The Americans of all walks of life are always eager to watch and listen to the stories Ken Burns tells them about their own common heritage. Whether it’s jazz, the Civil War, or baseball: the master of the mega-documentary always manages to find elegiac images and moving words – usually from original sources – that capture the national dreams and tribulations.
Newspaper clippings, photographs and film clips, interviews with contemporary witnesses and historians are all lovingly presented, while soft music plays in the background. An all-knowing voice of the narrator – unusual today for contemporary Anglo-American documentaries – leads us through the events; the tone is solemn and serious.
In the German version of Burns’ marathon history The War – all fourteen episodes will be broadcast on Arte (starting March 5 at 9pm) – the narrator is the actor Udo Wachtveitl.
The greatest catastrophe in the history of mankind was started from ancient human impulses, we are told piously right at the beginning of the first episode, programmatically entitled “A Necessary War”. No wonder , then, that the documentary is teeming with humanity: on the one side, the hordes of Axis troops, savage beasts led by monsters. On the other are the inexperienced boys from the American heartland who set out to liberate the world from them.
In order not to get lost in the confusion of so many theaters of battles, the director employs a narrative device: he narrows the focus to four medium-sized cities from different corners of the USA, whose character was changed forever by the Second World War.
The film seeks to get at the disruptions in everyday life in its interviews with the aging members of the war generation – those on the front lines as well as those who stayed behind on the home front – who share their vivid memories. “Nothing remained as it was before”. It is abundantly clear what drama is really being played out here: a nation’s rise from an isolationist society of small-time farmers and leaders in the modernity to the reluctant protector of the free world.
But a great deal happens before we get to that point. In rapid succession the German Army first brings destruction to Poland, invades the Soviet Union, and flies the Swastika over all of Europe – all of this just a prelude to the main act, which begins on December 7, 1941.
For the first time thousands of all-American boys are sent to deadly battles in places they can barely pronounce, much less find on a map. The motives of these apple-cheeked young men for enlisting in droves were not necessarily heroic. Rather they were carried along by the tide of history.
In the Pacific theater, they are subjected to the most barbaric treatment at the hands of the Japanese. Meanwhile back home the armaments industry is in high gear; African-Americans – labeled “Colored” back then under the best circumstances – are sent half way around the world to fight racism, while it would be another 25 years before they could eat at a lunch counter at Woolworths. Americans of Japanese descent are sent to internment camps, while their neighbors appropriate their strawberry crops.
Burns’ early Civil War series brought to life a rogues gallery of quirky figures who decisively determined the military fate of the young nation on the verge of internal collapse. In this newest effort, Burns’ message to his fellow Americans is more celebratory: ordinary people like you and me once saved the world.
The documentary presents certain historical interpretations as fact, even though they are still controversial, if not disproven. Pearl Harbor was a complete surprise to the American leadership, just like Hitler’s surprise attack on his ally Stalin. Dropping the atomic bombs on Japan was an act of brutality which blurred the distinction between good and evil, but entirely appropriate in a necessary war.
History from the perspective of the victor? Perhaps, but is certainly also a balm for the wounded soul of a beleaguered superpower, which shortly will be entering the sixth year of an unnecessary war.