Film Review: Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War

The electrifying story of Martha and Waitskill Sharp, New England Unitarians who spirited many European refugees from the Nazis’ clutches, resonates sharply in this documentary co-directed by Ken Burns.
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Ringing with a vivid moral clarity, Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War is a tightly focused documentary that raises an unusually sprawling number of challenging questions for its audience. Unlike many stories of this kind, the film doesn’t pretend that the choices made by its undeniably brave subjects were easy ones or that a cost wasn’t required for their decision to go willingly into the horrors of Nazi-occupied Europe to save whoever they could.

Co-filmmakers Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky shine a light on yet one more mostly untold story of courage and terror from the conflagration of World War II: Martha and Waitskill Sharp. At the time the winds of war started spreading across Europe, the couple were happily married New Englanders. Martha was a rebellious sort practically disowned by her parents for going to college and then into social work instead of just joining the workforce. Waitskill had graduated from Harvard Law but only seemed fulfilled after he became a Unitarian minister in 1933, the year that Hitler came to power in Germany.

Six years later, the Sharps were happily raising two children and closely knitted into their Massachusetts Unitarian community. When a close friend of theirs asked Waitskill to embark on a perilous humanitarian mission overseas, the minister with the deep belief in Unitarian ideals of tolerance, freedom and reason felt honor-bound to accept. Although both Sharps, particularly Martha, had reservations about leaving their children behind, they set off nonetheless.

Told both through interviews with the Sharps’ children and survivors, and the Sharps’ letters to each other (voiced by Tom Hanks and Marina Goldman), Defying the Nazis makes a deft turn into a potently dramatic spy story before you’re aware of it. With little preamble, the two well-meaning Unitarians are put through a crash course in spycraft in London (coding messages, evading pursuit, memorizing secret messages) before riding the Orient Express to Prague on the eve of the Nazi invasion. From their office, the Sharps worked every bureaucratic angle they could to get threatened refugees, including many Austrian Jews fleeing the Nazi takeover of Austria, out of the country. Evading border guards and Gestapo agents, and risking torture and death if caught, they worked with the Quaker underground to smuggle Jews across Germany to London.  “One can only manage a miracle every so often,” the optimistic and determined but frequently terrified Martha writes.

A later mission brought the Sharps back into Europe just as the Wehrmacht took France. This time, their duty involved less wrangling with embassy officials and forging documents than getting food to the starving refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied northern France into the Vichy south and secreting other hunted Jewish intellectuals on perilous smuggler routes over the Pyrenees. The terrors and triumphs of the Sharps’ endeavors are the stuff of great espionage fiction, thrown into sharp relief by the moral challenges that their faith and the circumstances called for. All throughout, the intensity of their affection so obvious in the letters they exchange casts the risks they are taking into an even more dramatic light.

There are times when Defying the Nazis, a PBS-bound film that is receiving a brief but worthy Oscar-qualifying theatrical run, could have benefitted from a broader remit. The focus here on first-person interviews is unusual for Burns, who normally brings a wide array of socio-historical context and batteries of primary sources to bear on any subject. But Burns has said that, unusually for him, his role here was primarily shaping the film in the editing room. It was Joukowsky, the Sharps’ grandson who has also written a book on the subject, who shot all the interviews.

Centered around a dashing narrative, the film is nevertheless ringed with melancholy. The filmmakers open with a typically evocative letter of Waitskill’s from 1946: “I would very much like to have a home again... I smell no perfume.” It ends with an unexpected coda that reminds us that heroes don’t spring out of nowhere and return unscathed to their lives once the mission is over. Parents aren’t always so easily reunited with their children, and the most loving marriages can fray in such terrifying conditions. The wounds of war still scar those who never saw a battlefield.

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