Ken Burns' 'Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War' crisply portrays an American couple's heroism

Not everyone hears the drumbeat of war, but those who do, and turn it into life-saving action, often become some of the most memorable, affirming figures to emerge from the horrors of conflict. Such is the case of Waitstill and Martha Sharp, married Unitarians from Massachusetts who heeded their church’s call to address rising evil in Europe.

In 1939, they moved to Czechoslovakia to provide material relief to as many Jewish refugees as possible: dissidents, scientists, journalists and others. In many cases, under threat of arrest or worse, they personally helped them flee the country.

The new documentary “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” from Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky (grandson of the Sharps), briskly relates their wartime heroism through the couple’s own words (voiced by Tom Hanks and Marina Goldman), and interviews with the Sharps’ descendants, the rescued (who were children then), and scholars. But it’s also one of those industrially produced history lessons in which the archival footage is formlessly assembled and the portentous music is constant — surprising qualities from the normally more judicious Burns.

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And though its focus is the two years the Sharps spent in Europe, it rushes through elements of their lives that would seem to warrant more examination, namely Martha’s feminism and its effect on their marriage. It’s still an incredible true story of sacrifice, and one that led Israel to make the Sharps two of only five Americans to be honored by Israel with the designation “Righteous Among the Nations.”

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‘Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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