The Holocaust seen from the perspective of the daughter of a Communist
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Sometimes, as a critic, you don’t have to go too far to find a way into a film. The seeds of comparison, fortuitously, await right in front of you thanks to a wrinkle in the release schedule.
While watching Brian Percival’s adaptation of “The Book Thief,” I couldn’t help recalling one of the more fascinating aspects of Solomon Northup’s memoir “Twelve Years a Slave.” With surprising philosophical insight, Northup considers the impact of slavery on the individual, both black and white, stating, “the influence of this iniquitous system necessarily fosters an unfeeling and cruel spirit, even in the bosoms of those who, among their equals, are regarded as humane and generous.”
This notion arises in Northup as he looks back at the casual disregard and disrespect heaped upon slaves by Young Master Epps, the son of the merciless slave owner, chillingly brought to life onscreen by Michael Fassbender. Referenced only in the pages of the memoir, the child of this slave owner serves as an example to Northup of his belief that, under different circumstances, this child, like some of the other slave owners Northup encounters, might have been a different and more enlightened person. It is a curious argument of perspective that potentially unlocks a whole treasure trove of unwritten narratives rooted in this “alternative” world of Northup’s.
The subtlety of perspective factors into “The Book Thief,” as Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) – the young protagonist – arrives in Germany, before the start of World War II, accompanied by her mother and young brother. Unfortunately her brother doesn’t survive the journey – he gets buried in a field just off the train tracks – and Liesel’s mother hands her off to a Red Cross worker who will transport the girl to Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson), her adoptive parents. Liesel’s prized possession is a book, accidentally lost by one of the gravediggers, containing a picture of her young brother.
Liesel, quietly cautious, but with a fierce intellect and strong spirit, appears to be so like the historic and literary Jewish figures we’ve come to expect from such stories, it is almost shocking when, after a time with Hans and Rosa, the narrative lets it slip Liesel’s mother – to whom the girl writes, with the hope of an eventual reunion – was a Communist, and thus, among the growing group of the disappeared left in the wake of the Nazi occupation.
While in the care of Hans and Rosa, Liesel encounters Max (Ben Schnetzer), a slightly older Jewish boy who arrives at the couple’s doorstep in need of protection. Along the way, Liesel and Max, through their common experiences, begin to reinforce for viewers, the notion I outlined earlier, this sense of “alternative,” or even shared, perspectives. But in this case, Liesel’s story, a fiction created by novelist Markus Zusak, takes on a life of its own, seeking to convince us of its authenticity as something real and true. Despite being burdened with sentimentalism, especially in its portrayal of Hans as a supremely good-hearted man and Rosa as a tough/gruff woman with an underlying – and unspoken – tenderness, it is the tragedy that befalls Liesel at every turn that feels impossibly true, given what we know of the Holocaust.
And this tale, from that time, reminds us others suffered at the hands of Hitler and the Nazis. By examining another angle of the story, we are granted another piece of the picture, and hopefully awakened to the idea there are still stories – millions of stories – to be told, from a multitude of sides and perspectives. Only through exposure to them will we ever truly be in a position to not repeat these tragic episodes of human history.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.