In his documentaries, Ken Burns has examined the legacy of seminal historical figures such as Teddy Roosevelt, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Thomas Jefferson. Men whose names echo through the ages. In his most recent film, “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” Burns and co-director Artemis Joukowsky, turn their camera on Waitstill and Martha Sharp, a Unitarian minister and his wife, who left their quiet life in Massachusetts to help refugees flee Europe as Hitler came to power. Their heroism may be largely unknown, but theirs is a remarkable story of courage and sacrifice. By laundering money and arranging for safe passage, the couple helped rescue dozens of Jewish children and political dissidents from the gas chambers, even as they neglected their own family in the States. It’s also a story that had a personal resonance for Joukowsky, the grandson of the Sharps.
The documentary is currently airing on PBS. Burns spoke with Variety about what drew him to the Sharps’ story, its parallels with the refugee crisis in Syria, and the danger of a Trump presidency.
How did you get involved in the film?
I’ve known Artemis since we went to Hampshire College. He sent in a rough cut some three years ago. He had done some filming and preliminary editing. It was a rough cut, emphasis on rough, but I saw the diamond and sort of went at it. It started out as me just giving advice, to me being at the periphery to becoming a creative consultant, a co-producer, and eventually a co-director with him. It was sort of walking deeper, deeper into the story.
It almost seems like a spy film at points?
When we looked at it, my heart was pounding in some places. I thought, this is an Alan Furst novel. This is John Le Carre. This is phenomenal. The fact that a Unitarian minister and his wife, who one has to presume the biggest drama in any given week was what he was going to say on Sunday, the phone rings and a month later he’s in Prague. He’s laundering money in European capitals and she’s dodging Gestapo agents. It’s just unbelievable.
This is a film about sacrifice, but also its cost and it’s a film about potentiality. Every one of those people that they saved became somebody and that by extension suggests that six million [Jews] isn’t an opaque figure, but six million different potentialities that didn’t get saved. It obviously has contemporary resonances, but I never went into the film thinking, ‘Oh, this is like Syria.’ That’s not the way to make good films or certainly not good history films.
Are you hoping that people will make a connection to the refugee crisis in Syria?
Of course. Faulkner said it best, that history’s not what was, but is. Anything you do resonates in the present. Human behavior, human nature never changes. So what you find is the good and the bad and all the shades in between. The Sharps, in their extraordinary sacrifice, call to us. It’s a kind of existential query, would you have done this? Many of the people throughout the film realize, no, no, no, the Sharps were very rare.
These are not people that are widely known. Was it interesting to focus on a lesser known heroes as opposed to iconic historical figures?
Yes, and I try to do that in almost all the films we make, which is to try to tell a top down story. We made “The War,” which is about World War II, but we did it through the eyes of people who are lived in four, geographically distributed, sort of, randomly chosen American towns. The Sharps contain everything. If this were a feature film of the period, Jimmy Stewart would have to play Sharp. And Martha is a protofeminist. She’s going to college and her parents are kicking her out and putting her clothes on the lawn because she wants to be somebody. She’s a social worker. A devoted wife in a progressive congregation.
The architecture of the atom is very similar to the architecture of the solar system. We get seduced by the immensity of the solar system and we tend to the stories of the Great Men, but we forget we can find really available and accessible narratives in these so-called ordinary people. We can relate to them a little bit, because they don’t come with a bold-faced name. They come with the seeming ordinariness of their lives. That allows them to be narrative Trojan horses where they suddenly disgorge all of their complications. You’re not dealing with a happy story with a happy ending. You realize that they’ve only been able to save a few hundred people, like Oskar Schindler. They’re devastated by the smallness of the catch, and they’re butting up against the six million victims of the Holocaust. There’s a fury in them and a clock-ticking kind of urgency to what they’re doing. Because their story is smaller, you can personalize it. You can see that each one of those kids they saved, went on to become professors of French or Russian or of mathematics or an RAF pilot or a poet. They would not have been able to do that. They would not have lived had it not been for Waitstill and Martha Sharp. That to me is the essence of a good story.
They did not seem to be the best parents to their own children.
That’s a huge part of it. You could see in the way Hastings, the son, reads a letter [from his mother], he’s flippant and he’s angry. He’s in his eighties and he’s angry. Artemis’ mom is angry, and she’s in her seventies. I like that the process of making the film, helped her. She’d be reconnected with survivors and they’d say, the only reason we survived and were saved is that your parents knew you were strong enough to withstand this. At the heart of this is that this is a Unitarian minister and his wife who leave their small children in the care of the congregation and go and save other people’s children. That’s not neat and tidy.
How much did their faith play a part in their decision. Was it something about Unitarianism that encouraged them to go do this?
I think so. It’s very much focused on this life. On what you do now. On the primacy of human beings to affect positive change. They imbibed a progressive, muscular Christianity that was not distracted by sin or hell or heaven, as much as it was by what would you do in this life.
Why have you been so publicly opposed to Donald Trump?
I have never in my professional life ever spoken out in this way. I certainly have my own opinions and have a yard sign at elections and make sure I vote. But I spoke out because he represents the greatest threat to American democracy since the Second World War. He is so fundamentally un-American, and not only because he is unqualified, but because he is mentally unsuited. He represents a kind of strong man, narcissistic thing that represents the potential death of the Republic. All of my films are about the United States and all of them are about trying to understand how it works and how it doesn’t work, and I just felt compelled to speak out.
What’s so dangerous about his appeal?
He has tapped a dark unconscious, in which it is easier to vilify the other than to see what you share in common. It’s easier to be afraid than to welcome change. It’s always been there. We had a civil war, you know. We killed 750,000 of ourselves over this issue. He’s appealing to that in the most venal and vulgar ways.
I could have answered your question in a much simpler way by just saying he’s too vulgar for me. There’s no one who has occupied the presidency of the United States like that. This is coming from a person who has just finished a ten-part series on the Vietnam War, so I have been listening for years to Johnson and Nixon on tapes that they forgot were being recorded, and the vulgarity there is pretty extreme, but nothing compares to the vulgarity of this man.
Are you referring to the “Access Hollywood” tape?
The most recent one does it in spades, but it’s more than that. My daughter and my son-in-law and I made a film about the Central Park Five. He took out full page ads asking for the death penalty to be brought back and applied to five innocent children and on Friday he doubled down on that. It’s only the sex tape that’s kept that relatively quiet, but I was very impressed by Sen. McCain who finally disavowed Trump and not only mentioned the completely off-the-rails sex tape, but also the Central Park Five as one of the reasons. He had the trifecta last Friday because he also said while being endorsed by border control folks that the Obama administration under the direction of Hillary Clinton was letting in immigrants so they could vote against him. This is the greatest country on earth, and one of the many reasons is because we have a smooth transition of power. He’s set himself up to continue to roil that dark unconscious that he has tapped into for his base. The fact that he could say the things he said about women, and that his adoring masses are not even flinching at that, is Hitler-esque. I refer you to Michiko Kakutani’s review of the Hitler biography two weeks ago in the Times, in which she didn’t mention the contemporary situation, she just put the bullet points of Hitler’s rise and every single one of them was exactly what Trump has done.
Do you think he’s a fascist?
Absolutely. When you talk about having extra-judicial, threatening rivals with jail. You can call it fascistic or you can call it dictatorial. You can call it monomaniacal or imperial. Whatever you want to say, this is not the way that our country works.
Are there any modern political or public figures you would want to make a film about?
All the time. If I were given a thousand years to live, I wouldn’t run out of topics in American history.
Would that extend to Trump?
No, I don’t think so. I did one on Frank Lloyd Wright, who is a wholly disagreeable character, but he is arguably the greatest architect in American history. That was important to do. I guess, I would never say never to anything. If we dodge this bullet, it may be very important to understand how close we actually came.
Do you have to find something you like about your subjects?
No I’ve done now wars. Wars are hell as William Tecumseh Sherman said. These were cataclysmic, horrible events that contribute to untold suffering and death. But they also provide opportunities to study human nature and to see the better angels that sometimes emerge from these things. The Civil War you can’t divorce from Abraham Lincoln, for example.
Would you be involved with virtual reality?
We’ve done some stuff, but I’m conservative. I think the technological tail wags the dog. I’m an old-fashioned guy, and I think that’s neat, and I hope the kids like it, and then I go back to trying to tell stories the old-fashioned way.
Do you have any preference for how people access or watch your films?
Not at all. I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker since I was 12 years old, and filmmaking is essentially the communion of strangers in dark rooms. That just doesn’t happen. I learned very early on because of the labor intensiveness of these historical subjects that I needed to get funding from organizations — most of whom expected to have public television get them. I traded the hundreds that would see it in a film festival or the thousands that would see it in a limited theatrical run and perhaps the tens of thousands that would see it on a cable run, for the tens of millions that watch my films on PBS. That’s a bargain I’ve been happy to make. So sure, would I love to show it in a room with 350 staring up at a big screen? Yep, but I also know that somebody’s going to watch fourteen hours of “The Roosevelts” on their phone with ear buds and that’s OK too. I’m in the storytelling business.