I went to see “The Book Thief” with a friend a few weeks ago. I knew nothing about it except it was set in Nazi Germany and involved a girl joining a new family.
My friend and I discussed how we really do enjoy seeing a movie knowing little about the plot, as we like to see it unfold before us with no preconceived notions, and our reactions are genuine – usually finding delight in letting the storyteller take us to places we don’t anticipate. It’s a little like having a trusted friend lead you around when you’re wearing a blind-fold.
As the movie progressed, I felt as I expected – loving the good story, wanting to know what happened next, in awe of the amazing acting of Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson – not to mention those marvelous child actors, Sophie Nélisse and Nico Liersch. I was lost in John Williams’ magnificent musical score, and impressed with the director’s ability to convey horror without gore.
Yet, I began to question my choice of friends leading me around while I was blind-folded, as I felt very strange and uncomfortable in a way that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
The scene where Rudy’s father leaves to fight in the army? The sadness really came through. The scene where Rudy’s mother is informed Rudy has been selected for “elite” (read: early) military training? Her despair was palpable, as was his fear.
Earlier in the movie, when the children were singing at the book burning, I didn’t hate them. Later, when Rudy died, my heart broke. This reaction bothered me.
Why? It makes perfect sense that characters drawn with depth and love would have me identifying with them – feeling fortunate to travel the journey with them. Why did it bother me?
I’ll just say it. It’s because the characters were German.
“So what?” you say. “You can’t sympathize with a non-Jewish German living under Hitler?” Well, truly, in my 44 years of living, I never had.
I have never blamed the conflicted German for doing as he was told – knowing resistance to orders of the regime potentially spelled as much horror for him and his family as it did for the Jews. Furthermore,I know for a fact many German people behaved heroically and selflessly by either speaking out loudly, or quietly, invisibly saving Jews. I feel many positive feelings for those who risked their lives to help. Deep Awe. Immense Gratitude. Humbled Reverence. And more gratitude.
But sympathy? I realized towards the end of the movie that the uncomfortable feeling I had was sympathy. It’s not a feeling that is foreign to me. I feel it many times a day. I’m flawed, like everyone else, but one of my strengths is that it takes very little for me to imagine how someone else is feeling. How I would feel in similar circumstances is always in the forefront of my mind.
So why was it uncomfortable? It was because I realized I did not WANT to feel sympathy for the average German. I was upset with myself for feeling sympathy. Those other things I felt for the non-Jewish heroes were very natural. Watching this movie, though, I realized I did not want to have sympathy for them. Of course they lost loved ones. Of course they lost homes in the war. Of course they lost children. Just like any soldier’s family, or casualty of war. Yet I had this stereotype of the German soldier (and his family) as being eager to go. Proud to serve his barbaric leader. Certain he was in the right and willing to die to prove it.
How could I feel sympathy for the Germans? I was upset with myself for feeling sympathy. I wonder what these things – never having had sympathy, then not only resisting it, but being angry at myself for feeling it – say about me.