My guest today is the renowned documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. His epic 11-hour miniseries, The Civil War, is the most watched show in the history of public television. He’s covered baseball, jazz, the national parks, country music and the Vietnam War, just to name a few. But I have to say, as much as I enjoyed his earlier work, nothing he’s done has affected me as deeply as his most recent film on the Holocaust.
Ken BURNS: The film is basically asking at elemental levels, what did we know? What didn’t we know? What should we have known? What did we do? What did we not do? What should we have done?
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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how people learn, and I’ve become increasingly convinced that film is the most powerful teaching tool we have. So, I’m really looking forward to talking today with Ken Burns, who has probably taught Americans more about history than anyone else.
LEVITT: Hey, Ken. Thank you so much for being here. It’s an incredible pleasure to talk with you today, even more so because I’ve recently moved to Germany, and I’m missing the U.S., and you’ve come to symbolize America as much as baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie. So, I feel a little bit more at home with you here.
BURNS: Well, if you see The U.S. and the Holocaust, we can connect the bridge, but not in the best of ways.
LEVITT: So, your latest documentary is called The U.S. and the Holocaust and it’s airing September 18 to 20 on P.B.S. And I have to say, my first knee-jerk reaction to hearing you were covering the topic was do we really need another film about the Holocaust? But watching your film, I was shocked at how I had lost my sense of horror over the events of the Holocaust. And I was shocked at how little I knew about the facts. And I was shocked at the degree to which the United States was complicit in the Holocaust and its unfolding. I watched it a week ago, and it’s just been careening around inside my head ever since. It’s an incredibly powerful piece of work.
BURNS: I’m so glad that — I can’t say you enjoyed it — I’m glad that you feel that way on behalf of my co-directors Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, and on behalf of the writer, Geoffrey Ward, and indeed the whole tiny team that put this together. We had to face over the last seven plus years the kind of resistance to “Why do we need another?” And we get that often — our film on Muhammad Ali, “We don’t need another Ali documentary.” But we really felt that we hadn’t explored the aspects of it that ask questions about who we were. I’m nervous about the word “complicit”, because I think what happens is we begin to understand that human nature doesn’t change. The susceptibility to this kind of behavior of racism, of antisemitism, of nativism, xenophobia, treatment of Indigenous peoples is common throughout, I am sorry to say, the human race and human history. And so, what we have are kind of echoes and parallels and awkward, shameful connections between them. And a lack of a real effort on our concerted part. Because we took in — this is so hard to say — we took in more than any other sovereign nation — more people. But if we’d done 10 times that I think we would’ve failed.
LEVITT: Failed in what sense?
BURNS: In what our obligations were to this catastrophe that was going on. We just did not do enough. And it is easy to say, “Well, the president should have done this.” But he wasn’t a king. He wasn’t a dictator like Hitler. He had a Congress and laws that he had to obey. He understood very well public opinion, which throughout the lead up and the war, and then afterwards was implacably anti-immigrant. It’s just a really tough story, which I think we need to confront. We need to have a kind of reckoning and a conversation about, just at a time when our own institutions seem fragile, the democratic institutions that have held us together for 240-plus years seem fragile, and susceptible to the lies of a demagogue. It’s time to revisit the story.
LEVITT: Now, you worked on this Holocaust documentary for seven and a half years. Did it not take a toll on your mental health? It’s an intense experience to watch it, but I imagine it was even more intense to create it.
BURNS: I want to say yes, and I do have experiences with this film and our film on the second World War, where you really come in after a night of dreams or nightmares and feel that there’s a kind of toll. I remember coming in, in World War II to the building I’m talking to you from, and my editor looked like hell. And I said, “Where were you?” You know, in his dreams. And he said, “The Bulge.” And he said, “You don’t look so good. Where were you?” I said, “Peleliu,” which is this speck of land in the Pacific that didn’t need to be taken, but thousands of lives were lost. We’re in the business of telling stories and the overriding impulse every single day was to get up and do just the best we could do to complicate it where it needed to be complicated, to remember. But at the same time, that’s what we do. That’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to not only give you those six and a half hours, but honor all the stuff that’s not in there. How to calibrate the horrible footage, how to not just have it be kind of Holocaust porn in which you accidentally privilege the perpetrators by the way you do it. And understand when you needed to go back to the United States, when you needed to stay in Nazi-occupied Poland, when you needed to move to another place, when you needed to introduce a ray of light. It’s not without some spectacularly heroic people and organizations that never get credit, like the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Hebrew Immigrant Aids Society, the Y.M.C.A., the Friends Service Community, the War Refugee Board — the single greatest entity created by any of the allies to help get refugees out.
LEVITT: Could you talk more about the War Refugee Board? They are one tiny, but enormous bright spot in this avalanche of unthinkable horror.
BURNS: John Pehle, in the Treasury Department, from Nebraska, is this guy who just realizes that the Jews are being exterminated and the United States of America has to do something about it. And he goes to his boss, Henry Morganthal, the only Jew leading a cabinet position in the Roosevelt administration, and they conspire. They need an exception so that they can get money to places where they’re not allowed to have money, like in your enemy’s territory. And what it does is it simply sends money where money is needed. To pay forgers, to bribe guards, to do the things that we’re not supposed to be able to do, and we had laws and, at least, regulations against that. And they get the approval of it. And then it goes back to State and State sits on it. And then finally, there’s a kind of an outrage and it comes out. And in fact, we underwrite the celebrated Raoul Wallenberg, who’s a Swedish diplomat in Hungary. He and other people in the international community in Budapest save tens of thousands of people, and it’s us. He saw himself — Raoul Wallenberg saw himself as working in an American program. And that to me is one of those bright lights, but it doesn’t happen unless you have this guy — this anonymous bureaucrat who actually fights above his weight and gets something done. He’s one of many people who are struggling to do that.
LEVITT: Somehow, I’ve lost touch with the scale of the killing. Two-thirds of all European Jews were killed. That’s 6 million. And numbers that big are difficult to understand.
BURNS: Yeah. Did you have a conscious strategy for trying to make those big numbers real?
BURNS: 6 million is just one of the most opaque phrases I’ve ever come across in my life. It’s an impenetrable fortress. First experimenting in our film on World War II that came out in 2007, and following the lead of the Holocaust Museum in Washington then that one way to say it is that in 1933, there were 9 million Jews; in 1945, two out of three were dead. And we recapitulate that configuration in the opening of this film so that you can see as a young woman is looking out her window happy and bright, and she is joined momentarily by two other people, we presume her parents, and you can see that two out of three of them aren’t going to get through this. And that’s an important thing. And then you have Daniel Mendelsohn, a beautiful writer who has spent a good deal of his life finding out what happened to six of those 6 million, his great-uncle Shmiel Jager and his wife, and four daughters from a tiny little town in called Bolechow. And he needs to particularize this. And there’s a wonderful moment, I think, in the film, when three different people are basically saying, “I exist, know that I exist.” And at one point a young man says, “I just want the world to know that a person named David Berger lived.” People were tossing notes out of the railroad cars, burying them in canisters in the Warsaw ghetto, writing to a friend when they knew that at any moment they’d be taken away. We need to particularize so that we are not anesthetized by the sheer volume of the numbers.
LEVITT: Just by chance, I happened to have been at the Anne Frank House just a few weeks ago. I was visiting Amsterdam. And that is another case where focusing on a single life really gives you a sense of gravity that’s hard when you look at the big numbers. But thinking like an economist, I just was trying to find another way to think about how to characterize what 6 million was, and the best one I’ve hit upon is roughly 3,000 people died in the 9/11 terrorist attack. That’s an event that has deeply scarred the U.S. psyche. But the Holocaust was like 9/11 every single day of the year for four years. And I think that’s another way to get at just the incredible scale of what happened.
BURNS: I agree. To think of it in those terms helps us to first, identify what would it be like to have the kind of personal losses that we took in, not just from people we knew, but also collectively, as a country, from 9/11, as you say, deeply scarred. And then understand that after a while, when you’ve got 10 of those in a row, something happens, something shuts down. Daniel Mendelsohn, himself, says, you know, talking to survivors, “When it was happening to us, we could not believe it was happening.” And so, how could we possibly imagine anyone else across the Atlantic in the United States to understand exactly what was happening if they could scarcely believe it. It’s a kind of poetic dilemma, which we struggle, as economists, as filmmakers, as human beings to put some new way to explain the calculus. One of the things that we try to show in the film is that there are 2 million Jews that are murdered before anyone starts employing gas. Trenches are dug and people are just shot in the head and dirt is put over them, by the dozens at a time. And there’s, unfortunately, some pretty painful footage that we use very sparingly, but it’s the home movies and the pictures of the German soldiers who were doing most of this work. Before our popular image of the Holocaust happens, which is people being led to their death in a gas chamber, that you have all these other particularities that are taking place in concentration camps, not the killing centers of Poland, like Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Belzec, and Sobibor, and Chelmno. It’s happening by starving to death at Dachau or Buchenwald or Nordhausen or Mauthausen. But also in these individual moments, or a place or a particular town — Babyn Yar, outside of Kyiv, at Kamianets-Podilskyi or Vinnytsia. These are places that are now, believe it or not, showing up on our maps of the Ukraine debacle. This is basically the sadness of it. This is territory that has just known its share of suffering.
LEVITT: A second thing I should have known about the Holocaust, but didn’t, is how slowly events unfolded initially, stripping Jews of basic rights over the course of years. And, at least initially, Hitler was content to have Jews leave Germany rather than kill them. And many German Jews — maybe even the majority of German Jews tried to leave — but no country would take them. Certainly not the U.S. If the U.S. had just embraced these fleeing Jews, it’s conceivable that the worst genocide in history could have been, at least dramatically reduced in scale.
BURNS: I don’t know if dramatically reduced. It could have been reduced. There werere 560,000, approximately, German Jews. More than half got out. As did the 200, nearly 300,000 Austrian Jews. More than half got out. And you are absolutely correct that other nations, and particularly the United States with its pernicious quota system, which is basically designed to keep people out, is not going to accept them. The Frank family, which we all see Anne Frank’s story as just this isolated, little girl tragedy. Her father had applied for a visa to the United States. It wasn’t turned down, when the Germans bombed Rotterdam, the application along with 300,000 others went up in flames. The real question and the hard thing for humanity to get its head around is, how could we have helped those Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland, and then later, Lithuania and Belarus and Latvia. How do we rescue 3.3 million Polish Jews? I think screaming louder might have helped. We didn’t do that. Maybe relieving the pressures at all the places where Jews could get out might have made it easier for people. Daniel Mendelsohn’s great uncle had been to the United States in 1912, and had gone back. He found that the streets of the Lower East Side were not paved in gold and went back to a place where he could be a big fish in a relatively small pond, and was until the rising antisemitism in pre-war Poland, and then of course, the horrors of Nazi-occupied Poland begin to transpire and he loses his life, and his wife’s, and his daughter’s lives in all these different kinds of horrible ways. I want to believe that there was a way to stop this. I think going back to the beginning of your question is the key. That this happens in drip, drip, drip. The Germans are looking — what can we get away with? What can we do? Deborah Lipstadt, perhaps the No. 1 scholar of the Holocaust, says in our film, “The time to stop a Holocaust is before it happens.” And so, then it falls back onto us. There’s a reporter from Chicago writing in Berlin in ’33, just accurately about what Hitler’s up to. And he’s kicked out of the country. Edgar Mowrer is his name. And when he’s being escorted to the train station, his minder says, “When do you think you will be back?” And in 1933, he says, “With 2 million of my fellow countrymen.” So, it is not impossible to have foreseen, but the exigencies of day-to-day politics and life, and “I don’t want to get involved, and I’m not really interested in that, I don’t have a job, it’s the middle of the depression, I don’t know how to feed my family,” all of these things conspire to create this tragedy. There’s no one thing that could been done. You could pull out the inspirational Jim Crow laws that the Germans used early days of the 30s to model their anti-discrimination laws against the Jews. It’s still probably going to happen in some way. You take out just our own interest in eugenics, which is touted by progressives and conservative alike as a way to make things better for society. This is take-your-breath-away kind of stuff. Not to mention just virulent antisemitism that is suffused in American society. Thanks in large part to people that we consider titans of our past, like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh.
LEVITT: You bring down a lot of American heroes in this documentary. People who — somehow their reputations have been relatively unscathed, given their positions.
BURNS: I’m not sure I’d subscribe to the idea of “take down,” it’s just if you tell a complicated story, there’s going to be really uncomfortable things to deal with. And Henry Ford was certain that the Jews were responsible for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He bought a newspaper, and he had printed over many editions, the protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is the worst anti-Semitic tract, a hoax written in Russia. And then he put together all of these problems of international Jewry and published it in a book, which got read in German. too. Lindbergh is leading the America First — hm, that sounds familiar — the America First movement, which is the largest anti-war movement in the country. And by the end, he’s spouting just outright antisemitic bile. And it catches up. And just as you hope today, that somewhere along the lines somebody says, “Stop, this is racist,” or, “This is antisemitic,” or, “This is anti-democratic.” Like, waiting for that kind of moment. And you begin to see how complicated the individual human is, how easy it is to appeal to grievance, to make a “them” out of people who are also us. It’s the same old story, as the song goes. This is how we are as human beings. Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” That’s a really good way to put it. The Old Testament, the inherited Jewish part of our common religious traditions, says in Ecclesiastes, “What has been, will be again. What has been done will be done again. There’s nothing new under the sun.” Which tells you that human nature doesn’t change. And so, this is a pretty discouraging prospect coupled with the fact that nobody gets out of their life alive, right? These two things close in like walls on us. And so, what we’re left with is faith and art and courage and love and bravery to do that. And we’re also equipped with story. The novelist Richard Powers said, “The best arguments in the world won’t change a single person’s point of view. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” And within it is the complications of the human condition. And it’s filled with, obviously in the case of this film, horrific things, and it is, also, even in the midst of that, with some heroic points of light and in other places has been a magnificent display of human potentiality.
LEVITT: So, as I watched the documentary, I suspected that you had made it at least in part as a word of caution about some of the nativist trends we’ve been seeing in recent years, especially during the Trump administration. But then I did the math, and you worked seven and a half years on this project, which means you started it long before anyone imagined that Trump would be president.
BURNS: Yeah, before he even announced that he was running for president. Here’s the problem: It’s always there. The antisemitism is always there. The racism, it’s always there. The nativist and xenophobic tendencies, it’s there. Right now, like in other periods, it’s been given more permission. The genie out of the bottle, the ills out of Pandora’s box, whatever analogy you’re interested in using — it doesn’t matter. But right now it matters because so much of the playbook resembles the early days of the previous playbook. And that’s where we felt as filmmakers that these are things that are part of our body — our collective American story. And we have this kind of sense of ourselves as having a bigger role and a more important role to play in the progress of mankind. As Lincoln said, in his address to Congress in December of ’62, “The last best hope of earth.” If that’s the case, we got to do a hell of a better job.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with Ken Burns. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about Ken’s filmmaking process.
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LEVEY: Hi, Steve. So, our listener Yvonne wrote to us. She, like most frequent listeners to PIMA, knows that you are a big proponent of a carbon tax. You’ve talked about carbon taxes a few times on our show in past episodes with Richard Thaler, John Doerr, and David Keith. So, Yvonne was curious why you hadn’t signed a very popular petition called the Economists’ Statement on Carbon Dividends. It was published in The Wall Street Journal in 2019. It’s signed by over 3,500 economists. Many of whom are Nobel Laureates, including Richard Thaler and Daniel Kahneman. So, Steve, why didn’t you sign this petition?
LEVITT: This is kind of embarrassing. I didn’t even know it existed. Apparently, every other economist on the planet — except for me — knew about this. I literally had not heard of it until Yvonne wrote that email. And Yvonne is also right that absolutely every single thing it says in that petition is something I believe. Putting a price on carbon is the single most efficient, effective, implementable way to fight climate.
LEVEY: So, if you had heard of it, do you think you would’ve signed it?
LEVITT: Well, that’s an interesting question. Twenty-five years ago, when I got to the University of Chicago, I started getting inundated with petitions from other economists that they wanted me to sign, and I didn’t necessarily agree with them, but they’d be from my friends or important economists. So, I didn’t really know what to do. So, I went to my mentor, Gary Becker, great economist, wise man. And I asked him, how did he deal with requests to sign petitions? And he said in a very Gary Becker like way, “Look, it’s simple. I just have a rule, and that rule is I will not sign any petition. And by doing that, when someone comes to me, I don’t have to think about it, and I don’t have to worry about hurting anyone’s feelings. It just makes life simple.” And so, from that moment on, I adopted Gary’s stance and for 25 years, I have never signed a petition as an economist.
LEVEY: So, Steve, have you signed this petition?
LEVITT: You know, Morgan, I actually did. So, I broke my own rule. And after 25 years, I put my name on a petition because I noticed as Gary Becker got older, he, himself, started signing all sorts of petitions. So, at least Gary rethought the wisdom of the stance.
LEVEY: So, I don’t mean to be a pessimist, but this statement signed by all these very notable and highly respected economists has been out for three years and we are no closer to a carbon tax now than we were three years ago.
LEVITT: Oh, if anything we’re farther away. I think there was some glimmer of hope that we would have a carbon tax, but I think that really faded with the new Inflation Reduction Act that was passed, the big spending bill. Which devotes an enormous amount of resources towards fighting climate change, but on a different path. It focuses on subsidizing particular industries and technologies. And it’s not the way economists would’ve done it, but in the end, public policy isn’t really about economics, it’s about politics. And it turns out there’s a lot more support for giving subsidies to solar energy than there is for a carbon tax.
LEVEY: Steve, is there anything else that economists are so universally in favor of that doesn’t seem to be making any headway in politics?
LEVITT: Free trade, opening the borders to immigration, simplifying the tax code — those, off the top of my head, are things that almost every economist agrees about, where we haven’t made progress in recent years in those directions.
LEVEY: Yvonne, thank you so much for bringing the Statement on Carbon Dividends to Steve’s attention. If you have a question for us, we can be reached at our email address, that’s email@example.com. P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. It’s an acronym for our show. Steve and I read every email that’s sent and we look forward to reading yours.
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The topics that Ken Burns tackles are often big and complex with so many possible angles. How does one tell the story of the Vietnam War or of jazz? In the second half of our conversation, I’d love to understand how Ken gets from an idea to a finished product. And I also want to talk to him about a film on teen mental health he executive produced that was released this summer. In my opinion, it’s a film that every teen should get to see.
LEVITT: So, I want to step away from the content of the documentary to talk more about the process of it. So, we’ve said you spent seven and a half years making it. How many people work on a big project like this?
BURNS: So, you watch the final credits and it correctly thanks hundreds of people, but it’s really handmade. You know, basically we end up with a nucleus of about 15, 16 people who made this film. There’s a kind of perception that you do a certain amount of research, maybe it’s three weeks or maybe it’s three months, and then you do some writing, maybe it’s three weeks or three months, and then out comes the script, out of which you shoot, and you edit, and it’s boom, done. We never stop researching. We changed something the other day in masters that had been delivered for more than a month to P.B.S., just to fix something. Took away an adjective that somewhere worked its way into a quote, and when we went back for the fifth time to check, we realized that adjective wasn’t there, and somebody in the translation had added it, and it needed to go out. And we never stop writing. In our script, there isn’t a word that hasn’t been considered or say, “Yep, that works.” If you don’t say, “Nazi occupied Poland,” you have insulted the Poles, who had no control over what was taking place in their now occupied country. If you start referring to the final solution or extermination in certain ways, you don’t do justice to individual agency. If you call the concentration camps, “where people were gassed,” you’ve made a mistake. They were never gassed in concentration camps. They were gassed only in Nazi-occupied Polish killing centers in the places like Treblinka and Auschwitz and Sobibor and Belzec and Chelmno. Just being aware of language and how incredibly precise it must be as we try to take the temperature of all the scholarship. And most importantly, the most recent scholarship, so that we’re doing it right. So, we never stop writing. And we’re already shooting. We want to interview people, not saying, “You need to fit in here on page three of episode two, to get us from this paragraph to the others.” No, we will let that bite influence what we’ve got. Add to it, conflict it, make it more interesting. And, likewise, we’re also recording music so that we’re permitting a piece of music to determine the pace and rhythm and emotional undertow of something, not adding it at the very end, where you hope the music will amplify emotions you hope are there. We want that organic. So, we do our music early. And so, this takes years. And there’s money to be raised. This is P.B.S. There’s no profit margin. There’s no contingencies. You just do the film and at the end, there should be nothing at the bottom of that jar. And that’s a complicated process. It’s got one foot in the marketplace, and the other very proudly out. But what it allows us is to spend seven and a half years. I could walk into a premium cable or a streaming service and with my track record, I could get whatever I wanted in an instant on a project, but they wouldn’t let me take 10 and a half years.
LEVITT: You probably don’t think about the world this way, but do you have a rough estimate of the person-hours that would’ve gone into creating the Holocaust documentary?
BURNS: Oh, you know that — no. We don’t. I know there’s not a day, I’m not working, right, on this or the other films I’m working on. Same with Sarah and Lynn. I remember on my first film, called Brooklyn Bridge — cost $180,000 to make. And that over the five years it took me to do it mainly because I looked like I was 12 years old, but I calculated that I, over the course of it, got paid less than two cents an hour.)
LEVITT: So, I had never seen the Brooklyn Bridge documentary, but I went to watch it in preparation for talking to you now. It’s been over 40 years and I really expected it to be maybe amateurish or dated—
LEVITT: But honestly, it’s like your style just emerged in whole cloth in that very first film. It’s really amazing.
BURNS: Look, I knew — out of tragic circumstances, I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker at 12. My mother had cancer for most of my childhood, and she died when I was 11, just a few months short of my 12th birthday. And my dad, after she died, would let me stay up with him and watch old movies, or go out to the cinema or go to a film festival. And I watched my dad cry for the first time, not when she was sick, not when she died, not at her funeral — at a film called Odd Man Out by Sir Carol Reed about Irish independence, and he cried. And I just went, “That’s what I want to do.” And that meant being Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford or Howard Hawks. And I ended up going to Hampshire College and all of my teachers were social-documentary still photographers and documentary filmmakers. And they reminded me that there is as much drama in what is, and what was, as anything in the human imagination. So, by 18, I knew what I was doing. And maybe that I didn’t have as much talent as others did, but I was bullheaded and persevering. And after being turned down hundreds, literally hundreds of times, was able to make this film with the help of, as always, lots of really important and talented people, including David McCullough, who’d written a book that I’d read about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge called The Great Bridge. And I just devoured it and said to my partners, “Let’s make a film on this.” And they looked at me like I was crazy. “Why would our first film out of college be about a bridge — come on.” But it worked out and in the course of it, I moved up to this tiny little village in New Hampshire, because I needed to get a real job and I didn’t have one. And I starved for a couple of years. And then everyone presumed that when it was nominated for an Oscar, that I would go back to New York or go to L.A. And I stayed here.
LEVITT: So, obviously the way you made that first movie and the way you make your movies now is very different. Just reflecting on my own career as an academic economist, when I was getting started as a grad student, I did every aspect of a project. I came up with the idea, I typed in the data, I cleaned and analyzed the data, I made tables and figures, and I did the writing. And then as I advanced in my career, I had big budgets to hire people. And what I found was that the primary task that I could actually delegate was data analysis. But the sad irony is that I love doing data analysis and I don’t really like doing the writing. So, I ended up delegating away what I loved in pursuit of higher productivity. And in the end, I was productive, but honestly all the fun went out of it. And I soured on academic research because of it. It sounds like you were a lot more successful in figuring out how to delegate what you didn’t want to do.
BURNS: No, it wasn’t delegating what I didn’t want to do. It was stuff that I did like to do, but I saved the most important stuff: the final decisions, don’t miss a script meeting, don’t miss a script pass, or an edit pass. Now, that was important. I was superstitious, so I wanted to do it exactly the same. And so, I did — for Brooklyn Bridge and for many films, I did all the interviews, I did all the shooting, rarely delegate to somebody else. And then, all of a sudden, I realized I have really talented people working under me. As early as the baseball film, I was delegating most of the interviews to my co-producer, Lynn Novick, because she was a good interviewer. And so, I realized that part of growing was also delegating, but not losing the thing. I’ll tell you the thing that I would love to complain endlessly about is the digitization changed a dynamic of relationships with the photographs. We used to go to the Library of Congress, say the Civil War film. We’d come in at 8:30 in the morning. We’d go off into a corner with two scoop lights and a two-by-four with a groove in it and stick a piece of sheet metal in there, and hold up a Mathew Brady photograph with magnets at the corners with white gloves on. And then we would shoot the wide of that shot. And then we’d move the camera a little bit closer. Shoot it medium. Put it in a little bit closer, shoot it at a closeup. Then we’d add up closeup attachments, and we’d do an extreme closeup. We’d do a pan. We’d do a tilt. We’d isolate certain details in the photograph, and if we liked it a lot, we’d order a copy print for five bucks. And then we come back and take it first to an analog, and then a computerized animation camera that would shoot the movement. Now, you just go and you digitize stuff or you download digitized stuff of high-res and then you make moves within your computer-editing system. And so, everybody’s job is a keyboard and a mouse and a screen. I really miss that, but I don’t have the time to do it. So, in some ways, there’s a nice little dissembling that’s going on as I talk to you too. I just spent the last week working on a film on the history of the American Revolution and we were on an all-week Zoom with the writer and with the two co-producers with me and a couple of other people. And we were just going over the script. Just making it shorter, making it better, making it complete. What are we going to show? There are no photographs of the Revolution. So, we’re dealing with graphics, we’re dealing with paintings, we’re dealing with drawings, we’re dealing with live cinematography of the places now. And sometimes those places are like Brooklyn Heights or Bunker Hill, which are all modern and overgrown. So, you have to figure out visual equivalencies of what it looks like. And I am higher than a kite. I cannot begin to tell you what it’s like to make a film better and put your head on the pillow that night. You just want to wake up and do it again. That, I have never lost. That, I have never given up.
LEVITT: So, people who listen to my podcast regularly know that one of my favorite pastimes is complaining about what we teach and how we teach in the United States. And I suspect you must share some of my views because as a teenager, you did something radical in your own education. You chose to attend a brand new, highly experimental college called Hampshire College. Could you talk a little bit about that?
BURNS: Yeah, God, I’d love to. I do not recognize the human being that started class there on September 13, 1971, and the human being who graduated in late May of 1975. I do not recognize that person. It rearranged all my molecules. It’s like graduate school at an undergraduate level. So, you tap into the roiling nuclear core of an 18- to 22-year-old, but you give them the responsibility of graduate school. It is definitely not for everybody, but if you know what you want or know how to look for what you want, it is the perfect place. I was a faculty brat. My dad was at the University of Michigan. I could have probably gone essentially for free. And I chose to go to the most expensive college on earth. I heard about it from my best friend whose family subscribed to Newsweek. If I hadn’t seen that article, I wouldn’t have gone. We had Time. I read this article about Hampshire’s opening in the fall of ’70, and I went, “I need to go there.” And I assembled every resource, quit high school early because of advanced placement courses, and went to work full-time in the record store I worked in part-time. And got with grants and scholarships and stuff enough to go to the most expensive college on earth — $4,730 in the fall of 1971. And that was like saying $65,000 today. And I went and I figured I’d go for one year and then I come back and go to the University of Michigan —
LEVITT: Because you only had enough money for one year. You basically put all your money on one number in roulette or something like that.
BURNS: I moved all my chips over to that one number. That’s exactly right. And I was going to accept that. I mean, University of Michigan is a phenomenal institution. It wasn’t like I was going to some bad place. I loved Hampshire so much that I took the next year off, but I stayed there and got a job that was even more hours at the bookstore, and moved off campus, and raised enough so that I could go for the next two years. So, I did Hampshire in four, but I only attended for three. And I don’t know how I did it, but I arrived without any debt. But I went out of there with enough naivete about what I was going to do, that I started my own company rather than going to New York and working my way up some production ladder. And I started a film company with two of my fellow classmates, Roger Sherman and Buddy Squires, called Florentine Films. We are still working together. We still love each other. And ended up, for all the terrifyingness of it, my own boss from that moment on.
LEVITT: And getting paid two cents an hour for the first seven years.
BURNS: And getting paid two cents an hour — how great is that? But I’ll tell you this funny thing. I came home and in February it’s really cold and you hope the wood stove — when you leave it, you blaze it up, and then you turn it down and you hope it’s still going. And I came back and I saw that it was out. Oh no. I’d taken off my coat. But then the answering machine had 10 messages —if I got one a month, it was something. And what I could infer from hang-ups, from The Associated Press and from The Conquered Monitor and from Boston Globe and stuff, is that I’d been nominated for an Academy Award for Brooklyn Bridge. So, I’m dancing up and down. And then I realize it’s still cold. And so, I ran outside, not putting my coat back on, got a big load of wood, but I’m so excited that I miss the ice. I slip on it, and I twist and I fall into a snowbank, very lucky — still holding onto the wood. But my shirt has pulled up from my back and the snow is melting and going down my pants. And I’m looking up, still holding onto the wood and saying, “Thank you.” There is no other person who’s found out they’ve been nominated that has been given such a strong message, right? And therefore, I cut out shortly thereafter, a New Yorker cartoon that I still have now framed in every place that I live, that shows three men standing in hell, the flames licking up around them. And one guy says to the other two, “Apparently my over 200 screen credits didn’t mean a damn thing.”
LEVITT: Of all the content you’ve created, there’s one film more than any other I think should absolutely be required viewing in every high school or maybe middle school in America. And that’s the movie you produced called Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness. Could you talk about that piece?
BURNS: First of all, it’s not my film. I’m the executive producer. My longtime editor, Erik Ewers, and his brother, a freelance cinematographer that we use all the time, made this film. And it is so beautiful that when I saw a fine cut I just said, “Erik, take my name off this. This is your film. It’s so beautiful. It’s going to save lives.” And we felt that after Vietnam that maybe a veteran watching it could feel that somebody had heard the story. Somebody had gotten it right. Because we dealt with some of the problems that veterans had, that they would also begin to choose not the bad way out. But this is a film that without a doubt — a two-part film that is sort of like Dante. The first half is “Inferno”, and the second half is “Paradiso”. It’s not — it’s just, you get to the depth of 20 kids, very honest, very brave comment about their particularities of their mental illness, and then how they worked to get out of it, and where they are. There are a few films we’ve made that are of this ilk. I made a film on this school for boys with learning differences in Vermont, that each year, despite their A.D.H.D. or whatever it might be, are asked to memorize the Gettysburg Address and then publicly recite it from memory. And it’s a real tough task for you and me. The 10 complicated sentences where he rearranges the furniture of the word “here” so many times in the last several sentences, and these kids learn it. And we’d made a little film about that without any narration, that has the same sort of thing, but nothing like Hiding in Plain Sight.
LEVITT: Can I ask you — acknowledging that it wasn’t your film — there are these 20 young people and as I began to watch it, my expectation was that I would relatively sequentially hear the stories of the 20 young people, but that is not at all what the directors did. It is short clips — I’m going to say 5-, 15-, 20-second clips jumping back and forth between people for four hours. Which sounds like it would be crazy and impossible to watch, but it has this effect of making you understand both the uniqueness and the similarity of what kids are going through.
BURNS: Basically, when we have talking heads, it’s just like that, just a little bit of somebody talking 10 seconds, 20 seconds. But if you’re relying on the totality of the commentary to carry you along, you’ve got a different kind of thing. I can’t say it’s easier or harder, but what happens in that film is exactly the accumulation of their bravery and willingness to expose the intimate details of their own mental illness and their own lives. Because certainly, some of it is just genetic, but a lot of it is also because, circumstantially, there might be abuse. There might be divorce. There might be illness in the family. There might be questions about one’s own gender or identity that are part of an equation. And the honesty with which these kids, as young as, you know, 10 or 11, all the way up to young adults, talk about this is so riveting and so refreshing that we realize that we spend most of our lives hiding behind the facade of the mask, the kind of Kabuki mask that allows us to go on. And here they are, wrestling with the deepest, most existential questions about their own lives. And it’s just so impressive that you can’t take your eyes off the people who are talking. And somehow, we have, as we began this conversation, failed them by not focusing as much attention as we need to be doing on youth mental illness, and mental illness in general.
LEVITT: And I’ve long thought that mental health should be a central focus of our school curriculum. What other skills are more central to leading a good life than understanding one’s own emotions or building healthy relationships? Do you have a take on why we don’t devote a big chunk of the school day to teaching kids these kind of skills?
BURNS: Because we’re frightened. It’s the same way prejudice comes in or homophobia does this. There are so many things that frighten us that we’d rather adjust the makeup or the mask and go on. But you’re absolutely right, this should be central to our education — is our well-being. And not just mentally, but physically. And so, we basically fail ourselves and fail our children in an important way. And there are consequences to that inattention. And yet, we can just basically share stories and then we are closer. We’re a little bit closer to everybody else. Even that person who is the exact opposite of you politically, or religiously, whatever it might be. All of a sudden you share in common that, “Yeah, my son had that, or my cousin, my dad took his own life.” And you wake up to the fact that the politics stuff, the simple binary boring stuff is really just that — superficial — and that the depth of the human condition is what’s so important. Just as David Berger in Poland wished to let his friend know that he wanted the world to know that he had lived. We all, too, have a kind of existential urge to speak beyond the mask, beyond the limitations, behind the prisons that society creates, and that we, ourselves, create out of understandable self-protection. But need also to have spaces where we can be heard, and where we won’t be ridiculed, where someone will say, “I still love you.”
I have to say, I rarely run into anyone who can talk like Ken Burns. He speaks in paragraphs, dropping in facts and quotes like he’s a living encyclopedia. It’s surprising that someone like that ends up behind the camera rather than in front of it. It hadn’t really occurred to me until I started preparing for this interview, how much Ken Burns has shaped the way Americans think about ourselves as a country. I’m hard pressed to think of anyone else who shaped the current view of what it means to be an American more — Abraham Lincoln? Franklin Roosevelt? I’m curious to hear your views. Am I crazy to think Ken Burns has that much influence? Who shaped American storyline more than he has? Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s email@example.com. Drop us a note. We’ll be back in two weeks with a brand-new episode and my guest will be Charity Dean who’s been on a one-woman crusade to transform the way we do public health.
Charity DEAN: When I became local health officer and was going toe-to-toe with the anti-vaccination community, I understood them. Because I grew up in a home with a picture of Ronald Reagan on one side of the front hallway, Jesus on the other side, and a giant bear skin.
Charity was one of the few heroes in Michael Lewis’s book on Covid-19 called The Premonition.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Morgan Levey is our producer and Jasmin Klinger is our engineer. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Julie Kanfer, Zack Lapinski, Eleanor Osborne, Jeremy Johnston, Ryan Kelley, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, Alina Kulman, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, that’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
LEVITT: You can say you wouldn’t be a good president, but I think that’s a lie.
BURNS: You need to ask my daughters. I’ve got four of them. You know?
- Ken Burns, American documentary filmmaker.
- The U.S. and the Holocaust, film by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein (2022).
- Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness, by Erik Ewers and Christopher Loren Ewers (2022).
- Muhammad Ali, film by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon (2021).
- “How American Racism Influenced Hitler,” by Alex Ross (The New Yorker, 2018).
- “America First, for Charles Lindbergh and Donald Trump,” by Louisa Thomas (The New Yorker, 2016).
- The Address, by Ken Burns (2014).
- The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, by Daniel Mendelsohn (2006).
- Brooklyn Bridge, film by Ken Burns (1981).
- The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, by David McCullough (1972).
- “Raoul Wallenberg and the Rescue of Jews in Budapest,” by United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Holocaust Encyclopedia).
- “The War Refugee Board,” by United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Holocaust Encyclopedia).