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Ken Burns connects the past and the present in 'The U.S. and the Holocaust'

Ken Burns' new three-part documentary, <em>The U.S. and the Holocaust,</em> explores what everyday Americans knew — or didn't know — about what the Nazis were doing in Europe. Above, a tenant farmer reads a newspaper in Creek County, Okla., in February 1940.
1940
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Library of Congress
Ken Burns' new three-part documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, explores what everyday Americans knew — or didn't know — about what the Nazis were doing in Europe. Above, a tenant farmer reads a newspaper in Creek County, Okla., in February 1940.

In his newest documentary series, The U.S. and the Holocaust, Ken Burns and his collaborators are revisiting some very familiar ground. Geoffrey C. Ward, who wrote the script for this new series, also wrote the Burns epic documentaries The War, about World War II, and The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, in which Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt figured prominently, as they do here. And Ward wrote The Civil War, which put Ken Burns on the map in the first place.

More than 30 years later, the structure and methods of a Ken Burns production are so familiar as to be almost comforting, and The U.S. and the Holocaust employs them all. There are celebrity voices reading the words of historical figures — this time, the voices include Meryl Streep, Paul Giamatti, Liam Neeson and Werner Herzog. Photographs are used patiently and poetically, revealing new elements as they pan and zoom in and out. Music and sound effects make every moment both more real and more emotional. And a Ken Burns documentary series always starts with a clear-cut summary of things to come — provided, this time, by frequent Burns narrator Peter Coyote.

The U.S. and the Holocaust, like many Ken Burns history projects, examines his subject from the bottom up. Instead of interviewing military experts, he talks to survivors or their relatives. When historians and other experts are heard from, they discuss events from that same perspective. In this case, they try to understand, and explain, what it was like to endure Nazi atrocities — or even to believe that they were happening.

The documentary spends a great deal of time delving into the intricacies of national politics — not only in Germany, where Adolf Hitler rose from prison to dictatorial power, but in America, where waves of isolationism kept the U.S. out of the war for years. It shows that most everyday Americans were not unaware of what the Nazis were doing in Europe. Throughout the documentary, we see newspaper headlines proving that the facts indeed were out there. Yet they were questioned by many, until after the war, when concentration camps were liberated and their atrocities documented.

The opening installment, which premiers on Sept. 18, stops in the year 1938, and part two goes up to 1942. The concluding two hours cover the end of World War II, and its aftermath — the formation of Israel, the Nuremberg war trials, even the invention and introduction of the word "genocide."

It's not until the final five minutes that the story is brought fully up to date. But those final sounds and images that conclude The U.S. and the Holocaust — scenes with which we're all too familiar, of hate crimes and hate-filled marches — connect the past to the present without Coyote, or anyone else, having to say a word. Once again, Burns and company have made history come to life — and reminded us that our life, right now, is indeed history in the making.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.
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