The setting is a picturesque village. The main characters are two angelic children with blond hair, ruddy cheeks, and open, innocent faces. The boy, Rudy, comes from a large, boisterous family. The girl, Liesel, has been adopted by an older couple whose children have grown up and moved on. Papa is warm and affectionate. Mama is cold and imperious, her tough hide barely concealing the heart of gold beating within.
Are we done with the stereotypes yet? Not quite. In the cellar, Papa and Mama hide a saintly Jew with coal black eyes and translucent skin named Max. Even though flags with swastikas snap smartly in the crisp wind, none of these people actually support the Nazis agenda. They are all simple people; good Germans, trapped in a nightmare of mutual suffering.
We can be sure of all this because the narrator of the story is "Death," a disembodied voice who tells us his role is to collect the souls of the recently deceased and transport them to the hereafter. If Death personified tells us all of these souls are pure, who are we to disagree?
Ten years ago, in 2003, when The Pianist won three Oscars (for Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay) and Nowhere in Africa received the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, I was filled with apprehension. Even though I knew many Jewish friends were deeply touched by these two films, I felt they were falling into a trap. The statistical truths I found so essential in Schindler's List (one of the few films to address the industrialization of mass murder that defines the essence of the Holocaust for me) were being undermined by stories that robbed the Holocaust of its Jewish particulars.
Since that time I have seen several films that I think fall into the "Holocaust Kitsch" genre including The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas, The Reader, Sara's Key, and now The Book Thief. Each time, I heard people around me crying, while my own heart remained stone cold.
But this decade has also seen films I consider profoundly moving such as Fugitive Pieces (from Canada), La Rafle (from France), Rosenstrasse (from Germany) Dear Mr. Waldman and My Australia (from Israel), and Aftermath and In Darkness (from Poland).
Looking at these two lists, I see now that the films that move me the least are the ones in English (usually British English) which smother their stories in impeccable production values, thereby sugar coating a horror we Americans still seem unable to face head on. Of course, with bigger budgets and lots of marketing hype, producers have more incentive to "universalize" a message that will sell to the greatest number of viewers. But still…
Do I think only Jews suffered during World War II? No, of course not. I am well aware that approximately forty million human beings died between 1939 and 1945, and each life was equally precious. Every person who died was someone's child and often someone's spouse, parent and/or sibling as well. Most people live their lives in a community of loved ones and friends who mourn when they are gone. And of course this includes "ordinary" Germans-the civilians who lived in cities like Dresden and villages like Molching (the fictional hamlet west of Munich in which The Book Thief is set) and were thereby subject to intense Allied bombing raids.
But millions of Jews who died during World War II died in a way that was unprecedented in human history and so far, thankfully, unique: they died as a result of scientifically-designed, industrialized mass murder. These people, like none before them, were not only robbed of their lives, but their names were replaced by numbers. If there is anything unique about the Shoah it is this: the lives of millions of men, women, and children were coldly reduced to "paperwork;" cargo to be transported, units to be processed, the raw material in a man-made death machine.
I have no patience with "Holocaust Films" that deny these fundamental facts of history.
SPOILER ALERT: At the end of The Book Thief only two people are still alive: angelic Liesel and saintly Max. Even though I sensed from the beginning that the film would end with this surge of emotional uplift, it still made my heart ache. How can I tell you any true things-wonderful acting, great cinematography, perfect soundtrack-about a film so fundamentally false?
Top Photo: Sophie Nélisse as "Liesel" borrows books from the home of a neighbor.
Bottom Photo: Liesel and "Rudy" (Nico Liersch) at play on Himmel Strasse (Heaven Street).
Photo Credits: Jules Heath/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation