'Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War': Film Review

Courtesy of Sharp Family Archives/PBS
Impressive self-sacrifice doesn't keep this from being an underwhelming entry in Burns's filmography.

Ken Burns co-directs a story of missionaries helping those threatened by the Nazis.

Years before America was drawn into World War II, a New England minister and his wife joined the war effort in their own way — moving to Czechoslovakia to help Jews and others flee the Nazi menace. Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky tell their story in Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War, a chapter of Holocaust lore that feels nothing like the epic chronicles for which Burns is known. Though hardly a footnote to the families of those whose lives they helped save, the story of Martha and Waitstill Sharp is so much smaller than those Burns tends to tell that the documentarian's fans will be very puzzled by this outing. Still, moviegoers who simply can't get enough of the Holocaust may make special theatrical bookings worthwhile before the film's PBS debut later this month.

One answer to "why tell this story?" is that Burns's co-director Joukowsky is the Stills' grandson. That isn't revealed in the doc, but it explains the wealth of family and survivor interviews here, which appear to stretch back at least 10 years, maybe more. Burns, who has told audiences he shot none of the interviews himself, came in to shape the material and burnish it — which in this case means getting Tom Hanks to read the letters Waitstill wrote to his beloved Martha while the two were separated by their work. (Martha's letters are read by Marina Goldman.)

The movie takes a brief period to introduce the Sharps as upstanding, principled folk who didn't object to sacrificing for their beliefs. (When Martha chose to go to college, her parents disowned her.) Waitstill was ordained as a Unitarian minister in 1933, the same year Adolf Hitler became Germany's chancellor, and when he was asked by church leaders to go to Europe (17 men had already turned the post down), he and Martha approached it like any other missionary trip. They said tearful goodbyes to their two young children and went.

After getting some tips in spycraft from the Unitarians and Quakers overseeing this humanitarian effort — they knew they'd be monitored wherever they went — the Sharps first settled in Prague, where thousands needed visas. The couple helped many of them get out of the country, and to find work and lodging abroad. The film doesn't explain what kind of pull these Americans might have with various authorities, or how they rallied help for refugees. But it does recount some stories in which they happily lied to protect those threatened by the Nazis. "I owed no honesty to anybody ... if I could save human lives," Waitstill wrote.

The doc follows as one assignment led to another, eventually sending Waitstill and Martha to different places, and devotes a long chunk of screen time to Martha's success in organizing sea passage for children whose parents weren't able to accompany them to safety. But the account is a fairly dry one, even as these efforts take a personal toll on husband and wife. The poignancy of Hanks's reading of Waitstill's letters — that old staple of Ken Burns documentaries — personalizes the tale, but doesn't make this story as compelling as many feature-film (or even documentary) treatments of similar WWII rescue tales.


Production companies: Florentine Films, No Limits Media

Directors: Ken Burns, Artemis Joukowsky

Screenwriters: Artemis Joukowsky, Matthew Justus

Producers: Matthew Justus, Ken Burns

Director of photography: Michael Julian Berz

Editor: Erik Angra

Composer: Sheldon Mirowitz


78 minutes