By Steven Rosen
Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Ken Burns knew from the start that he didn't want his seven-episode, 14 1/2-hour documentary on World War II to be associated with any notion of "The Good War." And yet in its final episode, as now elderly ex-GIs recount the lessons learned from liberating German concentration camps, it illustrates exactly why wars sometimes can be noble causes.
But Burns wanted to get to that point without cloaking his documentary in the feel-good heritage of "The Good War" -- a term originating with Studs Terkel's 1984 oral history -- or Tom Brokaw's 1998 "The Greatest Generation," about the GIs who fought in that war.
"It was being smothered in this bloodless myth called 'The Good War,' when in fact it was the bloodiest of all wars," Burns said by telephone, en route to an advance screening in Minnesota. He said the war cost 60 million lives -- a fact too easily forgotten by history buffs coldly studying the various armies involved and their military campaigns.
"The War," as his resultant documentary is simply titled, will begin airing on PBS stations on Sept. 23. It will be on for four nights the first week and three nights the second. Burns' previous PBS films about the American experience include "The Civil War," "Baseball" and "Jazz."
"We used the words 'bearing witness' for what we wanted to do," he said of his initial proposal for the documentary. "We wanted to use four [American] towns as examples to get to know people -- those who fought and those who stayed at home -- and to get to their experiences as it happened."
The result is Burns and co-director Lynn Novick seeing the war as it was unfolding through the eyes of soldiers from Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento; Waterbury, Conn., and Luverne, Minn., to show, in so many ways, the ongoing hellishness of even a necessary war.
Since World War II unfolds the way American soldiers -- and friends and family at home -- experienced it, the Holocaust is only cursorily brought up before the final episode, "A World Without War," when the soldiers enter the camps. But it then becomes the center -- "the beating heart," in Burns' words -- of that episode.
That episode covers immense ground, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt's death, the battle for Okinawa, the final collapse of Germany, the atomic bomb, Japan's surrender and the end of the war. But its solemn, powerful concentration camp scenes, which involve his soldiers bearing witness against Nazi atrocities, are the ones with deepest impact.
Three of the hometown soldiers recall entering different concentration camps during the fall of Germany in 1945. And, as they still vividly remember, they saw something worse than war: the Holocaust.
In fact, they came to realize war could be good, if it could stop or punish those willing to commit such evil, organized mass murder. The episode pairs their recollections with often horrifyingly graphic footage from the actual camps they entered.
Also during this passage in the episode, war historian Paul Fussell, who fought in World War II when he was just 19, begins to quiver and cry when explaining how discovering those camps made it clear to the American soldiers the war "was conducted in defense of some noble idea."
Burns called that a "searing, incredible emotional comment. I assumed Fussell would be an avuncular commentator. But the questions put him back in the moment."
The episode begins with a black-and-white photo of a German SS soldier about to execute a Polish Jew at the edge of an open mass grave in Ukraine in 1942. Then one of the "The War's" ongoing witnesses, former Marine pilot Sam Hynes, makes a comment that indirectly addresses the meaning of religion in a world where the Holocaust can happen.
If there were no evil, he says, people wouldn't need to "construct" religions.
"No evil, no God," he says. "Of course, no evil, no war. But there will always be evil. Human beings are aggressive animals."
Burnett Miller from Sacramento recalls how starving survivors at Mauthausen in Austria, in their hunger for the GIs' concentrated food, died from "overwhelming their systems." He also describes, and accompanying footage shows, bodies in rigor mortis awaiting cremation in the furnaces. Miller's comments also touch upon a key Holocaust theme -- the complicity of nearby civilians and the church.
"They could smell the camp in town," he says. "The villagers said they knew nothing about the camp; the priest said he knew nothing about the camp. I knew that was a lie."
In another scene, Dwain Luce of Mobile, Ala., recalls forcing the presumably complicit German townspeople of Ludwigslust, near a liberated camp, to collect the bodies and give them proper Christian and Jewish burials in the park. "So they would never forget," he says.
He also has this to say to Holocaust deniers: "These people in this country who say it didn't happen, it did happen; I saw it."
The third of the hometown soldiers who helped liberate the camps is Jewish, Ray Leopold of Waterbury, Conn. He was at Hadamar in Germany, where he found not only camp victims but also survivors of Nazi medical experiments inside an insane asylum.
"No apology will ever atone for what I saw," he says.
"At the end of the day, nothing is more powerful in our film than Ray fixing the camera with a 92-year-old's fury when he says that," Burns said.
A narrator in the film provides voice-over context, as images of the bones and skulls of victims are shown, of the Holocaust's scope. Some two-thirds of Europe's 9 million Jews were murdered, along with 4 million Soviet prisoners of war, 2 million Poles and hundreds of thousands of homosexuals, Gypsies, political opponents, handicapped persons, slave laborers and Jehovah's Witnesses.
In this final episode, with death and destruction unfolding on a global scale virtually every minute, there is the question of how much time the Holocaust can command. After all, when the Americans enter the camps in 1945, there is still a long, difficult battle ahead in the Pacific.
In the end, it doesn't get that much time -- about 10 minutes. But it makes a long-lasting impact. "It sought its own length," Burns said. "I always say the greatest speech ever made was the Gettysburg Address. That was two minutes long."