Alas, one of the best passages from the 2005 bestselling novel The Book Thief by Markus Zusak didn’t make it into the movie version which is being released nationwide on November 19, 2013.
In it, the narrator—a discerning and affable embodiment of the Grim Reaper—makes a sort of sidebar observation: “People may tell you that Nazi Germany was built on anti-Semitism, a somewhat overzealous leader, and a nation of hate-fed bigots, but it would all have come to nothing had the Germans not loved one particular activity: to burn. The Germans loved to burn things.”
The passage is starting in its understatement, astuteness, and potential to misdirect. The symbolic and literal relationship between fire and the Holocaust is undeniable, though the suggestion that such reduction is even possible is somewhat unsettling. If it had only been that simple. Or, was it really that simple?
Unsettling is the word that comes to mind for the whole experience of reading The Book Thief—which is a clever and gripping novel—and watching its visually gorgeous but regrettably sanitized and melodramatic movie version.
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
When it comes to the narratives of the Holocaust—documentary and fictionalized—there seem to be three general schools of thought.
The first one is representational, relying primarily on factual information to communicate the essence of the event. The gold standard for that category is the 9-hour Oscar winning documentary Shoah by Claude Lanzmann released in 1985.
Then there is another category that places less emphasis on historical fact (sometimes disregarding it completely) and tries instead to connect with the audience through a series of shared emotional cues that make the wound left by the Holocaust more palpable. Roberto Benigni’s controversial movie 1997 Life is Beautiful is one such example, though the spectrum here is pretty wide.
Then there is a third kind of narrative, one in which the Holocaust is a terrifying specter but not necessarily the starring actor. These schools of thought have been at odds for some time, most vocally during the release of Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Schindler’s List. It is this third category that has evolved over the last two decades and produced some fascinating narratives in fiction and nonfiction alike.
I would place The Book Thief – the book and the movie – in this third category. Author Markus Zusak was born in 1975 and raised in Australia by parents of Austrian and German extraction. He has just enough of geographic, temporal and psychic distance from the events he is describing to be unsentimental.
His highly refined and subtle narrative follows in the footsteps of other great German literature about the Holocaust like The Reader by Bernhard Schlink and Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald.
The movie adaptation is visually glorious and thoughtfully cast, but disappointingly sanitized. For example, in the book, Leisel Meminger, a preadolescent heroine, is not just a book thief; she steals food from farms and parcels slated for a priest while attaching herself to gangs of kids of various degrees of criminality. She behaves as so many children would under the circumstances, but the movie purified her into a sinless word catcher, a morally blank slate.
Max, the Jewish young man her adoptive family is hiding in the basement of their modest home on the outskirts of Munich has also been stripped of his imagination in the movie version. An accomplished boxer in pre-war Germany, Max has a taste for irony (on the train Munich he hides behind a copy of Mein Kampf) and a gift for creating piercing graphic novels. The novel elegantly flirts with the surreal, peppering the narrative with memorable dreamscapes of Max and the Fuhrer at a boxing match in a confrontation that is as comical as it is frightening. In the movie Max is just another innocent, a generic victim or an atrocity.
And then there is the subject of the Righteous Gentiles, whose heroism is as indisputable as their numbers are small. Leisel Meminger’s adoptive parents, Rosa and Hans Hubermann, epitomize decency, humility, and courage with respect to the Jews that we know from accounts such as Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners was extremely rare during the War.
In the novel Hans and Rosa are full-fledged characters who defy the stereotypes of their generation and class of Germans without seeming to be contrived. No actors could have personified them with greater authenticity than Emily Watson, who captures Rosa’s austerity and guts, and Geoffrey Rush, who seems to have walked off the pages of the book.
Sophie Nelisse, the actress who portrays Leisel, is a thing of beauty, with expressiveness that recalls the effect of young Natalie Portman. Her face seems to be saying that it is what Germany could have been had the poison of Nazism not infected it. Then there is Rudy, Leisel’s best friend, a sweet boy whose artlessness seemed perfectly natural in the book but came off as a narrative device in the movie.
It was inevitable—and necessary for a full record—that the destruction of the European Jewry be examined from the perspective of those so many didn’t even want to hear from—the Germans themselves. Not the perpetrators but those who had the misfortune of inheriting the legacy for which they could not have been held accountable.
If anything, this movie made me think about the burden that they carry—at least those whose conscience called for it. No, I wouldn’t put it in the same category as the burden suffered by the victims, survivors, and their progeny, but it is one that demands attention.
Another great line from the Grim Reaper did make it into the film, and was executed with a haunting precision. The scene captures, in slow motion, a group of enthusiastic young men caught in the moment of feverish anticipation of war.
“I’ve seen so many young men over the years who think they are running at other young men,” the grim reaper says. “They are not, they are running at me.”
It is a timeless image of adolescent delusion and mindless self-destruction that World War Two epitomized but didn’t eradicate.
RIF Recommendation: Read the book + wait for the DVD/digital release.