Our fascination with the Holocaust seems unending, in part because nothing in the world's recent past offers us such perfectly sculpted heroes and villians. Last night, after leaving the theater, my grandson, who had watched Frozen and not The Book Thief, asked me if Hitler was in the movie I'd just seen. I told him I didn't remember seeing his face at all.
"He's the main character, isn't he?" he asked, and my grandson wasn't wrong. Adolf Hitler may not have appeared in The Book Thief, but that didn't mean he wasn't there because he was, lurking as he always is in anything set anywhere in the 1940s.
We can all agree on Hitler. He was a madman, a mass murderer who is today safely beyond the reach of revisionists, and it's a comfort somehow to be able to agree at least on that point. We continue to read and watch Holocaust stories because they offer us extremes that are somehow comforting because there's really no ambiguity. In Germany and all of occupied Europe, you were either for or against the Nazis.
The Book Thief plays upon the library of Holocaust stories most of us already have by offering us a darling child named Liesel, an orphan, and her adoptive parents, Hans and Rosa, a couple who are not your standard fare--a poor and childless German couple, the husband irritatingly bereft of ambition, and a shrewish wife so unloving she could sour milk, a ne'er-do-well couple who are not conventional Holocaust heroes.
But there's a history to their selfless love, and it's not at all preposturous because the German military during World War I included Jewish men. One of them gave his life to save Hans, and that sacrifice makes Hans's denying his friend's son appeal for help impossible. For several years, the family and their adopted daughter with the angelic face hide the Jewish kid, a story enacted time and time again but always harrowing given the madness of Nazi death merchants.
Still, these heroes are German peasants whose selflessness is as close to divine as anything in this world.
The movie plays with our expectations in other ways too, even as it ends; you might say that what you can call The Book Thief's freshness grows out of the way it plays with what has become the conventional Holocaust story line. The wonderful relationship that blossoms between Liesel and her adoptive mother is itself worth the price of admission.
The movie is, as some have asserted, a rarity: the Holocaust offered neatly for family viewing during the holidays. Honestly, I sat in the theater, loving The Book Thief, and more than a little sad that I'd paid my grandkids' admission to Frozen when both of them would have learned oh-so-much more if they'd been sitting in our corner of the multiplex.
But I was also reminded of an age-old theoretical fight about the literature of the Holocaust, the argument belonging to some survivors, who felt it an outrage that anyone would even attempt to create fiction about what happened in Nazi Germany, at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, or anywhere in occupied Europe. The assertion goes like this: how can we "make up" stories about events that are unspeakable? Can imagined stories approximate what actually happened, when what happened is beyond language? Even if Sophie's Choice comes close, purists say no one can imagine that level of horror.
There's a downside to this movie that's altogether clear, and it goes something like this, if I may say it in such a coarse fashion: you can't make a silk purse out of a hog's ear. When the story sentimentalizes--as it does--it loses. There are plot twists that are cloyingly unlikely, creating moments when an audience really can't help feeling as if they're being toyed with. The problem with lack of ambiguity is very real possibility of stock characters.
With Maus, Art Spiegelman famously won the Pulitizer for making the Holocaust into a comic book. But Maus is not a YA novel, and The Book Thief is. Can there be such a thing? That's a good question.
To say the reviews are mixed is understatement: some call it one of the finest films of 2013; others simply roll their eyes at its garish excesses.
Me? I loved it. It may be that my age is showing here, but any story that takes delight in what we as humans can be in horrifying circumstances, in showing us at our own very best. . .let me put it this way: any great story that offers us ordinary people offering their lives for others is a blessing.
How does the old Jewish proverb go?--he who saves one life, saves the world.
Sophie's Choice will stick with you, and no one who's seen it will ever forget Schindler's List.
The Book Thief doesn't rise those levels, but I loved it. It may well be family fare, but that doesn't mean there isn't good reason to bring the kids.