Tag Archives: War

The Book Thief

bookthiefThe Book Thief (2013) is a beautiful if flawed adaptation of the 2005 young adult novel with the same title. It looks at life in Nazi Germany through the eyes of a young German girl. Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) has lost her mother as the film begins; her mother is a communist, presumably taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel is adopted by the working-class Hubermanns (played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) who become progressively poorer as the war drags on. Her adopted father, Hans, is in trouble for not joining the Nazi Party, and he has a penchant for sticking up for the underdog. Rosa, his wife, appears to be a stingier sort of person, but shows her true colors when the son of an old friend of Hans’, a Jew, appears starving at their door.

The film follows this threesome through the war, and it surprises in ways that I will not spoil with this commentary. There is nothing in the film I would not show a middle-schooler. (For more about the film’s suitability for children, see its entry at www.kids-in-mind.com.)

The book and film take their name from Liesel, who takes a book she cannot even read at the beginning of the film, and who continually acquires books through questionable or dangerous means.

Commentary

The Book Thief offers us a chance to ponder what was going on with ordinary Germans during the Holocaust years. It takes us inside the home of a couple who feel sympathy for communists and Jews, but who are poorly equipped to take a heroic stand against Nazism. It takes us into the schoolyard, where young Liesel faces the full range of her neighbors’ loyalties and inclinations, from Franz, an enthusiastic Nazi and bully, to Rudy, who idolizes Jesse Owens and cannot understand why he must keep that enthusiasm quiet. It introduces us to the neighbors, some who disapprove of the Hubermanns’ unwillingness to join the Nazi Party and others who seem to silently agree with them that the world has lost its mind.

In this setting, every small act may have outsize consequences. I understand that some reviewers found the film “boring,” but I found the film to have a growing, needling tension. First there is the ordinary calm of a schoolroom, but with Nazi flags and Hitler’s photo, there’s an edge to it. Then with each plot development the Hubermann family seems more vulnerable, between Han’s penchant for showing his humanity at the wrong moment to Liesel’s dangerous book acquisitions. Since I had not read the book, I was on the edge of my seat every moment, afraid that they were about to be exposed.

I understand that the role of Max, the Jew in the basement, is much smaller in the film than in the book. He is still a compelling figure, a gifted teacher who encourages Liesel’s passion for words while trapped in a cold, damp basement.

The Book Thief is a film about transcendence: the power of love to transcend a horrible situation and about the power of a good narrative to transcend an ugly present.  In bare outline, Liesel’s childhood was horrible, one terrible loss after another. As told in the film, however, she is very much a loved child and able to survive her losses partly because of her passion for a good story.

Questions for Discussion

1. Given her motivation (and just what was that motivation?) what did you think of Liesel’s borrowing or stealing books from the Bürgermeister’s house? What was she risking by taking the books? Was it worth it?

2. What was your initial impression of Rosa? Did your impression change, and if so, at what point in the story? Why?

3. What books would you be willing to steal, if it were the only way to get them? Under what circumstances would you consider it justifiable to steal books?

4. In this film, a number of “ordinary people” face ethical challenges. What would you do (or have you done) in these situations:

  • Someone hungry and desperate asks you for help. You fear they may bring disaster on your home.
  • You desperately want something that belongs to someone else.
  • Someone you believe to be innocent is handled violently by police.
  • Someone you love has a secret, and they won’t tell you what it is.

5. Is it true that love can transcend even a situation like Liesel’s, or is this film ultimately foolish and sentimental for suggesting it?

 

 

Grand Illusion

I have not yet had an opportunity to write a commentary for this film, but I recommend the comments on it in The Top 10 Interfaith Films by Michael Fox.

Defiance

defianceDefiance (2008) tells the story of the four Bielski Brothers, Tuvia, Zus, Asael, and Aron, who gathered and led a 1200-member community of Jewish resistors in the forests of Belarus during the Holocaust, preserving their lives. The film was directed by Edward Zwick, and stars Daniel Craig and Liev Schriber.    It opened to mixed reviews and some controversy:  reviewers tended to credit Zwick with a high degree of historical accuracy, and some controversy.

Polish commentators argue that while the film acknowledges that the Bielskis allied their group with Soviet partisans in the area, it fails to reveal the significance of that alliance:  this was not the regular Soviet Army, but an NKVD group (NKVD being the precursors to the KGB.)  The Soviet Union had NKVD operatives in the area to murder Poles in preparation for a Soviet invasion.

While the film doesn’t engage with this particular controversy, it makes no bones about the fact that often the group had to operate in ethically questionable ways.  The Bielski brothers managed to save over 1000 Jewish lives.  Whether that outweighs their methods and choices is a question worth discussion.

Commentary

As history, Defiance is a success; it tells the story without significantly changing it.  However, as a drama it received mixed reviews.

Reviewer Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle points out that this is a problem of the “Holocaust genre” as it has developed in American film.  According to LaSalle, successful “Holocaust drama” has good guys (Jews, or a Christian trying to save Jews) bad guys (Nazis or collaborators), and ultimately an upbeat ending in which the good guys survive to tell the tale.  Given that we are talking about the Holocaust, the “upbeat ending” requirement is more than a little ridiculous.

The good guys of Defiance are the Bielskis, who steal and kill in the interest of preserving the group.  At least one of them is more interested in revenge than survival.  The way the film is cut, the main conflict in the film is not Jews-vs-Nazis or even Jews-vs-Death, but brother-vs-brother as Tuvia and Zus wrestle over the question of revenge versus community organizing.  Given the backdrop of survival in the forest with Nazis circling behind every rock and tree, there is a feeling of disconnect through the film:  why are these guys fighting?  Don’t they realize who the real enemy is?

Still, Defiance is well worth watching because it is an accurate account of one of the cases in the Holocaust where Jews fought back and did so successfully.  The fact that the filmmaker chose fidelity to history is really rather remarkable, given that, as LaSalle pointed out, were the film to fit the genre, the Bielskis would have been re-visioned to paint them as saints.  They weren’t saints; they were human beings in an inhuman situation.  Their choices, and our discussion of their choices, can make for genuine learning.

Questions:

What choices did the Bielskis make in order to survive?  What options did they refuse to take?  Could you say that their choices were informed by Jewish values?  Why or why not?

What other Holocaust films have you seen?  Did they fit Mick LaSalle’s description of the genre?  Given that many Americans get most of their Holocaust education from the movies, what consequences do you see for the “happy ending” requirement?  What are the consequences of changing the details of stories so that the Jews make no ethically questionable choices, and appear “saintly”?

Schindler’s List

schindlers-list-DVDcoverSchindler’s List (1993) is the most successful and famous of Holocaust films.  It is based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, an Austrian Catholic businessman who preserved the lives of over 1,000 Jews by putting them to work in his factory and then using his influence and his fortune to keep them from the death camps.

Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is based on the book by Thomas Kenneally, and the film was directed by Steven Spielberg.  It is meticulously researched and produced, and the end product is a searing film that merits its “R” rating.  Liam Neeson stars as Schindler, Ben Kinglsey as Yitzhak Stern, his bookkeeper, and Ralph Fiennes portrays Amon Goeth, one of the most reprehensible and terrifying figures in film.  This is not a film for children, but it is a truly great film.  It won 7 Oscars out of 12 nominations in 1994.

Commentary

This film has been the beginning of a Holocaust education for many people around the world, simply because of its availability and popularity.  It is an excellent source, but I would approach it with some caution:  it is NOT suitable for children, or for someone who gets nightmares from upsetting films, and while it is a good beginning of a Holocaust education, it should not be the end of anyone’s education.

I have been told by more than one survivor that Spielberg put on film what audiences would stand:  the real historical events were more horrible than anything that should be available on film.  Moreover, while narrative tells us a great deal, we also need to talk about the circumstances that came together to create the events we call “the Holocaust.”  Good as it is, the film does not say enough about the events it covers to be the final word on the subject.

All of that said, I would have tagged this film a “Must see!” were it not for the difficult content.  See it if you can, and discuss it with others.

Double Feature

For a non-fiction treatment of the topic, and especially of the details of the death camps, the 9.5 hours of Shoah are incomparable but horrific.   (I am not suggesting that one watch these two films as an actual double feature, in one sitting — I fear  that it might lead to suicidal depression and despair!  “Double Feature” is just a way of signifying in this blog that two films are related.)