Celebrating the network

Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky on Defying The Nazis: The Sharps' War.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Mark Whitaker, Ken Burns, Marina Goldman and Matthew Justus with Artemis Joukowsky
Mark Whitaker, Ken Burns, Marina Goldman and Matthew Justus with Artemis Joukowsky Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

At the Le Cirque lunch hosted by Dan Abrams, Kerry Kennedy, Lawrence O’Donnell and producers Dan Cogan (Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt's Havana Motor Club; Edet Belzberg's Watchers Of The Sky, featuring Luis Moreno Ocampo), Geralyn Dreyfous (Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz's Land Ho!; Kirby Dick's The Invisible War and The Hunting Ground) and Judith Helfand (Martha Shane and Lana Wilson's After Tiller) for Defying The Nazis: The Sharps' War, I spoke with the directors, Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky.

Ken Burns with Artemis Joukowsky:
Ken Burns with Artemis Joukowsky: "And this is a feminist tale as well! From the very beginning, she has defied her parents, she has defied her husband, she has defied the Nazis." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Marina Goldman, who gives her voice to Martha Sharp, let me know that she never got to meet Tom Hanks, the voice of Waitstill Sharp, when he recorded the husband's love letters. Also at Le Cirque were the film's producer Matthew Justus, director of interviews Deborah Shaffer, co-editor Steven Wechsler, and co-executive producer Dewey Wigod, whom I had met at Cinema Village when I hosted an event with Juliana Peñaranda-Loftus and Favio Chávez's Recycled Orchestra of Cateura to celebrate their documentary Landfill Harmonic.

Ken Burns joined Artemis Joukowsky, who is the Sharps' grandson, for "the last lap" in the making of the film, and convinced his friend Tom Hanks to do the voiceover. During the panel discussion with the two directors, moderated by Mark Whitaker, whose grandmother was one of the children saved by the Sharps, Burns told us why the story was riveting for him. "We speak about six million Jews and the number becomes kind of opaque and that opacity is a resistance to understanding what that really means," he said.

The current refugee crisis, the largest since the Second World War, makes the telling of the Sharps' story of even greater importance today.

Ken Burns on Martha and Waitstill Sharp:
Ken Burns on Martha and Waitstill Sharp: "But it's even more intimate because it represents a love story between two people very, very much in love."

Waitstill Sharp, a middle-class Unitarian minister, who runs a congregation in Wellesley, Massachusetts and his wife Martha, at the beginning of 1939 receive a phone call from the head of their church. 17 ministers before had turned down the entreaty to go to Czechoslovakia in order to help refugees to get out at the brink of the Second World War.

The Sharps take on the dangerous task and leave their two young children and the safety of their home behind. As Burns put it: "A month later, she is dodging Gestapo agents and he is in European capitols laundering money. They make it improbably safely out and get many people, Jews and refugees, intellectuals, other Unitarians, out." And in 1940, they are asked again to continue their work and go back to a Europe at war.

An episode of the film concerns the rescue of author Lion Feuchtwanger. During the discussion with Burns and Joukowsky, I commented on the subsequent interactions with Feuchtwanger in Hollywood.

Defying The Nazis: The Sharps' War lunch at Le Cirque
Defying The Nazis: The Sharps' War lunch at Le Cirque Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Anne-Katrin Titze: I have a question about the Lion Feuchtwanger part. There was a lot of new information in your film about that. I knew that he was rescued from a French prison camp, I believe dressed as a woman, which you don't mention in the film. And then went to Hollywood and he helped Bertolt Brecht to come to America. Did your grandparents stay in touch with him? Was there more communication about that?

Artemis Joukowsky: You know, my grandparents didn't stay in touch with almost anyone, except the Feuchtwangers. I am so lucky to have in our archive, letters between Lion Feuchtwanger until he died in 1958 and [his wife] Marta Feuchtwanger who really was the person that told the story. You know, the only person honored by Yad Vashem was a man named Varian Fry. And Varian Fry wrote his memoirs and he took credit for basically everything.

That wasn't his fault. His editor actually did that and you can see the original draft of his book at Columbia University where he mentions the Sharps. And then you can also see the editor saying - let's keep this out, it's too complicated. So Feuchtwanger in that book is rescued by Varian Fry. So part of our testimony was to prove that Waitstill, in fact, worked with Fry as a collaboration and they rescued him together. In fact, Leon Ball was also part of that rescue.

Martha Sharp:
Martha Sharp: "And she is saying - Look, I am my own person."

What you realise is that, what most people do in great-man-theory-history stories is to just make it about what one person did. What we tried to do - although it's annoying to just mention names - we can't get too much into "we-s", we have to stay within the picture. We agree, certain names like Varian Fry had to be mentioned to show that it was a collaboration, that the story was not about the individual people, it was about the network working together. So, yes, everything you saw, is new history.

Ken Burns jumped in to respond.

Ken Burns: So most of the work I've done involves having - a very conscious choice for decades - of having a third person narrator. And there is not one here. As I came in, as I refined the information on the title cards, I worked with their economy and simplicity and most important, clarity. But in some ways we were limited by the fact that the tellers of the story would be Waitstill and Martha Sharp and they would be corroborated to a lesser extent by some historians but to a much greater extent by the people that they saved.

Defying The Nazis: The Sharps' War and Landfill Harmonic at Cinema Village
Defying The Nazis: The Sharps' War and Landfill Harmonic at Cinema Village Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

And that would be what it is. So the telling detail, if it doesn't appear in Martha or Waitstill's commentary is not going to appear there. And I'm actually really surprised as someone who relies on the written word for a kind of through line and exposition, by the extent to which my own style of yielding in this case to that. To a scored soundtrack, which I never have. To recreations which I've rarely done. And all of that and certain paces in certain areas of the editing - all of that, I inherited from the extraordinary filmmakers who came before.

Our work in the past few years was to figure out how to balance that, aware that a lot of the story, the details, the minutia of it, what you might know or somebody else, would have to go by the wayside as you try to communicate the fundamentals of this, to me still unbelievable [story]. I can't believe that after its broadcast, there's not going to be somehow a person saying: This would be a great vehicle for somebody! And I felt my entire life that documentaries are not a lower rung on some career ladder but in fact an end in and of themselves and just as dramatic.

AKT: And the Sharps are both so beautiful, too!

Dewey Wigod, co-executive producer of Defying The Nazis: The Sharps' War, at Cinema Village
Dewey Wigod, co-executive producer of Defying The Nazis: The Sharps' War, at Cinema Village Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

KB: And this is a feminist tale as well! From the very beginning, she has defied her parents, she has defied her husband, she has defied the Nazis. And something happens in that second trip that wakes her up. And this is it. She didn't want to go, she is dragged the second time, kicking and screaming, and all of a sudden, she comes back from that as someone who has found her own path. So talk about sacrifices!

After coffee and desert, I followed up with Ken Burns about his idea of bookending the Sharps' tale with a letter.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I loved the circular structure using the letter read by Tom Hanks. You said that was your idea?

Ken Burns: You know, I think besides adding Tom Hanks and just being a kind of micro-manager of pacing and rhythm, I moved part of the letter back from the end to the beginning because I felt that that cemented your relationship on many levels. You understand that this is a story with kind of global implications but it's intimate.

Martha Sharp with Waitstill Sharp:
Martha Sharp with Waitstill Sharp: "And something happens in that second trip that wakes her up."

But it's even more intimate because it represents a love story between two people very, very much in love. But also through the act of ploughing themselves into that adventure, end up challenging their relationship, shall we say, without giving away too much. That was very much it and a thousand other little tiny decisions.

AKT: The excerpt chosen is perfect to convey the intimacy - he is missing her perfume.

KB: Yes, her perfume.

AKT: And he is saying that there are only "men's things in the closet".

KB: "I see only men's things."

AKT: There is the whole gender issue, her career already entering the picture.

KB: Yes, that's what I thought. The whole thing. And she is saying - Look, I am my own person. You don't need to smell perfume. You don't need to smell my perfume. It's pretty interesting.

Coming up - Deborah Shaffer, the director of interviews for Defying The Nazis: The Sharps' War and Artemis Joukowsky on the Sharps.

Defying The Nazis: The Sharps' War will be shown on PBS in the US on Tuesday, September 20 at 9:00pm (EDT).

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