The longest film shown at the Cannes Film Festival this year was the 14-hour PBS documentary The War by filmmaker Ken Burns, who revisits combat for the first time since his breakout classic The Civil War aired 17 years ago. The War—which begins airing September 23—is a sprawling film that covers the years of American involvement in World War II through the eyes of ordinary citizens caught up in the global bloodletting. Burns spoke with U.S. News about his new film and the memories of veterans.
How is this different from the legions of other WWII documentaries?
The War is a kind of bottom-up, experiential look at the Second World War told not from the familiar perspectives of celebrity generals or politicians or an overweening interest in strategy or tactics or the distraction of weaponry and guns but from so-called ordinary people. There are no experts in the film. If you weren't in the war or waiting anxiously for someone to come back, you're not in our film. This intimate view allows us to unwrap the Second World War from the bloodless gallant myth that has attended it since it ended.
Isn't all history at least some part myth?
How could it possibly be "the good war" when it was the worst war in history—killing nearly 60 million people? By the end of the film, we learn the great secret: that in shared sacrifice, we made ourselves richer. The whole war is smothered in myth that we sometimes forget the cost. There's more post-traumatic stress syndrome that comes out of [WWII] than Vietnam, Korea, and many other wars combined. These were teenagers that were asked to become professional killers. They saw bad things, they did bad things, and that's the kind of war that we want people to understand. And when they came back, no one was distinguishing if you were on the front lines or in the 10th shoeshine division. So the people who saw the worst of it tended to shut up.
Why revisit such an exhaustively documented event?
We're losing 1,000 [World War II] veterans a day in this country, our kids think we fought with the Germans against the Russians, it's horrible, and I couldn't abide. I'm in the memory business, and each time a person dies, it's a whole library of memories that leave.
I couldn't have made this film 10 years ago because the people weren't talking, and in five years it will be an actuarial impossibility because most of these people will be gone. At the end of their lives, their own intimations of mortality have made them reconsider their unusual—and I think admirable—reticence about talking. They're no longer telling the familiar, funny bromides of the war, and they're now describing the more difficult stuff.
What does the film say about memory?
War is the great lie of civilization; it is a collective forgetting. When people bear witness to it, they help resurrect it. Memory becomes the agent of our transformation, and we have an obligation to it. Like the still photograph, for me, remains the primary building block of visual communication, individual memory becomes the building block of our collective cohesiveness.