Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Book Thief

Last year I met an expat from Germany who was perhaps ten years older than I and somehow, during our conversation, I thought to myself that his father and my father fought on opposing sides in World War II. I then thought that my father had beaten his father and, since this particular German man came across to me as a complete jerk, I took some satisfaction in the thought.

I'm not one of those people who blames all Germans for Hitler and Nazism. Of the millions of killings attributed to Hitler, however, I'm fairly certain that none of them were actually committed by him. Some people, however, do blame all Germans - at least all Germans of the war generation, which makes it difficult for them to accept the tenuous attempts, in the years since the end of the war (sixty-nine years by now), to address the subject in dramatic work both historical and fictional.

Although it hasn't been systematic, and has been shown to have too many blind spots, the handling of the legacy of World War Two by Germans has been remarkable. Compared to Japan, which has turned its back so completely on its war crimes that it refused to even admit to many of them, Germany has at least tried to come to terms with its terrible history. 

A reliable reflection of this coming clean can be found in German films since 1945. Besides the numerous films made elsewhere about the war, there have been remarkably few that have tried to tell the German side of the story. There was Helmut Kautner's The Devil's General (1955), and, four years later, Bernhard Wicki's The Bridge. Since both of these excellent films took a grim view of the German military during the fall of Germany (there has never been a film, that I know of, about their extraordinary victories at the start of the war), their acceptance by audiences was less problematic.

Michael Verhoeven's excellent 1990 film Das Schreckliche Maedchen (stupidly titled The Nasty Girl in the U.S.) told the (true) story of a young German woman who discovers that many of her home town's most prominent citizens were Nazis, and risks her life exposing them. The film showed how, decades after the war, many Germans were reluctant to admit their own guilt. 

Then came the film Stalingrad in 1993, which, by portraying the struggle of doomed German soldiers in the city surrounded by the Russian army, seemed to take on a somewhat tragic air. It was the first time that a German film avoided blame. When it was premiered in New York on the 50th anniversary of the German surrender, Stanley Kauffmann wrote:

"The film portrays the (historically unquestionable) courage of the German troops. We can't help wondering about the results if that courage had been rewarded. How much admiration or compassion can we feel for an army whose defeat was crucial to any chance that civilization may still have?" (1)

Since then, several films have tried to tell the history of the war from the perspective of Germans. For example, The Reader (2008), which was based on a best-selling novel, seemed to try to domesticate the subject by pushing one woman's war crimes to the periphery of the film's action. Because one German woman's guilt for her actions in the war (she was a concentration guard) wasn't the central subject of the film, it provoked Ron Rosenbaum to attack it in print. "This is a film," he wrote, "whose essential metaphorical thrust is to exculpate Nazi-era Germans from knowing complicity in the Final Solution." 

Because The Reader failed to engage audiences with whatever point it was trying to make (its "metaphorical thrust" had much more to do with guilt than with exculpation), Rosenbaum's objections were hard to believe. Those objections, however, seem to be custom made for a more recent film called The Book Thief (2013).    

About an hour into The Book Thief, there is a scene that could serve as the the film's epitome. The heroine, Liesel (played winsomely by the pretty - and Canadian - Sophie Nelisse), attends a night-time Nazi rally (part of Hitler's stagecraft) in which a large pile of books is burned. She stands in her Hitler Youth uniform with a crowd of people in the cold square while some Brownshirts make speeches. When the speech is finished, everyone joins in the Nazi salute and sings "Deutschland Uber alles" (by now, surely the most tedious national anthem we've ever had to sit through). Then everyone is obliged to throw one book into the bonfire. During the scene, Liesel learns that her mother, who gives her away early in the film to another family, was a Communist and that she was imprisoned by the Nazis. Liesel stays until everyone has left the square and approaches the smoldering bonfire. Making sure no one is watching, she extracts one of the books that is still intact from the ashes. When Hans, her adoptive "Papa" (Geoffrey Rush) approaches, she hides the smoking book under her coat, and as they walk away, Liesel starts to cough. "Are you Okay?" Hans asks. They walk a little farther and Liesel coughs some more. "Are you ill?" Hans asks. Finally, Liesel opens her coat and lets the smoking book fall to the cold ground. Hans picks its up and extinguishes the book's burning cover. "Did you steal this?" he asks Liesel. Liesel asks Hans if what she has learned about her mother is true. When he confirms it, she says, "I hate Hitler!"

Of course, Liesel didn't steal the book - she rescued it. As in The Reader (whose German title was Der Vorleser), Liesel reads the various books she "steals" to Max, a young Jewish man who hides in her basement. Liesel's adoptive family is clearly intended to be a microcosm of the German people. They are portrayed as salt-of-the-earth menschen - ordinary decent people who unfortunately have to endure the Nazis and the injustices they carry out all around them. In fact, all of the people in the film, except for the Gestapo and one of Liesel's ultra-Nazi classmates, are scrupulously decent. The film might lead someone with no prior knowledge to conclude that ordinary Germans were as much victims of Nazism as everyone else in Europe. I cannot recall another film since Robert Benigni's Life is Beautiful that tried so hard to misrepresent the events of the war in order to extract an uplifting - and utterly false - message from the war than The Book Thief

Never mind that the film (like the novel by the Australian author Markus Zusak) is narrated by Death, or that the only German spoken by the actors are the words "yes" ("ja") and "no" ("nein")(2), or that all the actors speak, or at least attempt to speak, in broad German accents, or that there isn't the slightest suggestion of sex in the film, despite the interminable toothsomeness of Liesel and her proximity to Max in many of their scenes (whereas The Reader was replete with sex between Hannah [Kate Winslet] and her underage "vorleser"), or that Liesel survives the war and becomes a writer and is finally spirited away by Death in advanced old age.  

But The Book Thief is not simply a bad movie. It is a kind of Anne of Green Gables Goes to War. If Liesel had appeared in one of Grimm's fairy tales, she would certainly have been eaten by a wolf or cooked in an oven by a witch. When the late Robin Williams was asked by a German interviewer why there are no funny people in Germany, he replied, "Because you killed them all!" I don't know how that interviewer or his audience reacted to Williams's riposte. (It would be worth something to have seen it.) But I am not one of those people who hold the Germans entirely responsible for the destruction of Europe and of nearly all European Jews. Perhaps many Germans were unaware, or only learned when it was too late, that they were selling their souls to a half-demented demon. But they sold them all the same. As Primo Levi wrote: "One human German does not whitewash the innumerable inhuman or indifferent ones." In The Book Thief we're confronted with a whole town full of human Germans. Whitewashing wholesale.    

(1) "A Battle," The New Republic, June 5, 1995.
(2) There is also "dummkopf," the pet name given to Liesel by her classmates when she demonstrates to them her inability to read or write.

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