding zoom, pan and fade transitions to them to maintain viewer interest – and has earned two Academy Award nominations and several Emmy Awards. His latest series – The US and the Holocaust – is currently on BBC Four and BBC iPlayer.
A different picture
The Great Depression was the catalyst for the events the films portray. It badly damaged both America and Germany, economically and psychologically. It allowed a narrative to emerge that blamed the Jews, especially bankers, for much of the poverty that came about, something that Hitler and others were able to exploit to create a mood of fear, suspicion and hatred of immigrants and Jews especially, as threats to employment, opportunity, prosperity and even national identity.
There are three episodes, structured chronologically to chart the story from the beginning and running to a total of seven hours. The title of each episode is taken from the plaque on the Statue of Liberty which features an 1883 sonnet by poet Emma Lazarus:
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The first – The Golden Door – covers the period from 1933 to 1938, showing the public and political mood in the U.S. as it struggled to cope with the Depression, and detailing the way the Nazis took power and began to stigmatise and persecute. Episode 2 – Yearning to Breathe Free (1938-1942) – shows the desperate attempts by Jews to escape from Europe and the gradual change in American opinion as the Holocaust took shape. The final part – The Homeless, the Tempest-Tossed – completes the series, detailing the end of the Second World War and the grim discoveries that were made as the Allies swept through Germany. Contemporary evidence is brought vividly to life with testimony from those who actually survived the Holocaust or who lost family members. They include members of Anne Frank’s family. Together, they paint a very different picture of America as a safe haven for those fleeing persecution.
Don’t “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…”
These films show a country at odds with the poem’s sentiments and the popular image of America as a nation open to those seeking refuge. Historian Peter Hayes doesn’t mince his words: “Exclusion of people has been as American as apple pie”. They introduce us to the Johnson-Reed immigration act of 1924 which sought to limit numbers entering the country by setting quotas. Influential people – radio-syndicated priest Father Charles Coughlin, widely admired conservationist (and virulent anti-semite and supporter of eugenics) Madison Grant and industrial tycoon Henry Ford, who bought his own newspaper to do so – peddled their views to millions. Charles Lindbergh, an all-American hero famed for his flying exploits with thousands of followers, was particularly influential.
Meanwhile, President Roosevelt, an internationalist by temperament, struggled with the public mood and found the State Department – responsible for immigration – actively blocked efforts to admit more refugees. They enforced the 1926 quotas because, “If ships begin to arrive in New York laden with immigrants, the population of the country will believe they’ve been betrayed.” Determined efforts by some politicians, journalists and members of the American Jewish community began confronting this prejudice but while the American public became more aware of (and deplored) Nazi actions, they didn’t want any change to quotas even as the killings began.
This series is a revelation. You may think you are familiar with the Second World War and the Holocaust but the details it contains allows you see the history of the twentieth century in a new and very revealing light. More than anything else, it shows that much of the death toll might have been avoided had politicians made better choices. It’s also impossible not to watch it without seeing striking parallels between the story it tells and the political situation in the U.S. (in places still fiercely opposed to immigration, as the anti-immigrant attitudes of the Donald Trump era show).
The same can be said of the U.K. since the Brexit vote of 2016. Now as then, there is a jingoistic narrative about national greatness. Immigrants are viewed as threats to prosperity, security and national identity. The government seems willing to ignore international law just as Hitler did. It’s stripped some groups of citizens of their rights, just as he did. Anti-immigrant rhetoric fills the tabloid papers. Home Secretary Suella Braverman uses inflammatory language towards those arriving in Britain by small boat – exactly the same attitude as expressed in the 1930s – and was recently called out about it by a survivor of the Holocaust.
In the week of Holocaust Memorial Day. We are supposed to learn valuable lessons from history. This series is a reminder that it’s time we started.