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America's Role in the Holocaust: Ken Burns on The Most Important Film He Will Ever Make

Ken Burns is the most famous documentary filmmaker in America. He has made 35 films over the past 5 decades on historical and cultural subjects like the Civil War (which is the…

Ken Burns is the most famous documentary filmmaker in America. He has made 35 films over the past 5 decades on historical and cultural subjects like the Civil War (which is the most streamed film in public television history), baseball, jazz, the Roosevelts, Jefferson, Vietnam, Benjamin Franklin, the Statue of Liberty, Muhammad Ali... and many, many more. But of his most recent film, The U.S. and The Holocaust, he said: "I will never work on a film more important than this one."

Even if you've seen many movies or read many books on the Holocaust, Burns' new film, which focuses on the U.S.'s response to the worst genocide in human history—what America did and didn't do, could have done and didn't, and the way the Nazis derived inspiration from ideas popular in America at the time—is bound to both horrify and surprise.

So today, on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I talk to Burns about why a filmmaker of American history takes on the Holocaust and what this dark period of history tells us about the chasm between America's ideals and our actual reality. And later, we get into an intense and rich discussion about the responsibilities of telling American history, the uses and misuses of the Holocaust as a political metaphor, and what pitfalls we face when drawing parallels between history and now.

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