There is a neon sign in the Walpole, New Hampshire editing room where filmmaker Ken Burns spends so many of his days. The sign is in cursive, all lower-case, and it simply says: “it’s complicated.”
Those words capture the sentiment of so many of Burns’s films—the Civil War; the Vietnam War; the American Dust Bowl; the Central Park Five; Thomas Jefferson. Even the happy history of baseball and jazz—the topics of two other Burns films—were made more complex by racial bigotry and Black exclusion.
“Complication and undertow are the elements of human existence and the human story,” Burns says.
Now, Burns is taking on perhaps his most complicated tale of all. On September 18, PBS stations and PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel will premiere the new three-part series, The U.S. and The Holocaust, examining what America did and didn’t do—and could have or should have done—to save at least some of the victims of the Holocaust before the slaughter began or even as it was underway. It is a matter of history that America, like most other countries around the world, denied sanctuary to most European Jews seeking to flee the continent as Naziism rose. Then, as now, nativist sentiments prevailed in the land; then, as now, an America First movement inflamed portions of the body politic; and then, as now, restrictive immigration laws kept the flow of potential new arrivals to a mere trickle.
TIME spoke with Burns about the lessons learned—and unlearned—by that dark passage in America’s past, the process of making this latest film, and how the story it tells fits into his larger oeuvre exploring the American experience. The text has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
TIME: Why did you decide to tackle this story and why now?
Burns: We got down on our knees and proposed to this film in 2015. That was when the Holocaust Museum [in Washington, DC] approached us and said, “We’re mounting this exhibition called ‘Americans and the Holocaust’ and we think it would make a great film.” We said, “Great. Can we work in association with you? Can you point us to the right scholars? Can we find the right archives together? Can you help us identify some survivors that we would have the possibility of interviewing?” We’d been thinking about this film for years and years. After the World War II documentary we made in 2007, people bombarded me on the road, saying, “Why didn’t we bomb the rail lines at Auschwitz? FDR was an antisemite,” and many other things that betrayed a kind of naive conventional wisdom or some sort of conspiracy ideas. And so we had been saying [to ourselves], “You know, we need to do something on the U.S. and the Holocaust.”
Did you come away from the film with thoughts about what the U.S. could have or should have done in the face of the Holocaust? (About 125,000 Germans, most of them Jewish, immigrated to the U.S. from 1933 to 1945, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum—a fraction of the 300,000 left idling on waiting lists in 1940 alone and the nearly 500,000 in 1938 and 1939.)
We let in more human beings than any other sovereign nation and if we had let in 10 times that number, I still would have given us an F—a failing grade. [Congressional quotas] did not permit Franklin Roosevelt to let in more people. We were in the middle of the Great Depression. It was the worst economic cataclysm in human history and jobs were scarce and politicians were terrified of their base, as we say today, and they didn’t want to let anyone in who was going to take one of their constituent’s jobs. There was always an excuse—about money, or about otherness. People were trying to make racial distinctions [about European Jews], but there’s only one race—the human race.
To what extent was blindness to the Holocaust a global problem, as opposed to an American problem? There was the Évian conference, after all, in 1938 [during which representatives of 32 nations, including the U.S., met in France to discuss how to accommodate Jewish refugees and all of them either kept their quotas tight or closed their doors entirely].
It was very much a problem in every country. The Australians, for example, said, “We don’t have an internal refugee problem and we don’t want to create one.” But again, it became all about the question of otherness. When you make distinctions between groups of people, when you say there is one group and there is another group, you create a Holocaust. [Historian] Deborah Lipstadt says in the film, “The time to stop a Holocaust is before it happens.”
What was the biggest challenge you faced in making this film?
We had to put a human face on the Holocaust. There is just an opacity to the number 6 million people. It’s just a statistic, like saying Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941. So we tried to employ first-person voices. There’s a poignant letter that we added at the last minute in which a man says, “I just want the world to know that someone named David Berger once lived.” He knows he’s going to die, and he just needs to do that. If you understand that Schmuel Yeager and his wife and four daughters were at Belzec and Schmuel died in the gas chamber and the others died in horrible ways, that makes them unique.
How does this film fit into your larger body of work exploring the American experience?
I don’t know. Somebody else will have to decide that. I do know I won’t work on a more important film than this one. When we’re making a movie I’m what’s known as the scratch narrator. I do the voicing throughout because we’re constantly changing the script for years and then at the very end, when we’re 98% of the way through, we bring in the actual narrator—in this case Peter Coyote—because why waste his time if we’re going to change an “an” to a “the” in the middle of a sentence? I can tell you this is the first time in a script in which I’ve ever just broken down and cried after reading draft one.
America’s relative inaction during the Holocaust seems of a piece with our refusal to act during the Rwandan genocide in 1994 or our recent shambolic exit from Afghanistan, which has left millions of women and girls in danger. Are we a nation without a learning curve?
It’s not just Rwanda. There was Bosnia and Syria too. But it’s not about a learning curve. Samantha Power [author of A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide] is incredibly thoughtful about how to rearrange events early on. It’s about figuring out ways to arrest the momentum [of a Holocaust or genocide]. If you get the Titanic to move one degree off-course you miss the iceberg by hundreds of miles. It takes tough domestic political conversations, just the reality on the ground of bureaucratic decisions. So it’s too facile to say human beings don’t learn.
Was any of the decision to make this film now motivated by the existence of Holocaust deniers, or do you see them simply as a fringe group like birthers or truthers?
They aren’t a fringe group anymore. They’ve been given space and room to grow by a person who used to occupy the highest office in the land, right? But that doesn’t motivate why we made the film. There are moments in the film when [a soldier] writing back to his dad about what he’s seen at one of the liberated concentration camps says it’s not just that the people who did this should be brought to justice. It’s that their philosophy can’t be allowed to continue. He’s a GI and he understands how easy it is to export hate.
Does the recent return of the America First movement carry echoes of the 1930s and 1940s for you?
It does. Hitler would travel around Germany promising to restore Germany’s greatness. It wasn’t just big cities. He’d fly into middle sized cities and always want to be back and sleep at one of his properties at night. You had the America First thing which was kind of a nativist sentiment wrapped in an anti-war cloak. There were a lot of people at the head of it, [Charles] Lindbergh included and many others who were just virulent anti-semites. I have been making films for almost 50 years about the U.S., and also about us. When anyone tells you there’s a “them,” that’s authoritarianism. All such distinctions are biological, scientific and political fictions. They are designed to create grievances.
So what’s next for you? What are you working on now?
The next film is called The American Buffalo. It deals with how destroying the buffalo destroyed the American Indian way of life. Perversely, as we destroyed the buffalo and the Native Americans we romanticized them in 1913. We brought out a nickel with an Indian brave on one side and a buffalo on the other. The buffalo that was used as a model for the coin later went to the meatpacking district in New York and was slaughtered. We’re also working on a film on Leonardo da Vinci, a six-part series on the American Revolution, another on Reconstruction, and one on Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society. All of these are underway.
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