There’s no place like Netflix for a lazy afternoon binge. But if you’d like to feel a bit more productive while relaxing on the couch, there’s no better way to spend your time than with these fantastic history documentaries on Netflix. Whether an hour and a half movie or a sprawling, multi-part series, these engrossing documentaries enlighten and entertain.
The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns
Ken Burns is the king of history documentaries. And The Civil War is a great place to see why. Burns’s first major documentary, The Civil War was the first documentary to use the “Burns effect”: a method of zooming and panning across images to make it seem as though they were moving. The nine episode series will keep you glued to the screen.
You’ll find a variety of Ken Burns’s films available on Netflix, including The Vietnam War, The West, Prohibition, The Roosevelts, and The War (World War I). Each of them is worth the watch.
Related: 9 Best Civil War Movies
Five Came Back
World War II was a whole country effort: Nobody, not even famous Hollywood stars, was exempt. In Five Came Back, Meryl Streep narrates as five current directors explore the impact of the war on five early 20th century directors. Each of the five directors profiled volunteered to go to war. They were asked to help by making movies about the war from the front lines. Discover how Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler, and George Stevens impacted the war–and how the war impacted them.
Paris is Burning
This iconic documentary deserves the praise it’s received over the years. Documenting the lives of young LGBTQ people in the 1980s ball scene, Paris is Burning explores how fringe or niche culture enters the mainstream. Without ball culture, there would be no “Vogue”, no RuPaul’s Drag Race, and no gifs of Broad City characters screaming “yas”.
Raiders of the Lost Art
Discover the stories behind some of the most famous art heists in history, from the thrilling escapades of the Monument Men to the hunt for missing Fabergé eggs. Even the seldom-told story of the stealing of the Mona Lisa makes an appearance in this documentary series.
Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise
Discover the woman behind some of the most vital modern American literature. Perhaps most well-known for her memoir of her early years, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, this documentary delves not only into her lesser known work, but also into the cultural and political moments that made her work possible.
Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution
This six-piece series includes interviews from both former inmates and guards of the Auschwitz concentration camp. By focusing on one (horrific) camp, the terrors of World War II as a whole come into clearer focus.
American Experience: Rachel Carson
Even if you haven’t heard of Rachel Carson, you’ve probably heard of DDT. And that’s thanks to her book, Silent Spring. An aquatic biologist, Carson captured headlines to her crusade against DDT and the environmental impact it wrought. This thoughtful documentary traces Carson's life as a biologist and as a major force in the environmental movement.
The First World War From Above
Witness a new view of the First World War—literally. This documentary uses footage taken during World War I by French and British pilots to reveal the impact of aerial war on the Western Front. Seeing the damage wrought by these air raids—in particular, the chaos and destruction that rained down on civilians—brings the stark realities of WWI into focus.
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
Hedy Lamarr, once called the world’s most beautiful woman, was far more than just a beauty or a movie star. She also invented the code-hopping mechanism that made cell phones and wireless connections possible. This fascinating biographical doc charts her life, from its beginning as an immigrant traveling from Austria to the United States to her final days as a recluse.
Finding Vivian Maier
If you’ve taken even a high school level photography class, you’ve likely heard of Vivian Maier. If you haven’t, you’re in for a treat. In 2009, Maier passed away at the age of 83. Seemingly your average nanny (although one of her charges called her a real life Mary Poppins), Maier’s life held a major secret. She had been a street photographer nearly her whole life. And there were tens of thousands of photographs hidden in her home and a storage space that she rented. This documentary details her life, her work, and the recognition she received, sadly only after her death.
American Experience: The Battle of Chosin
American Experience delves into the Battle of Chosin, one of the decisive battles of the Korean War. Over 17 days in the midst of a brutal winter, Chinese and UN troops battled. As many as 20,000 people were killed. A comprehensive view of a horrific battle, The Battle of Chosin illustrates the heroics and efforts of the Korean War.
Featured still from "The Civil War" via Florentine Films