How Ken Burns Polished a ‘Diamond in the Rough’ With His New Documentary (Exclusive Video)

‘Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War’ filmmaker Artemis Joukowsky shot the movie before he brought on Burns

Ken Burns is the big name attached to the PBS documentary “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” but the famed director says his work was just polishing already great material from co-director Artemis Joukowsky.

“It is a completely unknown story,” Burns said in a recent interview with TheWrap. “We think we know everything about the Holocaust or about WWII and then out bursts a perfect little story. This is so powerful in its implications.”

The film documents the work of Waitstill and Martha Sharp, a Unitarian minister and his wife from Wellesley, Massachusetts, who left their children behind to help save hundreds of imperiled political dissidents and Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi occupation across Europe. The Sharps were Joukowsky’s grandparents.

“This started as a grade-school assignment,” Burns said. Joukowsky had begun working on the project in the 8th grade, when he was assigned to write a paper about someone who displayed great courage. “He’s been working on this for most of his life, in some way, shape or form.”

“It was a diamond in the rough, an incomplete film” when he was brought onto the project, Burns said. But the material was too compelling to ignore.

“You begin to realize that when you say ‘6 million dead,’ it becomes this impossible, impassable wall,” he said. “It loses its meaning. But if you show a handful of people who were saved and you see what they became that they had children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, you begin to understand that so much of it is about potentiality.”

“All those lives lost, all those possible Nobel prizes, all those possible cures and medicine, all that great art that we’re missing,” he continued. “The amputated limb that we feel even though they’re long gone.”