Haunted by Humans: The Book Thief
Last night, we saw Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, the delightful elegant comic book movie with more extravagant action scenes than a Batman, Superman or 007 movie. It is chock full of deadpan sight gags and visual delights. Nothing more needs to be said. Enjoy yourself.
Some movies provide a different sort of delight and pleasure even when set against the background of the Nazis and the Holocaust. I did not see The Book Thief when it first came out in theatres. We had been intrigued by the preview, but we were deterred by the reviews so the movie somehow dropped to the bottom of our priority list. Basically, the movie is an adaptation of a coming-of-age very popular and excellent novel by Marcus Zusak about a girl in Nazi Germany from 1938, three month after I was born, until the end of the war, with a postscript about her death of old age in her Upper West Manhattan apartment after having lived a wonderful and fulfilling life.
Two days ago we watched it on Netflix. We were delighted. So I wanted to see what in the reviews had turned us off. Most reviews repeated the story line and served as spoilers. Almost all the reviews applauded the acting, especially the French-Canadian actress, Sophie Nélisse, in the starring role of Liesel Meminger. The excellent cast included the kind Geoffrey Rush and the outwardly hard-hearted Emily Watson as Liesel’s foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann — named as a true understanding of Friedrich Nietzsche’s űbermann, one who does not give into the sentimental demands of mob morality but overcomes oneself and one’s inner fears to evince a higher level of values. Reviewers also heaped enormous praise on the score written by John Williams that was deservedly nominated for an Oscar, but one critic used its quality to further undercut the movie – John Williams’ score, “a quieter, more somber echo of his music for ‘Schindler’s List’ — lends the film an unearned patina of solemnity, for ‘The Book Thief’ is a shameless piece of Oscar-seeking Holocaust kitsch.”
That theme ran through almost of all of the reviews. While acknowledging that the movie was faithful to the novel, the movie was considered soppy, contrived and sentimental and the Director, Brian Percival (of Downton Abbey fame), was generally judged as having reinforced and even over-emphasized that propensity of the original work of fiction on which the film was based. Review aggregations were generally bad, ranking the movie below 50% approval – Rotten Tomatoes 46%. Metacritic gave it a 53 rating, that is a so-so movie.
“The years-spanning film, which observes traumatic historical events through Liesel’s eyes, looks and tastes like a giant sugar cake whose saccharinity largely camouflages the horrors of the war…Except for the Nazi flags hanging from every building, the town, under a glistening blanket of snow, could be the cozy setting for a holiday greeting card. The pieces of the story, which begins in 1938, are so neatly arranged that the movie has the narrative flow and comforting familiarity of a beloved fairy tale.”
“Brian Percival’s adaptation retains much of Zusak’s hefty source material (including that narrator), but the chill is replaced by a chocolate box prettiness, making it cousin to those respectable lit adaptations Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, Memoirs of a Geisha and The Reader. And Percival’s own episodes of Downton Abbey.”
“Bringing this qualified idealism to crooked-grinned, bittersweet life is Rush’s Hans, a man quietly outcast by acquaintances for not joining the Party and whose remorse at an act of quick, but dangerous heroism captures ever-present fear in a fascist state. But, while an accessible entry point to WW2 for younger viewers and never less than watchable for adult audiences, this is ultimately too Oscar showreel polished for its own good.”
“The use of Death as the narrator, and the artfully dream-like set – which looks almost as if it has fluttered out of the pages of an illustration – lend an artistic gloss to the horrors of Nazi repression…I felt manipulated. One can understand why storytellers and filmmakers are drawn to Nazi Germany: its choices were so stark, and the price of courage so great, that it arrives already freighted with emotion. Still, I came away from The Book Thief with the uneasy sense that history had been subjected to a wealth of sentimental fictional tweaking, a kind of self-indulgent wallowing in the human drama of the era without a profound understanding of its reality. And that, combined with the detailed croonings of an imaginary Death about how he garnered the souls of the dying, began to make me feel a little queasy.”
Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian wrote that the movie looked like “a creepy new version of the Anne Frank story”. Brian Viner headlined his review: “It’s Downton with Nazis: Lightweight and glossy, you can tell this war film is made by an ex-director of ITV’s hit costume drama.”
“The Book Thief will undoubtedly have its admirers and, indeed, has one in my 15-year-old god-daughter Lydia, who pronounces it one of the best films she’s ever seen. That might be significant, for the book has been categorised as young-adult fiction, and that’s probably how the film should be marketed, too.”
Even a favourite reviewer, David Denby, wrote, “Markus Zusak’s enormously successful young-adult novel seems to have been adapted as a movie for middle-aged children. The brute facts of the Second World War in Germany—Nazi oppression, hunger, people hiding in basements—have been turned into a pleasantly meaningless tale of good-heartedness, complete with soft lyrical touches and a whimsical appearance, as a narrator, by Death, who should have laid this movie to rest.”
If you happened to read one or two of these reviews, would you have seen the movie? The exceptional critic who praised the movie was not much help either.
“And now for my first fight with my fiancée Debbie Ross. She did not like the film The Book Thief. She thought it too photogenic. I thought it the best film of the year by far… The trouble with critics nowadays is that they know about life under German occupation from Hollywood. I know about it first-hand, over the course of three long years. Most German officers acted impeccably, as did simple soldiers…the great majority were civilised and acted within the rules…The Red Army raped close to three million German women, the German army in occupied Europe raped nearly zero. Go see The Book Thief.”
Such reviews, even though they praise the film, are terrible because they too think that the movie is about a realistic depiction of Nazi Germany when it is clearly and unequivocally a modern fairy tale told within a realistic format. After all, the narrator, Roger Allam in a deliberate British accent, is DEATH. We are told that many times throughout the movie that we are not dealing with realism. The Grimm Reaper would not begin the film addressing us if it were. The fairy tale setting and characterization are intrinsic to the poles necessary to depict the contrast between the horrors of Hitler’s regime and the delightful empathy of the main characters.
Reviewers of the book got it. John Green, when he reviewed Zusak’s novel back in 2006 in The New York Times called it brilliant, beginning with Death and fear of death and loss of the other that is central to the invocation of empathy and sentiment. Why did the vast majority of film critics fail to understand at least what was being tried even if they still might disagree on whether it succeeded?
I believe it did succeed and did so exceptionally well. First of all, the Grimm Reaper is not grim at all. He does not come from the riches of a Grimm fairy tale. However, he exudes the same indifference to the living as the Grimm Reaper in the Grimm story, “Godfather Death”. But when the Grimm Reaper lets his feelings undermine him when he has a godson who grows up to be a physician whom he rewards with the ability to both prophecy and prevent death by using herbs, and that son betrays him, he eventually, overcomes his feelings for his own godson and extinguishes his life. Death, however, in this movie is British rather than German. He is dressed in a long frock coat and a bowler hat when we glimpse him from the rear near the end of the movie. The foster daughter does not die but leads a long and successful life even though everyone she loved, but Max, the Jew hidden in the basement by her foster parents, does die.
It is no surprise that the first book which she found on top of her young brother’s grave, and from which she first learned to read with the help of Hans, is called, The Gravedigger’s Handbook. It is no surprise that the book she returns to read over and over again, and one which she reads to Max in the basement, is H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man, written from a third-person perspective rather than the first-person point of view of The Time Machine or The Island of Doctor Moreau. For The Invisible Man as a science fiction novel anticipated how stealth aircraft could be unseen by radar by playing with refractive qualities of radar instead of light to make an object invisible. Somehow, the film worked too well and made the film as seen and felt invisible and deaf to most reviewers.
There are two invisible men in The Book Thief, Hitler, who is omnipresent seen only through flags with Nazi swastikas, and Max who is hidden in the cellar under a swastika flag when the Gestapo search the cellar. He can be seen only by Liesel, Hans and Rosa. Like Well’s science fiction novel and virtually all of Grimm’s fairy tales, this story takes place in a small town, though in The Invisible Man, it is a British town and, in that story, the man responsible for the invisibility, Griffin, is captured, beaten and killed by a British mob, whereas in this German town, the citizenry sing Deutschland Über Alles, burn books after Kristallnacht and watch as Nazi thugs bash in the windows of Jewish shops and assault the Jewish owners.
However, I do not think the film reviewers miss the genre of the film simply because they are caught up in the performances, the visuals and the sound track and ignore the literary references and symbolism, even when the film (and the novel) has an ironic title like The Book Thief, though not one reviewer I read who felt quite comfortable with retelling the whole story and serving up spoilers, ever made mention of any of the literary references. I think they just do not understand the difference between sentimentality and sentiment. Contrary to their erroneous judgments, the movie is totally unsentimental while its main theme is a celebration of sentiment which even the Grimm Reaper cannot prevent himself from being touched by. For it is that quality of humanity that haunts him. The inversion of Death haunted by life seems also to have escaped every reviewer that I read.
The philosophers of the Scottish enlightenment – including Francis Hutcheson, Lord Shaftesbury, David Hume and Adam Smith, yes the same Adam Smith whom the cold-hearted neo-liberals cite as their guru – saw sentiment as the key to understanding morality. Sentiment is NOT sentimentality. Whatever the original connection of the two terms, sentimentality now means an appeal to shallow emotions at the expense of reason and disproportionate to the occasion. Sentimentality means playing on one’s heart strings to turn one’s heart into mush instead of a centre for acute discrimination. The pat pathos awakened and feeding on itself rather than the Other is naive and usually excessive, a contrived product of artificial stimulation rather than a natural impulse.
In contrast, sentiment is the foundation of morality rooted in a universal human empathy and concern for others indifferent to self interest. It is benevolence or kindness. Unlike reason, sentiment motivates action, but, to avoid naiveté, requires reason as a complement to assent to, explicate and order those moral decisions within a matrix of understanding built on justice that enables different circumstances and relationships to be comprehended within a system. Sentimentality dispenses with reason. Sentiment requires reason to validate its intuitive sense.
After Death introduces the fairy tale, when Liesel arrives in the little town and Heaven Street where Hans and Rosa Hubermann live, Hans first greets his new foster daughter as a princess rather than a foundling as in a standard Dickens novel, and addresses her as, “Your majesty”. His wife turns out to be a real momma and not the pretend mean stepmother of a Grimm tale as she at first displays. For this is a British fairy tale told by Death with a British accent and not the Grimm fairy tales that Hitler praised as portraying children with sound racial instincts seeking racially pure marriage partners in the spirit of a sentimentalized romantic nationalism even though the Grimm brothers satirized such sentiments as in the story of Hans and his fiancée Gretel who gives a gift to her each day by mindlessly following the instructions of his mother from the day before and each time destroying that gift. “That’s how Hans lost his bride” tells the story with the moral that he failed because he was dis-engaged – like Godfather Death.
Liesel, like Zusak’s previous protagonists, is a fighter who at the very beginning beats up the town’s young bully who mocks her for illiteracy, but she soon learns to fight back with more than her fists through the magic of words and learning to read. And she reads and re-reads The Invisible Man to the Jewish fighter (unless I missed it, the film for some reason leaves out the important reference that Max was a boxer) and insists that he, like everyone else in her life, must not disappear. And true to his word and the magic of the word and her diary that she wrote on the painted-over pages of Mein Kampf that Max made for her, Max returns and he too defeats death, the same death that visits her best friend, the lemon-haired archetypal Aryan, Rudy Steiner, acted with impeccable youthful intelligence by Nico Liersch. Rudy loves Liesel but he too is a worshipper, but unlike the Nazis who select him for an elite corps, he worships the black fastest man in the world, the runner, Jesse Owens. Liesel and Rudy both hate bullies, especially Hitler.
Do movie reviewers ignore the script and therefore miss the allusions? Max Petroni’s screenplay was not flawless, but clearly some key scenes that would have helped viewers understand the message were either elided or left on the cutting room floor. One is Max’s dream sequence in which he boxes endlessly with the Führer for whom he is just a punching bag until he lands one punch and knocks Hitler down. Hitler, in defeat, heartlessly whips the crowd into a furious mob with his evocative words so that the “fists of an entire nation” can be used to attack Max and beat him to a pulp. However, through Liesel, Death learned what it meant to have a heart and Death has been haunted by humanity ever since.