While September '07 may already be synonymous with the administration's "big report " about the surge in Iraq, notoriously voluminous historian Ken Burns has mounted a mammoth campaign of reportage from a different conflict: World War II. The War(which premiers September 23 on PBS) tells the story of America's involvement through the eyes of four representative towns: Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and Luverne, Minnesota. Tonight, before packing up for a world premiere at the historic Palace Theater in Luverne, the filmmaker will make a stop at the U of M to present clips and talk about the film.
City Pages:What brought you to Luverne, Minnesota?
Ken Burns: We'd met a fighter pilot named Quentin Aanenson, just accidentally in the course of our studies. His first day of work was June 6, 1944, and in the next 10 months as a fighter pilot he dealt out death, saw his friends die, came close to dying himself, and nearly lost all hope. And his story was so compelling and so magnificent that we asked him where he was from, and he said, "Luverne, Minnesota. "
CP:I imagine one of the biggest challenges you faced was where to start. You've decided to open the first episode with the story of a young man who joins the Army after tearing up a bar with his motorcycle.
KB: The Second World War is usually too big for people to understand, so they tend to drown it in sentimentality. They focus too much on celebrity generals, or too much on strategy and tactics, or too much on weapons and armaments, or too much on the Nazis. Instead, we charged ourselves with finding out what it was like to be in that war, to literally bear witness to those young men who, when they were 17, 18, and 19 years oldÑa time when most of us have the luxury of inattention and narcissistic self-involvementÑhappened to have helped save the world.... So to us, beginning in the microscopic was the best way to understand the macroscopic.
CP:You've been working on this film for over six years. What effect has the war in Iraq had on the way you approached World War II?
KB: Very, very little; we did most of the shooting of the interviews with the folks before we invaded Iraq.... This film does not have any political agenda to it; it doesn't have a political ax to grind. But I am aware that when you reveal the nature of war, when you strip away the sort of sentimentality that normally attends to the Second World War, you're getting at the essence of what war is like and so it's very, very familiar. As you watch the series you'll see increasingly more and more things that will resonate, not just with Iraq, but with all wars. So you could go back not only with an Iraq veteran but also with a veteran of the Peloponnesian wars and they'd recognize these essential declarative sentences: "I was scared; I was bored; I was hot; I was cold; my officers didn't know what they were doing; they didn't give me the right equipment; I saw bad things; I did bad things; I lost good friends. " These are common to all wars.
Ken Burns's screening tonight is free, but call 612.624.2345 for required reservations.
Wed., Sept. 5, 7:30 p.m.