Saturday, December 21, 2013

Heartless About the Holocaust?

I took my wife and mother to see the movie version of The Book Thief yesterday afternoon. Katie had read and loved the book—about a German girl in Nazi Germany solaced by reading and writing—so I expected her to love the film.* At my other elbow, my mother left no doubt of her feelings. She reacted with moans and gasps to the visceral horrors: the atrocities of Kristallnacht, the public book-burning, the herding and beating of Jews, the bullying of a good father who refuses to join the Party, the Allied bombing of German civilians.

Between these female pillars of my life, I sat unmoved. The movie’s production values are first-rate, and the acting is superb, especially by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as the foster parents of Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), a twelvish girl sent away by her mother to avoid Nazi persecution. But the story did not grab me. I retreated to the lobby to finish my popcorn without annoying my neighbors by crunching it, and to confirm a restaurant reservation. Then I returned to my seat and sat and stared.

I felt heartless. Could I really have stopped caring about the Holocaust? Has a lifetime bombardment of words and imagery—Anne Frank, Night in Fog, Schindler’s List, the heart-breaking Life is Beautiful—desensitized me? Am I becoming a cold old dude?

I think not, although I do believe that chronicling the Holocaust has passed the urgent, save-the-memory period, and has moved into an era when publishers and producers squeeze marginal dollars from its narrative.

The Book Thief wants to be a fresh way of looking at the Holocaust. It says that books can somehow save us, even from something horrific. En route to her foster parents’ home, Liesel witnesses the death and burial of her brother and steals a book from his graveside: The Gravedigger’s Handbook. She and her adopted papa (Rush) read it aloud together when he discovers that she is illiterate. Of course it is fun and ironic to see them sounding out such morbid matters together with pleasure. Soon Liesel creates an in-home dictionary, writing newly learned words with chalk on the basement walls. Then a young Jewish man is taken in, and Liesel befriends him, and then Max almost dies but survives, and then he is forced to leave to prevent the family’s persecution. Then Liesel’s dad and little boyfriend are conscripted. Then the bombs fall. Finally, TWO YEARS LATER we get the happy ending.

Of course it’s a Hollywood formula, but there’s this book theme in The Book Thief that should make it special and moving, especially, you’d think, for me, a writer. Sorry, it left me cold.

The movie seems to count on our biases about books as much as it does on our knee-jerk horror at the Holocaust. Push the horror buttons and we gasp. Push the book button and we say, ah yes, of course, everything will be OK: Liesel is writing about it now.

Literature can save us, but how? The movie never explains. We only see Liesel rapt over reading, bravely stealing into the house of the Burgermeister to borrow volumes from his immense library, and serving as a bomb-shelter story-teller—on her way to becoming a best-selling author, of course, as an epilog shows us.

I was left thinking that, as Hollywood perpetuates the Holocaust because it is a winning formula, Hollywood will continue throwing bouquets at literacy and the publishing industry, which feeds it so many profitable scripts.

Oprah, who stands at the great crossroads of written and visual entertainment, loved The Book Thief. Are you surprised?

* At the restaurant afterward, Katie was receptive when I told her the film left me cold. She admitted that some in her book club did not like it that much, and she talked about things left out of the film.

Katie noted that one thing in particular is clearer in the book: The narrator, who provides the voice-over in the film, is death itself, and is ubiquitous in the book. Thinking back to a movie I was already forgetting, I remembered Death’s main spoken message: Everyone dies. Like the books Liesel read, I didn’t find that message especially revealing or redemptive.

No comments:

Post a Comment

If you have trouble posting comments, please log in as Anonymous and sign your comment manually.