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Posted on Aug 11, 2009 in Books and Movies

Producer Peter Hankoff – Why Historical Documentaries Matter

Gerald D. Swick


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Peter Hankoff (foreground) and driver-production assistant Lech Lacowski filming in a killing field in Lithuania where German Einsatzgruppen conducted mass exterminations during World War II. Photo courtesy Peter Hankoff.

History is made up of two things: troublemakers and real estate.

Any history buff can quickly name some documentary film that he or she regards as a favorite and can probably list several that should be on must-see lists. But how do you make a documentary on subjects like the Holocaust or the Nazis, topics that can re-open not-so-old wounds? Why do documentaries matter to us, and how are modern trends, from computer-generated graphics to the Twitter phenomenon, affecting how these films are made? discussed these and other questions with documentary writer and producer Peter Hankoff, whose credits include Nazi Scrapbooks from Hell: The Auschwitz Albums and the recent Hitler’s Hidden Holocaust, both of which aired on the National Geographic Channel. The interview took place on August 5, 2009.

{default} What led you to the genre of documentary filmmaking?

Peter Hankoff: I was a screenwriter for a long time, but you know, in Hollywood 50 is the new dead. Younger actors, younger writers. About eight years ago, a friend needed a screenwriter on a documentary about steelworkers for the History Channel’s A Day in Their Lives series and asked me to do it. "Empire State Building Ironworker" won the Gabriel Award, which the Catholic Church gives for filmmaking that depicts family values.

I just took my skill set as a writer, the ability to put things together, and applied it to creating documentaries. I’ve always loved history—especially World War II—so historical topics are what I tend to get assigned. Part of my job is to keep history alive.

My work has been done pretty much exclusively with Creative Differences Productions. I like working there because it’s like the old studio system: Here’s your budget, here’s what we need, go get it done. It’s not a widget factory. They know that I know the difference between a B17 and a B29. Younger editors often don’t know the difference between such things because they don’t have the reference points.

Don’t get me wrong—I give great credit to editors in documentary making. They burn through a lot of footage to get the film’s point across, but they don’t always know exactly what it is they are looking at. The last thing I want is people like your readers writing to tell me I’m wrong. You won’t see a B29 over Europe in one of my films.

ACG: Do documentaries offer viewers things they can’t find in other mediums?

PH: You get more perspective in a documentary. If you tell it right, viewers don’t get just one side. It gives them a window into the past, especially if it uses old footage.

Often, it’s some little thing in the background that really gives you the story. In Hidden Holocaust, we used one well-known, often-used film that shows Einsatzgruppen, the mobile German units that went into Poland and the Soviet Union to conduct mass executions of Jews and anyone else the Nazis termed undesirables. What struck me in the film footage were little details like a dog running around in the middle of the shooting. The banality of it is even more chilling.

History is made up of two things: troublemakers and real estate. The humanness of history comes out more in the documentary, especially if the filmmaker is coming from a forthright place.

The truth is that most leaders throughout history have been bad people. It starts with your bad boss, and history is made up of a lot of bad bosses. For example, when I was working on A Day in Their Lives: Conquistador (2001) as a consulting producer, my research showed the Conquistadors and the Aztecs deserved each other. Both were pretty ruthless.

ACG: What do you set out to do with any documentary you produce?

PH: To find the truth in the story and to find the thing that you haven’t seen already. The only thing television and truth have in common is the "t," but it’s my job to find the truth.

Did you know that apparently Columbus gathered up natives and took them with him and used them as food for his war dogs? That wasn’t what we were taught about him in school.

ACG: Several of your projects deal with sensitive subjects like the Holocaust or the Nazis, areas in which the wounds are still very real. What special problems does that present in making a balanced documentary?

PH: There are two sets of issues. How do I talk to a survivor? And when I go to a location, how do I not offend the people in that location

Gavin Hodge, whom I’ve worked with several times—I love working with him; it’s been a good partnership—we went to Eisiskes in Lithuania, where there had once been a large Jewish community but no Jews were left after the war. The residents knew we were going to film. Many people feared we were going to knock on doors and say, "Did you know Jews used to live here and they want their house back?" The fact we were with National Geographic helped, but we still had to go see the vice-mayor. The meeting was very tense for the first five minutes. They feared it was going to be like 60 Minutes on acid or something.

When working on Holocaust documentaries, many people want to be sure you aren’t going to use what you’re doing to deny the Holocaust, because there are a lot of Holocaust deniers. When I meet Holocaust survivors, I want to put them at ease but I also want them to talk about their experiences. I’m half-Jewish so that helps; I grew up with children of Holocaust survivors in my neighborhood.

When I do an interview, you are my guest. It’s like you are in my house, I want you to be comfortable. As a result, I’ve gotten some great interviews because I let them tell their story in their way.

In Hidden Holocaust, I had the most intense interview I ever did. The man was uncomfortable, he really didn’t want to talk about it, but his daughter kept telling him, "You’ve got to do this for the children." I promised to give him copies of everything he said so he could give it to his children, and he opened up. He’d never told his story on camera before.

People may be telling you the most terrible things, but you have to be thinking about your next question. You have to have professional distance, but how can you not be affected when you are looking history in the face?

ACG: Are there particular subjects that appeal to you in your filmmaking and writing? What makes you decide, "I’m going to make a documentary about X?"

PH: A lot of it is about my assignment, about what the networks want. I’m grateful that I’m able to work doing what I want to do instead of having to make, say, America’s Best Puppies.

I have learned that if something really horrible happens, I’ll probably get that assignment because I have the stomach for it and the empathy for the people I’m talking with.

ACG: Documentaries, including yours, have long been the province of television but in recent years we’ve seen big-screen documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth that have drawn large audiences. Is this affecting television documentaries in any way?

PH: I don’t know if it is affecting them directly, but I think it gives more credibility to all documentaries when a documentary gets theater time. It also shows that people are smarter, that they want to think instead of just being entertained.

ACG: Should documentaries be used as platforms for a cause, or do they then basically become a 90-minute ad?

PH: Everyone has an opinion, a point of view. Is the news the news? I look at Nazi newsreels for footage in my shows. You look at how they used music and images to convey their message. Sure, 60 years later it looks clunky. Will we look at today’s news programs 60 years from now and say the same thing?

It is the responsibility of the documentary filmmaker to be responsible. Sensationalism sells better on TV, but I want to know the footprints I left behind were more than sensational crap. The old series Victory At Sea had a profound affect on me when I was a child. It made me want to carry on in that tradition, to make documentaries about what makes us stick together as a culture.

ACG: Do you think things on the Internet such as YouTube are changing how young people look at history?

PH: Yes. YouTube is a cool thing but potentially a scary thing. I’m not opposed to it. Young people watch old TV shows from before they were born on it. It’s a great tool but it’s also divisive. A 12-year-old doesn’t need to know how to pick locks or what it looks like when you put a firecracker in your pants – and there’s a lot of that on YouTube. I’m not a censorship kind of person but I think parents need to be responsible for what comes into their children’s world.

Imagine what Hitler would have done if he had YouTube? And maybe there is some future Hitler who will figure out some way to use something like YouTube.

ACG: Schoolteachers discovered decades ago that lessons need to be broken into 12-minute segments, the length of time between commercials on TV, because students’ attention spans had been so affected by television viewing. On the Web, everything has to be short, plus we have texting, Twitter and other phenomenon that may be reducing attention spans even further. Do you think that’s true and, if so, how does it affect making documentaries?

PH: One thing I can tell you is that when I started making documentaries nine years ago, my one-hour show was actually about 49 minutes. Today that same show is 42 minutes. The "one-hour show" is a series of acts about 6-8 minutes long.

I find I don’t read The New York Times the way I used to. Now I only look at one or two stories each day, so yes, I can see that it is even affecting me.

ACG: Increasingly, documentaries are utilizing elements like reenactments and computer-generated graphics to tell their story. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of these "docudrama" elements?

PH: Personally, I don’t like reenactments because they’re not as good as what Hollywood can make. I like abstract reenactments, like fingers typing on a keyboard.

I do like using CGI (computer generated imagery) because it lets you can show things from a position you couldn’t before, in a way you couldn’t before. In a Pearl Harbor documentary I worked on, we did a bomb’s-eye view of the bomb falling on the Arizona, which let us really show the weight and size of that bomb. However, CGI is expensive and can’t be changed without spending thousands and thousands of dollars.

ACG: Any closing thoughts?

PH: Human beings will always repeat what they don’t know and think they are doing it for the first time—and that’s dangerous. The Holocaust really strikes me because I think it is in our DNA to kill; that is what history shows. So much gets watered down, and people don’t understand their culture. I see that in our society because we’re not paying attention. As we lose our history and lose our perspective, we are in danger of losing our culture. Maybe that’s the way its supposed to be, but it doesn’t feel that way.


  1. Very interesting behind the scenes information on documentaries. Thanks for the sparks of humor, too.

  2. I think it’s very interesting to see how Peter uses the medium of film to keep history alive. Great story.

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