One of the reviews I read about The Book Thief before I saw it said it just rehashed the standard Holocaust ideas and thus was nothing new or special. I went to see it anyway, not because I particularly enjoy Holocaust movies, but because the trailers portrayed a sympathetic little girl heroine helping hide an endangered Jew in Nazi Germany with the help of a sympathetic foster father (played by Geoffrey Rush, who does a marvellous job).
But this was not a typical Holocaust movie at all. The protection of the endangered Jew (Max) was almost secondary. The treatment of the Jews was in general secondary. The sufferers here were the family and friends of the little girl (Liesel), all Germans, mostly good Germans, ordinary Germans, not heroes, not primarily devoted to saving Jews, but mostly worrying over their own poverty and then, when the war begins, dodging bombs – Allied bombs, bombs dropped by those fighting the Nazis.
History is complex, of course. People fighting Nazis can do awful things of their own – fire-bombing Dresden, preparing to drop a nuclear bomb, mistreating German POW’s – and yet, and yet …
I was brought up with the following story: the Germans slaughtered 6 million of us. You must never forget – or even forgive. Maybe my children can forgive their children, the iconic Jewish-Canadian writer, Mordecai Richler, once said, and even that seemed dubious.
A few years ago I flew to continental Europe for the first time, on a trip to Greece. The plane stopped in Frankfurt; we had hours to kill; my girl-friend at the time went into Frankfurt to see the sights. I pleaded a bad back and stayed on board. I did have a bad back, but also I felt qualms about truly setting foot on German soil. My girl-friend came back with tales of some museum dedicated to Goethe or Schiller or the like, and I thought, I have nothing against Goethe or Schiller, but still I stayed on the plane.
Today I have a different girl-friend who is of partial German descent. The story she learned was different. The slaughter was done by the Nazis. Not the Germans as a whole. The Nazis. The Nazis were horrible people, or did horrible things, but most Germans were not Nazis.
The Book Thief certainly expresses that view. There’s an awful Adolf Hitler somewhere who you mustn’t say bad things about. Occasionally, some Nazi Party men show up. At one point some nasty German soldiers escort a party of Jews to God knows where. But for the most part these are ordinary Germans just trying to lead their lives, and they even hide the Jewish Max and nurse him back to health. Also, Liesel, after a book burning (in which most of the village cheerfully joins in) goes and rescues a book. And she becomes very close to Max and declares she hates Hitler because he has taken her mother (a Communist) and forced Max to flee.
But it’s all strangely personal. There’s no sense of opposition to Nazi policies against Jews, freedom, and democracy. Quite the contrary. There’s one chilling scene in which a choir of cherubic children sing a song celebrating German freedom and attacking non-Germanic people and Jews and their corruption of freedom. No one particularly objects. It was unclear what people in the movie audience thought.
By the end of the film members of the movie audience were crying for poor Liesel and her friends and family. I didn’t cry, except a bit, almost, when she tried to kiss a dead friend back to life. Death cannot be defeated that way, no matter how much you try – that was sad. But in general my response was flattened because about halfway through the movie I realized, This isn’t a Holocaust movie, or even a movie about nasty Nazis. It’s just about ordinary Germans coping during the war.
I remember another movie along these lines, Das Boot, in which we follow a German submarine crew and identify and sympathize with them even though they’re, well, the enemy. But there was no mention of the Holocaust in that film. In The Book Thief there’s an odd scene in which Liesel smuggles a newspaper to Max, the Jew in hiding, who exclaims in disbelief when he reads that Germany is attacking Russia. “But aren’t we winning the war?” says Liesel.
And I thought, Who is this “we”? Max just shrugs. Liesel might want her country to win, but could Max want that? Can we? Sometimes you can put your larger beliefs aside and just sympathize with individuals. I wrote about that sort of sympathy, in me, for the terrorist leader in Captain Phillips, but this felt different. At least for me.
When the Holocaust got mentioned, but in such a secondary way, it made me feel odd. It conjured up powerful Us versus Them feelings, only to have those feelings absorbed into more general sympathy for us all. We all die, as Death the Narrator says. Which is of course true. But some died in concentration camps at the hands of others. Is it all really the same?
But those others who ran the concentration camps are not the ones who are portrayed in this movie. These are just Germans who go along, or sometimes don’t go along. But even when they don’t go along, when they hide the threatened Jew or rescue a burning book, it’s because they like books or feel a responsibility for this particular Jew. There’s no sense of opposition to book burnings or singing songs against Jews.
Does that matter? I don’t know. There were no doubt lots of ordinary people just trying to get along in Nazi Germany, like at any other time. Should we demand more of them than of others in other times? Is it right to hold a whole nation collectively responsible for the Holocaust?
Probably not. Isn’t that what the Nazis themselves, and other persecutors of minorities, do? Hold whole groups responsible.
I suppose. And yet if I ever land in Frankfurt again, I’m still not sure I’ll be able to get off the plane.