Archives for posts with tag: Hitler

(Warning! This review includes detailed spoilers for the 2009 film Inglourious Basterds.)

I know I haven’t uploaded any Book Thief reviews for a while, but I thought it would be interesting to take a break from that for a moment to review, in contrast, a World War II movie, from one of the modern cinema’s most interesting directors, Quentin Tarantino.

Tarantino is a director that many either love or hate. His films can either celebrate violence or simply portray it in all of its ugliness. His primary influences are a childhood spent watching spaghetti westerns and grindhouse/exploitation fare, and he himself has said in interviews that he feels violence is “very visceral” and that “violence is just one of many things you can do in movies. People ask me, ‘Where does all this violence come from in your movies?’ I say, ‘Where does all this dancing come from in Stanley Donen movies?’ If you ask me how I feel about violence in real life, well, I have a lot of feelings about it. It’s one of the worst aspects of America. In movies, violence is cool. I like it.”

Obviously, there are many who do not agree with this sentiment, and some may wonder how he ever became acclaimed as a director and writer, but the answer is that he usually does portray violence within a fitting context and he typically knows exactly how to use it in a story to manipulate his audience’s emotions, as he himself has said. So for better or for worse, it was only a matter of time before Tarantino directed, wrote, and produced a war movie.

One of the criticisms leveled against Tarantino is that he is a copycat, ripping off any number of earlier films he used for inspiration in the process of building his own. In this case, Inglourious Basterds is clearly inspired by several earlier war movies, even to the point of stealing his title (albeit misspelled) from an Italian 1978 war film. And yet one must admit that there has never been a movie quite like this before.

One of the interesting things about the film is that it is filmed in 3 separate languages: English, French, and German (the latter two with English subtitles). This is a touch of authenticity that can be missed in many movies set in foreign countries, where we simply assume we are listening to a translation. Christoph Waltz’s character in particular is noted for being fluent in at least 4 separate languages (German, French, English, and Italian), and one of the best lines in the film comes at the expense of the Americans, when the German Bridget von Hammersmark asks the Basterds, “I know this is a silly question, but… can you Americans speak any language other than English?” (The answer is obvious.) The only instances where the characters’ bilingual nature seems contrived is when the French peasant in the opening is inexplicably fluent in English for no apparent reason, when we hear German soldiers speaking English to the Basterds, despite the fact that almost none did at that point in real life, or when the character Shosanna’s recorded message to Hitler is in English, despite the fact that she is never shown speaking the language at any other point in the film (although this was only added at Diane Kruger’s request). The beautiful moment when the British Hicox gives his cover up and resolves to “go out speaking the King’s” is also dampened by the fact he then uses “momentarily” in the American sense rather than the British, but this is a small nitpick, as most non-British viewers would never notice.

The film primarily follows 2 sets of characters, the Basterds and (eventually) their allies British Lt. Archie Hicox and German agent Bridget von Hammersmark, and the theater owner Shosanna Dreyfus and her unwanted admirer/stalker, Private Zoller, with the SS Colonel Hans Landa acting as an intermediary character who interacts with both sets and ultimately ties the film together.

The Basterds in question are a (mostly Jewish-American) Nazi resistance group, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (played by Brad Pitt), who make a name for themselves by ambushing German soldiers and scalping and killing them, while leaving a lone survivor alive with a swastika carved into his forehead, to forever mark him as a Nazi and strike fear into the heart of Hitler himself.

The other set of characters is led by Shosanna Dreyfus (played by Mélanie Laurent), a young Jew who escaped the massacre of her entire family in 1941 to become the owner of her own theater in 1944 under a false name. She tries unsuccessfully to discourage the advances of Pvt. Zoller (played by Daniel Brühl), a German sniper who she dislikes primarily due to her distaste for the Nazis as a whole. He is the star of a Nazi propaganda film, and he arranges to have the premiere of the film held at her cinema, which will be attended by the highest German officials up to Hitler himself. So Shosanna decides to assassinate Germany’s political leadership, with the help of her lover and projectionist, Marcel (played by Jacky Ido), by igniting highly flammable nitrate film during the showing, and thus burning the theater to the ground with Hitler, Goebbels, among other Nazi higher-ups, inside.

However, little does she know that a British Lt. Archie Hicox (played by Michael Fassbender) has been assigned to just the same mission in cooperation with the Basterds and an undercover agent Bridget von Hammersmark (played by Diane Kruger). They meet at a tavern in Germany, where in a very tense and drawn-out scene, they ultimately end up attracting the attention of a suspicious Sergeant and Gestapo Major due to Hicox’s unusual accent, and after Hicox unfortunately blows his cover, a shoot-out ensues which results in the death of everyone except Bridget, who Raine rescues and interrogates, and then makes arrangements with to continue the mission.

Surprisingly, the film turns out to be an alternate history in which both plans culminate in success, though Zoller forces his way into the projection room to talk to Shosanna during the screening, refusing to leave after she again rebuffs his advances. Shosanna eventually decides to shoot him when his back is turned, but with his dying breath, he manages to shoot and kill her, as well. Two of the Basterds then kill Hitler, Goebbels, and the rest of the Nazi high command, then shoot up the theater before dying themselves when the bombs they set up in the theater go off and they are unable to escape, due to Shosanna and Marcel having locked the doors of the cinema.

The intermediary character is SS Col. Hans Landa (played by Christoph Waltz), otherwise known as the “Jew Hunter,” a very charismatic, cunning, and seemingly cultured man who is introduced in another tense, drawn-out scene that opens the film, interrogating a French dairy farmer as to the whereabouts of a Jewish family that went missing in the area. Eventually, so that his own family will be allowed to live in peace, the farmer reveals that they are hidden beneath his floorboards, and they are all killed except Shosanna, who escapes. Landa turns up again as one of the Nazi officials attending the film premiere, where he discovers the Basterds’ plot, strangles Bridget to death, and then holds Raine and his Private Utivich in custody where he tells them he will allow their plan to succeed only if he is given full rewards and immunity from any and all war crimes he may have committed. The Basterds agree, but later double-cross him after the assassination attempt succeeds and Landa drives them into Allied territory. They kill Landa’s radio operator, and then carve a swastika into Landa’s forehead to show they still regard him as being little better than Hitler, even though he helped them end the war. The final line of the film comes from Raine, in what has been speculated to be Tarantino’s self-aware wink at the camera about his own work: “You know something, Utivich? I think this just might be my masterpiece.”

If this is in fact an expression of Tarantino’s own feelings about the film, how is the audience to determine whether this boast is well-founded or not? I am reminded of a quote from another great director, Howard Hawks, given when asked to define a great film: “Three great scenes, no bad ones.”

Inglourious Basterds is a film that contains many great scenes. The opening scene in and of itself is a masterpiece, opening so quietly and unassumingly we could almost forget we were watching a Tarantino movie. Christoph Waltz plays Landa masterfully, as a man who appears gentlemanly and companionable on the surface, but whose true self-serving, cruel nature is always evident. The actor who played the French farmer, Denis Ménochet, spoke almost no English, which is why most of his dialogue is made up of short sentences, but he still carries most of his performance simply through the look in his eyes and the expressions of fear, misery, and uncertainty that go through his face. Thus the tension is ratcheted up very slowly and carefully, and when we reach the payoff it is unsurprising and deeply sad.

The scene in the French bar is also a master-class in tension, executed differently as the conversation that begins it is so seemingly innocuous that it is not clear from the beginning where the scene is actually going. As it went on, however, my eyes were glued to the screen and my adrenaline was pumped up, yearning for a release. When said release finally comes, it is cathartic and shocking to watch. One feels few directors other than Tarantino would have had the audacity to massacre the entire bar, but so much tension has been building beneath the surface and for so long, that it feels like an effective way to resolve that. The real issue with this pay-off, though, is that it feels like pulp violence being played out, while the scene building up to it seems to come from a different movie altogether. I became so invested in the situation it is easy to forget we are reading subtitles, and when Hicox finally realizes and accepts he will never get out of this situation alive, lights a cigarette, and calmly lapses into English, it is a beautiful moment, and one feels so much respect for his courage that seeing him mowed down in the following wave of cartoony violence with the rest is a bit unsatisfying.

The whole storyline involving Shosanna and Zoller’s relationship suffers from the same issues, as well, but particularly in the payoff. For most of their interactions, it’s difficult to classify what genre their scenes seem to belong to. It cannot be romance, since Shosanna has nothing but contempt for Zoller and discourages his advances right from their first meeting, but Tarantino himself has said of their relationship: “…..there was something about Zoller. He really liked her. Everything Zoller did that ended up fucking her up and putting her in this situation, he did with good intentions. His biggest crime was liking her. I think of that scene as a romantic scene. It’s Romeo and Juliet. Those bullets? That’s them consummating their relationship. In any other time in the 20th century, they could have been in love. Except for that one time.”

Though by modern standards Zoller is certainly a stalker, it is difficult to truly dislike him until his last scene where he breaks into Shosanna’s projection room and tells her off for daring to spurn his affections. There is always something earnest and schoolboyish about him, even after we learn he killed over 200 men in the war, and Tarantino even gives him a moment of real humanity when he confesses to Shosanna: “And in this case, my military exploits consisted of killing many men. Consequently, the part of the film that’s playing now… I don’t like watching this part.”

How rare is it that any character in a Tarantino film expresses true regret for taking another human being’s life? And truly, even though Zoller’s storyline ends with violence, it does not feel like violence in a Tarantino movie, but rather the sad climax of a European opera: as we watch Shosanna’s flailing body blown backwards through the air as it is torn apart by bullets to the notes of Ennio Morricone’s “Un Amico,” there is a real element of tragedy to it. It seems to belong not only to a different film, but to a different dimension from the one the Basterds inhabit, and when we shift back to them preparing their implausible murder of Hitler it is, again, jarring.

Of course, the violence that the Basterds commit against the Germans is worth discussing because it is far more graphic and realistic than in any other Tarantino film I have seen. In the second part of the film (which is divided into 5 chapters), we see multiple scalpings and the throat of a Gestapo guard being slashed, and in the final scene, the camera lingers on Landa’s forehead being slowly carved open as he screams in agony. We know Landa is a selfish, sociopathic murderer, but when one watches this kind of suffering there is still a visceral reaction that no one deserves this.

What is stranger still is the question of whether we are supposed to enjoy any of this brutality. For all the film’s ambitions, all its grand heights of tension and for some of the great characters it does create (Hicox and Landa, for example, or Shosana and Zoller) and for how well the movie does tie all of its disparate groups of characters together (regardless of whether the tone of their stories fit), there is still the fact that all this 2-hour and 33-minute epic war film, Tarantino’s self-proclaimed “masterpiece in the making” amounts to in the end is a pulp revenge fantasy about World War II in which, as Roger Ebert put it, “for once the basterds get what’s coming to them.” Yet there are several strange hints, in fact, that we aren’t even supposed to enjoy the violence at all. One Nazi who is bludgeoned to death by a baseball bat shows genuine bravery, in refusing to give up information to the Basterds and steadfastly resigning himself to his death rather than betray the Nazi cause. There is even a strange scene in the climax where Hitler laughs at soldiers on our side getting killed in the fictional propaganda film right before the moment when he and his followers are killed in a moment Tarantino presumably expects us to be laughing our asses off at. It seems as if Tarantino assumed the audience would enjoy the Nazis getting killed so much that they wouldn’t mind how disturbing and bloody the violent was. Is he trying to suggest that the Basterds are no better than the Nazis for enjoying the slaughter of their side as much as they relished the slaughtering of the Jews? This makes sense, when it comes to the death and scarring of the German soldiers, since many were only soldiers and not even members of the Nazi party themselves, and our rational side knows that killing off random soldiers who were not responsible for the start of the Holocaust themselves will do nothing to save Jews or assuage their suffering, and that’s what keeps the revenge fantasy aspect of the film from working, apart from how disturbing the violence can be – but it’s hard not to get behind the idea of Hitler and Goebbels getting knocked off, since this will have a definite effect in ending the war and thus saving more innocent lives. But the real question is: If we’re not supposed to enjoy the Basterds’ killing after all and we are supposed to see them as no better than Nazis, then well, what the fuck is the point of all this, anyway? To shame us for enjoying movie violence Tarantino himself created? There is a word for that, and it is – bullshit.

But a lot of the film’s problems are in the characters, as well. As I said before, Tarantino has created some genuinely great characters. Landa in particular Tarantino himself claimed might be “the greatest character he has ever written”, but suspected may have been “unplayable” were it not for the talents of Christoph Waltz. We know now Waltz, though a gifted actor, can fall back on the same performance style, but this was the first film most Americans saw him in, and he truly is impressive. He perfectly captures the contradictions of Landa’s character – his charm, his intelligence, his sophistication, and then his cruelty, brutality, and opportunistic sociopathy. But the script itself betrays Landa’s character in ways that cannot be easily justified. When he murders Bridget in cold blood, it is a moment designed mostly for pure shock value, and to reaffirm that he is a vile, contemptible man who is not to be liked or sympathized with. At first, it appears he is acting to punish her for betraying her country, but when he proceeds to betray his own government in assisting the Basterds’ mission, this obviously is not the case, and in any case the moment seems to come out of nowhere. This could be excused, though. Bridget no longer serves any purpose in the plot, and it could be seen as Landa’s attempt to punish her for attempting to outsmart him in the way he cannot punish the Basterds, since he is about to make a deal with them, but what cannot be excused is the ending. Landa definitely deserves the swastika in the forehead, and it is effective poetic justice, but one thing that has been proven is that, while he is violent and brutal, he is also deeply intelligent in ways the Basterds, though equally brutal, are not. He knows who the Basterds are, says himself that he met and interviewed every survivor they scarred, and sees through their plan in the first place, not to mention he figures out where the Jews are hiding in La Padite’s house before he is ever told. There is simply no way he would not have seen this dirty trick coming and taken some precaution against it, particularly when it came to turning himself and his weapons over to them at the crucial juncture. While it’s satisfying to watch his confidence and control of the situation finally evaporate, it’s not real. Raine is a charming character in his own right, played well by Brad Pitt, but basically brainless, and the Hans Landa we’ve grown to know would never allow himself to be outsmarted and mutilated by some stupid Americans who only speak one language, for God’s sake.

The film originally was intended as a TV mini-series, but a friend convinced Tarantino to change it to a feature film, instead, so much of the story’s plot and backstories were cut, and one can tell. There is a strange inconsistency in how some characters get so much development – for example, Hicox, whose past and character the audience gets to know remarkably well for a character who is introduced midway through the film only so he can be killed off less than half an hour after we meet him – and yet the titular Basterds get next to no personalities at all, only one getting a backstory, and the motivations Raine himself has for leading this group and hating the Nazis so much are only hinted at through vague details such as his scars and comparisons of his battle plan to “an Apache resistance”.

There are things to like about the film, though. In addition to the things I’ve mentioned already, it has an interesting structure and it can be refreshing simply to see a film that is so different, but in the end, I believe the film does not come together as a whole, and while the film may have many great scenes, these scenes do not form a great movie. Inglourious Basterds feels as if it is Tarantino’s attempt to make a great movie that will define his legacy, but in my opinion, Django Unchained is much more skillfully made, simply in its simplicity. The movie has no grand pretense, but tells a story of slavery in a way that had not been done before and that next to no other white directors would dare tell. It is a simple revenge fantasy where we are supposed to root for the black hero and enjoy the slave-owners getting killed, but this is more justified in the movie’s simplicity, how Tarantino creates most of the antagonists as people Django has personal reason to hate and kill in his own right, rather than to somehow avenge the cost of slavery as a whole. True, the movie’s answer to whether we are supposed to enjoy the revenge fantasy-themed violence is a simple one (yes), but at least, it does answer the question well, and makes sure we are where Tarantino wants us to be in regards to enjoying it. It may just be a violent revenge fantasy, but it’s violent revenge fantasy done well and my favorite of Tarantino’s films, as well as being among my all-time favorites.

Inglourious Basterds might be worth watching simply for some of the spell-binding tension and some of the other good things I have mentioned, but in the end, the film is simply pretentious. There is no better word for it than that.


I know it’s been a while, but I will try to return to The Book Thief as soon as possible. In a sidenote: The website IHateFilm.com no longer exists, but Inglourious Basterds and Toy Story 3 were the only two films given five stars by the site’s creator. Really makes me look like an asshole, doesn’t it? 😦

There’s something interesting I didn’t notice about this book that I want to talk about. I was reading the TV Tropes article Slice of Life and the first entry for Literature is this:
“The Book Thief is surprisingly slice of life, considering where it takes place.”

I was immediately shocked and thrilled to realize how true that is! And once I got thinking about it, it was something that actually gives me a lot more respect for the book, in fact, because I’ve always resented the constraints of a book’s plot structure in how it strains verisimilitude. The Casual Vacancy was obviously slice of life, I said as much there, and that’s why I was so much less bothered by its slow pace than a lot of people were.

The thing about The Book Thief that I have to respect is that it does seem to have a central plot, basically, and the narrative does play out to get to a certain point, but Zusak’s gift is in making it all feel natural, even as he tells us beforehand what it’s building up to. For example, the first chapter in this second part served to describe Liesel’s book theft at Hitler’s birthday in 1940, and the following 3 chapters take Liesel to that point as a human being as she’s reaching that point in history. She goes through happiness, sadness, mild hopefulness, then complete and utter despair, then emerges triumphant and ready for

HITLER’S BIRTHDAY, 1940

Since we’ve gotten this far, Death opens off with one paragraph showing the point where it became clear Liesel could never get a reply from her mother (the foster care office has lost track of her; also her name is Paula!) just to resolve that once and for all.

It’s well into April at this point, so the only thing left is mild preparation at this point:

This particular year, with the development of the war and Hitler’s current victorious position, the Nazi partisans of Molching wanted the celebration to be especially befitting. There would be a parade. Marching. Music. Singing. There would be a fire.

An interesting thing for me is that I was only ever aware of Hitler’s 50th birthday in 1939 being a big event, designed to intimidate the world and show off Germany’s military might, to the point Mad Men included a joking comparison of an office Christmas party to it to illustrate the place it had in the American lexicon by 1964 (comical faux-German accents: “Did you enjoy the Fuhrer’s birthday?” “May he live for a thousand years!”).

I suppose it’s obvious, though, that Hitler’s birthday was celebrated broadly in Germany every year (despite the fact that I get mainly results relating to The Book Thief and even Daniel’s post when I google “hitler’s birthday 1940”). We get some interesting information about the event, too:

It would commemorate not only the Führer‘s birthday, but the victory over his enemies and over the restraints that had held Germany back since the end of World War I. “Any materials,” it requested, “from such times – newspapers, posters, books, flags – and any found propaganda of our enemies should be brought forward to the Nazi Party office on Munich Street.” Even Schiller Strasse – the road of yellow stars – which was still awaiting its renovation, was ransacked one last time, to find something, anything, to burn in the name of the Führer’s glory. It would have come as no surprise if certain members of the party had gone away and published a thousand or so books or posters of poisonous moral matter simply to incinerate them.

This feels exactly like the sort of funny historical fact that would be mentioned as an aside in a real textbook, though I’m not really interested in whether it’s true or not.

Also, we get more evidence of Death’s strange repetition of certain facts, perhaps in an effort to drill the events of this story into our mind somehow. Just as he repeated that Werner had died on the train ad nauseum, he tells us for the third or fourth time that Liesel will be stealing a book.

Then it’s right into April 20, no ifs, ands, ors, buts about it. We get one sorely needed funny bit with Hans and Rosa to prepare us for the grim realities of the day to follow.

A mini-catastrophe almost occurs when Hans can’t find the family’s Nazi flag, which serves just to show just how dangerous it was living in Nazi Germany. After all, here in America it’s considered anti-patriotic if you don’t trash the President twice before breakfast, but the fact that such unswerving obedience was required from all citizens suggests even some of the supporters may have harbored resentment toward Hitler’s government.

And it only gets worse. Remember what I said about Zusak being too impersonal in writing because Hans, Jr. and Trudy’s presence wasn’t a big deal at Christmas? Well, they’re back now, and he writes, “Now seems like a good time to introduce them a little more comprehensively

and proceeds with 2 typical Zusak-esque unorthodox descriptions that note their similarities to their parents.

However, it then becomes clear that I was more astute in my perception of Zusak’s foreshadowing that time around:

*** A SHORT HISTORY OF ***
HANS HUBERMANN VS. HIS SON
The young man was a Nazi; his father was not. In the opinion of Hans Junior, his father was part of an old, decrepit Germany – one that allowed everyone else to take it for the proverbial ride while its own people suffered. As a teenager, he was aware that his father had been called “Der Juden Maler” – the Jew painter – for painting Jewish houses. Then came an incident I’ll fully present to you soon enough – the day Hans blew it, on the verge of joining the party. Everyone knew you weren’t supposed to paint over slurs written on a Jewish shop front. Such behavior was bad for Germany, and it was bad for the transgressor.

Hans is, notably, however, unwilling to actually say that he doesn’t support the Nazi Party. He tries to remain neutral about his feelings, but his son confronts him and insults him for not realizing what good Hitler is doing for the country, before storming out of the house in fury.

Children have a tendency to rebel against their parents, seeing them as stuck in the past, often deliberately doing the opposite of what they would. My grandfather became a Democrat, unlike his devout Republican father, then his son became a Libertarian. I don’t think these convictions were necessarily acts of targeted disapproval, but there is still the attempt to distance one from your parents’ generation. And what’s amazing is that Zusak portrays the exchange at that level. Rather than demonizing him, he comes off as a person one can relate to. The situation is played out through the lens of the time, and no real effort is even made to make us see this through the perspective of the present, though Zusak knows his 21st-century readers will naturally be discomfited.

It also goes to show how people love judging others, to the extent that it is probably considered more PC and intelligent in 2014 to say “I judge people by their politics” than the opposite.

I have been in a situation where droves of people have supported this very statement and my opposite opinion has received no defenders. It is easy to see why this is, for at face value one’s politics are a good way of judging who they are. But in practice one is likely to just end up being arrogant and hateful towards people because you do not understand why they believe what they believe.

There are many people I love who hold political opinions I hate, find idiotic or repulsive and cannot agree with, and only get past this by forcibly repressing the urge to disagree with them.

Once when I was at my local bookstore a few years ago, a man was being mocked for buying a Glenn Beck book, to the point that he growled “Shut up, it’s not for me” and when I turned around he was gone and the clerk was calling over an equally incredulous and amused co-worker to report the sale of another Beck volume. “Good God, seriously? Another GLENN BECK book!?” When I reported this incident to my staunch Democrat aunt, she was thoroughly disgusted and appalled to the point she insisted the customer must have been a close friend or they wouldn’t have dared act that way.

Similarly I feel the Christian religion causes a great deal of problems and pain for people, but I hold nothing against individual Christians, because people are largely the product of their upbringing more than anything else, and I do not feel it is my place to guess as to why they hold their beliefs. Those clerks knew nothing of why the man was buying a Beck novel, just as I have been insulted for defending my father for being a Libertarian, even though I did this more due to being raised by him rather than any measure of my own intelligence, or even proof positive that I necessarily held said beliefs, as I in fact disagree with several! Similarly, many Libertarians are ridiculed under the belief they are Rand followers, but Ayn herself hated Libertarianism and to the best of my knowledge dear old Dad owns not a thing with her name on it.

This illustrates the failings of the “I judge people by their politics” school of thought very well, I believe. It is an easy snark to astonish and discombobulate an opponent and provides little potential for the growth of empathy, constructive debate, and rational thinking in human beings.

I fully understand why people can be so hostile in these situations, of course, because it is a passionate area for most people and in the modern age I would find Hans, Jr. repugnant if he was a neo-Nazi still, for this is a basically indefensible school of thought in 2014. I don’t know what I would think of a Communist or Socialist if I met them. I might attempt to understand why they believe what they believe, though I would probably end up just disliking them a lot as human beings as a result.

I realize I’ve gone on for quite a while on this tangent, but that’s simply a measure of what a lofty topic Zusak was willing to bring up. And here is another interesting thought he introduces:

For a while, he remained silently at the table after the eating was finished. Was he really a coward, as his son had so brutally pointed out? Certainly, in World War I, he considered himself one. He attributed his survival to it. But then, is there cowardice in the acknowledgment of fear? Is there cowardice in being glad that you lived?
His thoughts crisscrossed the table as he stared into it.

This is really very heavy thinking, and many people won’t go that far to consider it. I well remember my sister calling me a coward when I told her I do not give into peer pressure (this was a bald-faced lie, I’ll give her that), but all too often those who call themselves brave are in fact fool-hardy idiots. Snarking a police officer or a mugger, for instance, might be brave, but it can also get you into a lot of trouble. When I was about 15 years old, I was at the park one night when I spied a dangerous-looking person who appeared to be a gang member on the verge of intimidating me. I turned tail and ran home. This may not have been brave, but it ensured no harm came to me, if I was not at risk of actual physical injury.

So I am not ashamed to admit I have been a coward at times. Many people are prone to putting their honor before their reason. It is not a coincidence that people who call themselves brave often hang out in gangs and get killed or violently assaulted, while those of us who live honest and peaceful existences retire at a healthy old age. So yes, I feel absolutely no shame in admitting that I am a coward, in many respects.

Well, anyway, Hans takes Liesel off to the BDM headquarters, from where she will march to the town square in her Hitler Youth uniform. Death closes by prepping us for the long-awaited event to come that serves to justify the book’s title:

Speeches would be made.
A fire would be lit.
A book would be stolen.

You might have noticed he closed the previous chapter with a similar prepping, and I think if I had already read the book this kind of style would do well to make me excited for my favorite parts to come. Similarly I don’t know how much has changed about the impersonality of Zusak’s writing, but I’m getting the feeling now that that may be done deliberately to show Death’s stiff relation of events described in Liesel’s diary. It’s also interesting that there are few wasted words. The writing flows very neatly.

100 PERCENT PURE GERMAN SWEAT

Fittingly, the next chapter opens by throwing us right into the march to the town square. Judging by this and the chapter titles, it’s obvious these remaining three chapters will be comprised of the same basic event.

Many people may be intimidated by this book due to its length (88 chapters and 548 pages) but most of the chapters are actually very short and the book seems designed to be an easy read. In fact, if I wasn’t reading the book in this manner for the blog, I’d probably be able to get through it very quickly.

And now that we are so close to the event he has spent so much time building up to, Zusak appropriately enough includes foreshadowing of the next things to come in the story:

When Rudy’s group came into the square and was instructed to halt, there was a disprecancy. Tommy Müller. The rest of the regiment stopped marching and Tommy plowed directly into the boy in front of him.
“Dummkopf!” the boy spat before turning around.
“I’m sorry,” said Tommy, arms held apologetically out. His face tripped over itself. “I couldn’t hear.” It was only a small moment, but it was also a preview of troubles to come. For Tommy. For Rudy.

I don’t know exactly what kinds of “troubles” these will be exactly. A deviation from what is expected of a proper German is going to get Rudy and Tommy in trouble, I suppose?

But it will have to become more than that, or be something that affects everyone. Because there’s obviously going to be a conflict in the story. We haven’t gotten there yet, but it’s clear the book can’t remain slice-of-life the whole way through. From what we know already, it will involve a Jewish fist fighter and something or someone related to Hans’ past, at the very least.

So this is probably a good point to bring out the check list again. I think Hans, Jr.’s confrontation with his father qualifies as excitement, so…

  1. much excitement
  2. much beautiful evil
  3. one blood-soaked ankle
  4. and a slap from a trusted hand
  5. Liesel Meminger attain(s) her second success story

At the moment, Liesel’s group splits up, which does not bode well as Liesel is primed to run into trouble by herself.

The fire starts, and there is a very vivid description of it in Zusak/Death’s unique style. We then get a much-needed insight into how exactly Liesel feels about all this:

Although something inside told her that this was a crime-after all, her three books were the most precious items she owned-she was compelled to see the thing lit. She couldn’t help it. I guess humans like to watch a little destruction. Sand castles, houses of cards, that’s where they begin. Their great skill is their capacity to escalate.

I remember a book on literature that I was assigned for school in the past made the point that in a movie, you usually have to guess how the characters feel, from their dialogue, actions, and facial expressions. Most of the time, you aren’t given an insight into their personal thoughts. I have heard a favorite critic of mine cite this as a reason why The Hunger Games film could never be as good as the book: because so much of the book is filtered through and revolves around Katniss’s individual perspective.

So I’m glad to see Zusak take advantage of this opportunity for a book, and then he uses some very effective and well-written personification writing:

The thought of missing it was eased when she found a gap in the bodies and was able to see the mound of guilt, still intact. It was prodded and splashed, even spat on. It reminded her of an unpopular child, forlorn and bewildered, powerless to alter its fate. No one liked it. Head down. Hands in pockets. Forever. Amen.

Liesel is troubled by the fact that she cannot find Rudy, but then the speaker begins his patriotic address for the occasion, and it brings out some interesting feelings in Liesel:

He was performing now what is called a Schreierei-a consummate exhibition of passionate shouting-warning the crowd to be watchful, to be vigilant, to seek out and destroy the evil machinations plotting to infect the motherland with its deplorable ways. “The immoral! The Kommunisten!” That word again. That old word. Dark rooms. Suit-wearing men.

My grandmother and aunt urged me not to read the Harry Potter books for many years due to how disturbing they found certain parts. And indeed, when I eventually did, there were parts that left me chilled to the bone when I finished a chapter. I’ve become much less sensitive since then, but this writing is absolutely stunning and spine-chilling in its sheer horror and shock, as Liesel begins to realize what happened to her mother, and the realities and implications of their involvement in the Communist party that she never understood, through her deepest memories that suggest it is likely Liesel’s father was taken away and killed so long ago she has no memory of him.

In front of her, a head with parted blond hair and pigtails sat absolutely still on its shoulders. Staring into it, Liesel revisited those dark rooms of her past and her mother answering questions made up of one word.

She saw it all so clearly.

Her starving mother, her missing father. Kommunisten.

Her dead brother.

The writing is amazingly effective, as this is the moment, perhaps the most important point in the book so far, where Liesel truly wakes up to what is happening right before her very eyes. And there will be no more happy daydreams about the Führer. No more Nazi-loving Liesel Meminger. Only recognition of the sheer beautiful evil that resides all around her.

Voices climbed over shoulders and the smell of pure German sweat struggled at first, then poured out. It rounded corner after corner, till they were all swimming in it. The words, the sweat. And smiling. Let’s not forget the smiling.

Many jocular comments followed, as did another onslaught of “heil Hitlering.” You know, it actually makes me wonder if anyone ever lost an eye or injured a hand or wrist with all of that. You’d only need to be facing the wrong way at the wrong time or stand marginally too close to another person. Perhaps people did get injured. Personally, I can only tell you that no one died from it, or at least, not physically.

The Time review excerpt on the back cover describes this writing a lot better than I ever could. “Zusak doesn’t sugarcoat anything, but he makes his ostensibly gloomy subject bearable the same way Kurt Vonnegut did in Slaughterhouse Five: with grim, darkly consoling humor.”

I have never read Slaughterhouse Five (in fact, I’m only familiar with Vonnegut from criticisms of him on Cracked.com), but this makes me want to check it out. The next bit confuses me, though:

There was, of course, the matter of forty million people I picked up by the time the whole thing was finished, but that’s getting all metaphoric. Allow me to return us to the fire. 

At first, I thought this referred to literally the number of people, Jews, Nazis, Hitler himself, that met horrible deaths in the years following this. But I’m not sure if this qualifies as metaphoric. And it’s not like it was really this book-burning that set off the Holocaust. Perhaps it refers to the number of followers Hitler received as a result of this patriotic event. They, perhaps, in a way, became Death’s minions, through the genocidal years to come. I’m not sure.

The book then takes another interesting turn, however:

In her attempt to escape, a voice found her.

“Liesel!”

It made its way through and she recognized it. It was not Rudy, but she knew that voice.

She twisted free and found the face attached to it. Oh, no. Ludwig Schmeikl.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

But it doesn’t go quite the way you would expect:

He did not, as she expected, sneer or joke or make any conversation at all. All he was able to do was pull her toward him and motion to his ankle. It had been crushed among the excitement and was bleeding dark and ominous through his sock. His face wore a helpless expression beneath his tangled blond hair. An animal. Not a deer in lights. Nothing so typical or specific. He was just an animal, hurt among the melee of its own kind, soon to be trampled by it.

So she takes pity on him and they sit together to rest by the church steps. They remember the beating episode of just 5 months past, but somehow it seems like a lifetime ago. It was the main conflict in Liesel’s life that closed off the first part of the book, but somehow just 6 chapters later it has become irrelevant and childish, with the horrible realities that have come to play. They both apologize for the incident, then sit silently having realized they are both human beings adrift in a sea of chaos, and need all the help and support they can to survive amid the madness their world has become.

The blood enlarged on Ludwig Schmeikl’s ankle.

A single word leaned against the girl.

To their left, flames and burning books were cheered like heroes.

Absolutely beautiful.

  1. much excitement
  2. much beautiful evil
  3. one blood-soaked ankle
  4. and a slap from a trusted hand
  5. Liesel Meminger attain(s) her second success story

THE GATES OF THIEVERY

This chapter opens in an appropriately somber fashion. Death actually writes, “Everything was sad,” in fact. There is some very solemn reflection on the horrible deed that has been done:

Now there was nothing but cleaning up, and soon, no one would even imagine it had happened.

But you could smell it.

Perhaps this symbolizes the entire world after World War II, or post-Nazi Germany. I’m not sure.

Hans comes to pick up Liesel, then, and the writing becomes very slow and deliberately paced as he can tell Liesel is unhappy. Zusak portrays the realization that has come to her very succinctly and well in his own unique fashion:

*** A SMALL ADDITION ***

The word communist + a large bonfire + a collection of dead letters + the suffering of her mother + the death of her brother = the Führer

For most of the book, Liesel has been unaware of the world around her, and Hans does not seem to want to break her blissful ignorance, but the point at which he can no longer hide the reality of their situation from her any longer is perfectly pitched.

“Did the Führer take her away?”

The question surprised them both, and it forced Papa to stand up. He looked at the brown-shirted men taking to the pile of ash with shovels. He could hear them hacking into it. Another lie was growing in his mouth, but he found it impossible to let it out. He said, “I think he might have, yes.”

And Liesel leaves Hans hate with no way to deny the reality of her new worldview, one she had already realized before he said a word to her.

“I hate the Führer,” she said. “I hate him.”

If I have exaggerated my love for him, it is only because Hans has been consistently portrayed as the most sympathetic and likable character in the book. Death even told us he was one of the 10% of German citizens who didn’t support Hitler, but he has nevertheless been portrayed realistically, in his refusal to come out and say what Liesel just has. When his son confronted him, he would not disown the Nazi Party altogether and Zusak did hint he would not embrace Hitler for more personal reasons than was being revealed at the moment, so even now we don’t really have a clear idea.

And despite being a good person, he doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight, so because of all this it is unclear whether his beliefs are so extreme as Liesel’s.

This is the moment where we get a good idea of what kind of person Hans really is, through his reaction, and Zusak knows this. He knows the reader is immensely interested in Hans’ reaction to this statement, and he follows up accordingly in his writing:

And Hans Hubermann?

What did he do?

What did he say?

Did he bend down and embrace his foster daughter, as he wanted to? Did he tell her that he was sorry for what was happening to her, to her mother, for what had happened to her brother?

Not exactly.

He then throws the answer at us, with no remorse:

He slapped Liesel Meminger squarely in the face.

“Don’t ever say that!” His voice was quiet, but sharp.

This is shocking to read, and even to copy down here. The book was published in 2005, and every reader would have applauded Liesel if they were in Hans’ position. It is horrifying to read of Hans reacting like this, but Zusak did cushion the blow beforehand with the express statement that he WANTED TO word-for-word “bend down and embrace his foster daughter“, and he shows us now that there is more going on than we realize:
It would be easy to say that he was just a tall man sitting poor-postured and shattered on some church steps, but he wasn’t. At the time, Liesel had no idea that her foster father, Hans Hubermann, was contemplating one of the most dangerous dilemmas a German citizen could face. Not only that, he’d been facing it for close to a year.

Close to a year ago would be around May 1939, and if one goes back to The Other Side of Sandpaper, which took place in late May 1939, a Nazi Parade on Munich Street was described, during which Hans, passively sitting by, “wore a face with the shades pulled down“. Something is going on that we are not aware of, but we do know what’s going on in his mind for the most part at this moment. These people are living in Germany in 1940, and you could not have anti-Hitler, anti-Nazi feelings back then, and Hans only acted the way he did out of this unpleasant reality. Liesel cannot go around talking like this, and Hans explains to her how it is:

“You can say that in our house,” he said, looking gravely at Liesel’s cheek. “But you never say it on the street, at school, at the BDM, never!” He stood in front of her and lifted her by the triceps. He shook her. “Do you hear me?”

With her eyes trapped wide open, Liesel nodded her compliance.

Horrible to imagine in 2014, but that’s as good as it gets in this time.

But you know WHAT OTHER TIME IT IS? TIME FOR MORE FORESHADOWING:

It was, in fact, a rehearsal for a future lecture, when all of Hans Hubermann’s worst fears arrived on Himmel Street later that year, in the early hours of a November morning.

In fact, we haven’t actually gotten much more information, as this was described in further detail back in The Smell of Friendship. I quoted the passage in full there, so I’ll just recap here:

  1. These worst fears involve Hans’ accordion.
  2. They involve an individual, in specific, arriving with “ruffled shoulders and a shivering jacket“.
  3. Said individual will bring “a suitcase, a book, and two questions“.

I get spoiled for books/movies quite frequently, and in these cases I will try to get myself in the mindset of not knowing those things yet, but no matter how hard I try I always arrive with the feeling I knew the story would get to this point, and usually I don’t, oddly enough, feel hampered by this. What’s interesting is that Zusak is manufacturing this feeling deliberately. He wrote about how things only made sense for Liesel “when all the stories came together… A story. Story after story. Story within story.

What point in the story are we at now? Well, let’s bring out that check-list:

  1. much excitement
  2. much beautiful evil
  3. one blood-soaked ankle
  4. and a slap from a trusted hand
  5. Liesel Meminger attain(s) her second success story

So, you, me, we all know what’s up next!

After another ten minutes, the gates of thievery would open just a crack, and Liesel Meminger would widen them a little further and squeeze through. 

*** TWO QUESTIONS ***

Would the gates shut behind her?

Or would they have the goodwill to let her back out?

Considering the title of this book, I think the answer is pretty clear. And I love that I know what is going to happen in the next chapter, and that I am actually supposed to! But I still feel awkward about the real time blogging for Part One’s closing chapter, so I think we should do a retrospect recap for the finale this time around.

Actually.

Forget the ten minutes.

The gates open now.

And that’s my cue to say:

ALL RIGHT WE ARE DOING THIS LIVE.

BOOK OF FIRE

All right, so the chapter does not thrust us right into the book-stealing action. Night wears on and Liesel and Hans head home. And it is a measure of Zusak’s writing skills that I was immediately alarmed by this:
To get out of the square, they would walk past the bonfire site and through a small side road onto Munich Street. They didn’t make it that far.

But it’s only a random carpenter named Wolfgang Edel who starts a conversation with Hans. We’ve never seen him before, and he only serves to provide a distraction for Liesel to wander off.

So the gates may have already opened, but it’s exactly one page before an abrupt transition to:

Liesel wandered toward the mountain of ash.

I remember Death saying there were many factors in Liesel’s desire to steal the second book, and it seemed like it would be due to her anger at the Nazi Party and her growing love for books. But what’s rather strange and difficult to figure out is what’s drawing her in to the mound in the first place:

It sat like a magnet, like a freak. Irresistible to the eyes, similar to the road of yellow stars.

The mood is very eerie and tense as Liesel keeps making her way closer, drawn on like Aurora to the spinning-wheel in Sleeping Beauty.

Pass auf, Kind,” a uniform said to her at one point. “Look out, child,” as he shoveled some more ash onto a cart.

Closer to the town hall, under a light, some shadows stood and talked, most likely exulting in the success of the fire. From Liesel’s position, their voices were only sounds. Not words at all.

But what are they saying? Liesel has been noticed already. Are they discussing locating Hans to return Liesel to him? Is she going to get seen taking the books?

But somehow she manages to stay there for a few minutes simply watching, and Hans must be getting worried by now.

They came back and forth from a truck, and after three return trips, when the heap was reduced near the bottom, a small section of living material slipped from inside the ash.

*** THE MATERIAL ***

Half a red flag, two posters advertising a Jewish poet,

three books, and a wooden sign with something written

on it in Hebrew

Obviously Semitic in nature, so it’s easy to see why they were burned, but how did they survive the fire?

Perhaps they were damp. Perhaps the fire didn’t burn long enough to fully reach the depth where they sat.

Okay. But, wait… THREE books? SO WHY DID LIESEL GET ONLY ONE?!!!

“Come on,” said one of them. “Hurry up, will you, I’m starving.”

They moved toward the truck.

He’s already trying to lull us into a sense of security, but I’m not buying it: Why is Liesel not about to get all three books?

The heat was still strong enough to warm her when she stood at the foot of the ash heap. When she reached her hand in, she was bitten, but on the second attempt, she made sure she was fast enough.

This is so tense. I know she succeeds at least partially, I know that she’ll be alive in 1943, I know there are four hundred and sixteen pages left, yet I’m still on the edge of my seat AGAIN.

She latched onto the closest of the books. It was hot, but it was also wet, burned only at the edges, but otherwise unhurt.

It was blue.

Death mentioned a lot of red writing and a red picture on “The Shoulder Shrug”, but the first detail he mentioned of it was that it was blue. So she’s got it now, right? How does the chapter not simply end here?

Red letters were pressed into those fibers. The only word Liesel had time to read was Shoulder. There wasn’t enough time for the rest…

All right, so mission accomplished! That’s that. What’s left?

, and there was a problem. The smoke.

This doesn’t refer to smoke inhalation, does it? Because Death mentioned “it smoked in her hands…. it lit her ribs.” So I’m sorry, I’m not feeling the big tension here.

There were fourteen steps till the voice.

It propped itself up behind her.

“Hey!”

That was when she nearly ran back and tossed the book onto the mound, but she was unable. The only movement at her disposal was the act of turning.

All right, this is disconcerting. Who is it?

“There are some things here that didn’t burn!” It was one of the cleanup men. He was not facing the girl, but rather, the people standing by the town hall.

So all she has to do is hide the book and get out of there.

We do get some hinting at the future of just how famous Liesel will become for her book thievery, but as it is I’m sorry to be negative, but no, this chapter didn’t have as much tension as it could have because of how much was given away beforehand. She gets back to Hans and Wolfgang Edel, and then, well, we get some more suspense:

Immediately, when the smile shrank from her lips, she could feel something else. Or more to the point, someone else. There was no mistaking the watched feeling. It was all over her, and it was confirmed when she dared to face the shadows over at the town hall. To the side of the collection of silhouettes, another one stood, a few meters removed, and Liesel realized two things.

*** A FEW SMALL PIECES ***

OF RECOGNITION

1. The shadow’s identity and

2. The fact that it had seen everything

All right, I don’t know how to feel anymore. I’m constantly being manipulated and we get few details of this person, but Liesel is only irritated and given Death mentioned Rudy being involved in Liesel’s thievery to come, I’m guessing it’s just him.

“What’s wrong?” Papa asked.

“Nothing.”

Quite a few things, however, were most definitely wrong:

Smoke was rising out of Liesel’s collar.

A necklace of sweat had formed around her throat.

Beneath her shirt, a book was eating her up.

Well, that’s it! I can’t say it was as strong a finish as the last part, but it was at least focused well on getting us to this point and it does solidify the title. The realities of the war are coming into play, Liesel has reached the turning point in her character now, and I am eager to see what lies ahead because I don’t really know what’s next, actually. It’ll be interesting to read the 8 parts to come.

But for now… bye.

I’d like to open this post by retracting some things I said in my last review:
I think I was way off base in claiming it was really romantic attraction. At the age of 10, it was probably merely a childhood curiosity, and I feel I demonstrated a poor understanding of child psychology there. But then that isn’t my forte, is it?

Also for some reason I thought Liesel was a Jew. I am such an idiot. Seriously I was considering going back and removing that.

So we will now enter Chapter 5 of Part One:

THE JESSE OWENS INCIDENT

I didn’t mention it in the last post, but this “incident” was actually mentioned in the previous chapter in the “SOME FACTS ABOUT RUDY STEINER” segment:

On Himmel Street, he was considered a little crazy.

This was on account of an event that was rarely spoken about but widely

regarded as “The Jesse Owens Incident,” in which he painted himself

charcoal black and ran the 100 meters at the local playing field one

night.

 

And considering we were also told he was obsessed with Jesse Owens, we already have a pretty good idea of what happened and why.

So obviously we must ask ourselves what purpose Zusak intends in returning to the incident and giving it a full chapter in his book.

The chapter begins promisingly enough:

As we both know, Liesel wasn’t on hand on Himmel Street when Rudy performed his act of childhood infamy. When she looked back, though, it felt like she’d actually been there. In her memory, she had somehow become a member of Rudy’s imaginary audience. Nobody else mentioned it, but Rudy certainly made up for that, so much that when Liesel came to recollect her story, the Jesse Owens incident was as much a part of it as everything she witnessed firsthand.

This is something I can relate to very strongly myself, because I remember the night my brother’s car was broken into and robbed by a drunken man in his late twenties as well as if I were there, even though I only heard my mother tell the story the next day (or the same day, considering it happened early in the morning). But she told it so well it felt like I was there. In fact, I think she was a better storyteller than Zusak. And I’d like to tell you the whole story myself because it’s actually very funny and very interesting, perhaps more so than this chapter. But no, I’m off track already.

So…. Zusak starts it off by giving us some historical perspective:

It was 1936. The Olympics. Hitler’s games.

Jesse Owens had just completed the 4 x 100m relay and won his fourth gold medal. Talk that he was subhuman because he was black and Hitler’s refusal to shake his hand were touted around the world. Even the most racist Germans were amazed with the efforts of Owens, and word of his feat slipped through the cracks.

This helps to explain why Jesse Owens was important and who he was. (Personally, when I hear his name I automatically think of the scene in Blazing Saddles where Cleavon Little says “And now for my next impression…. Jesse Owens” and runs like hell. Sorry, I just had to say that.)

But there isn’t all too much surprising or new about the story until Rudy finishes his race and is “on his victory lap,” as he would have it.

The narrative becomes lost in Rudy’s childhood imagination up to this point, and once his father finds him, it’s easy to see why.

We get a vivid picture of Alex Steiner, Rudy’s father, that shows us that Zusak has a good understanding of the kind of individual that lived in Germany. Sure, these people did support Hitler, but it was more complicated than that and they weren’t just cookie-cutter bad guys.

Remember what I was saying about how times seem so simple when you’re a child but they really aren’t? Well, Zusak really hammers that theme into our heads here.

Rudy obviously is not racist or anti-Semitic. In fact, he can’t understand such a thing. Can’t even begin to fathom what being Jewish means, in fact.

If the book has been lost in childhood whimsy and trivialities, Zusak makes sure we know why as he ends this chapter on a particular dire note:

They walked on in silence for a while, until Rudy said, “I just wish I was like Jesse Owens, papa.”

This time, Mr. Steiner placed his hand on Rudy’s head and explained, “I know, son-but you’ve got beautiful blond hair and big, safe blue eyes. You should be happy with that; is that clear?”

But nothing was clear.

Rudy understood nothing, and that night was the prelude of things to come. Two and a half years later, the Kaufmann Shoe Shop was reduced to broken glass, and all the shoes were flung aboard a truck in their boxes.

Note that “two and a half years later” is at this point very soon to come, if it hasn’t actually happened already. Zusak is sending us a very strong message here: “Enjoy the moments of happiness I give you. It’s all about to go to hell, and you know that and I’m not letting you deny it.”

THE OTHER SIDE OF SANDPAPER

Compounding his cruelty he then proceeds to give us the date: “late May 1939.” Only 3 months left left until the war. Things are normal at the Hubermann household now, but already dire politics are coming into play:

Earlier, there had been a parade.

The brown-shirted extremist members of the NSDAP (otherwise known as the Nazi Party) had marched down Munich Street, their banners worn proudly, their faces held high, as if on sticks. Their voices were full of song, culminating in a roaring rendition of “Deutschland über Alles.” “Germany over Everything.”

As always, they were clapped.

They were spurred on as they walked to who knows where.

People on the street stood and watched, some with straight-armed salutes, others with hands that burned from applause.

We do have one thing to make us feel better, though:

*** SOME CRUNCHED NUMBERS ***

In 1933, 90 percent of Germans showed unflinching

support for Adolf Hitler.

That leaves 10 percent who didn’t.

Hans Hubermann belonged to the 10 percent.

There was a reason for that.

It’s because he is a flawless, wonderful paragon of humanity. Sorry, but I just love him more and more on every page. Seriously, that is not an exaggeration!

And he gets the chance to prove this as Liesel’s nightmares sadly get worse:

When she woke up screaming, Liesel knew immediately that on this occasion, something had changed. A smell leaked out from under the sheets, warm and sickly. At first, she tried convincing herself that nothing had happened, but as Papa came closer and held her, she cried and admitted the fact in his ear.

Liesel’s experience really was a traumatic thing for a 10-year-old girl to go through, so I’m glad the effects are shown to be so severe. Also, bed-wetting is often shown as something funny to laugh at people for in pop culture, so it’s nice to see it portrayed in a sympathetic light.

He teases, however, that something bigger is to come from this:

A black book with silver writing on it came hurtling out and landed on the floor, between the tall man’s feet.

He looked down at it.

He looked at the girl, who timidly shrugged.

Then expertly defuses the tension:

*** A 2 A.M. CONVERSATION ***

“Is this yours?”

“Yes, Papa.”

“Do you want to read it?”

Again, “Yes, Papa.”

A tired smile.

Metallic eyes, melting.

“Well, we’d better read it, then.”

So he changes it from the threat of something bad happening, to something nice as Hans uses the book to teach her to read.

We also have some foreshadowing:

You wouldn’t think it, she wrote, but it was not so much the school who helped me to read. It was Papa. People think he’s not so smart, and it’s true that he doesn’t read too fast, but I would soon learn that words and writing actually saved his life once. Or at least, words and a man who taught him the accordion…

I wonder if Zusak finished the book, then went back and arbitrarily sprinkled hints of what was to come, just to mess with us.

I hope this isn’t foreshadowing, though, at least:

He ran a hand through his sleepy hair and said, “Well, promise me one thing, Liesel. If I die anytime soon, you make sure they bury me right.”

She nodded, with great sincerity.

“No skipping chapter six or step four in chapter nine.” He laughed, as did the bed wetter.

I’m actually the sort of individual strange and morbid enough who tends to like the idea of killing off characters in order to create drama, be more realistic, break rules, and see what the world would be like without them (and also because there’s a Tarantino side to my brain which I try my best to tame). I tend to find people who hate authors for killing their favorite characters stupid and immature. But in this case…….

PLEASE DON’T KILL HANS HUBERMANN, MARKUS. PLEASE DON’T KILL HIM. I WILL DO ANYTHING, ANYTHING. I WILL OFFER YOU MY FIRST-BORN SON, RUMPELSTILTSKIN. I WILL BE YOUR LIFELONG SLAVE. JUST DON’T – KILL – HANS – HUBERMANN.

And in fact, it’s surprising for a book narrated by Death, that the rest of this chapter is so light, funny, warm, and altogether human. Zusak and Death may have their similarities, but Zusak is pretty good at distancing himself ultimately. The fact that the rest of the chapter revolves around Liesel being taught the alphabet is clearly necessary to explain her stealing books and telling her story.

Also, I watched the Masterpiece Theater film “Goodnight Mr. Tom” last night and it’s amazing how many similarities there are between that and this book.

Both are set on the onset of World War II, feature a child having to go live with a stranger, and their foster father finding that they have wet the bed, which they handle in a fairly business-like fashion without embarrassing the child. The child also later in the story loses his sibling and has nightmares.
In particular, passages like this (As they progressed through the alphabet, Liesel’s eyes grew larger. She had done this at school, in the kindergarten class, but this time was better. She was the only one there, and she was not gigantic.)

make me convinced Zusak watched that movie or read the book because there is a scene ridiculously similar to this where Tom is teaching the child the alphabet in the same way Hans is here after the child is, in his own words, “put in with the babies” due to his inability to read.

I realize I have no way of proving Zusak ever saw Goodnight, Mister Tom and it doesn’t really matter in any case. But I just had to say that because there were too many similarities.

I was more surprised that for his “*** A TYPICAL HANS HUBERMANN ARTWORK ***,” he includes an actual drawing that someone would sketch,

rather than his “photos” before. Probably because it’s a crude stick painting, so it wouldn’t be that difficult to visualize it. He does seem to like to challenge himself with his descriptions.

The chapter does close with some beautiful writing:

In the darkness, Liesel kept her eyes open. She was watching the words.

THE SMELL OF FRIENDSHIP

This was a hard chapter to write about. I love it. In fact, when I visited my aunt I read it to her apart from any of the chapters (giving a brief synopsis of what had happened) when I visited her and she said it was very good writing and hoped she could borrow the book from me when I had finished.

And yet there’s not much to say about it.

Liesel keeps having nightmares and Hans keeps being awesome.

Honestly, Zusak is really endearing us to these characters. I feel like they’re people I know and we’re so early in. There’s a fun little battle of wills between Hans and Rosa as she wants Liesel to deliver the ironing with her, so Hans and Liesel deliver it and do their lessons at the same time.1

Then we get some more foreshadowing of Hans’ story:

*** PAPA’S FACE ***

It traveled and wondered,

but it disclosed no answers.

Not yet. 2

There had been a change in him. A slight shift.

She saw it but didn’t realize until later, when all the stories came together. She didn’t see him watching as he played, having no idea that Hans Hubermann’s accordion was a story. In the times ahead, that story would arrive at 33 Himmel Street in the early hours of morning, wearing ruffled shoulders and a shivering jacket. It would carry a suitcase, a book, and two questions. A story. Story after story. Story within story. 3

Zusak is great at making you read on. Honestly, I feel like I’m reading something written by a virtuoso in the art of writing.

In particular, I have to include this, because it’s hilarious:

When the weather was good, they’d go to the Amper in the afternoon. In bad weather, it was the basement. This was mainly on account of Mama. At first, they tried in the kitchen, but there was no way.

“Rosa,” Hans said to her at one point. Quietly, his words cut through one of her sentences. “Could you do me a favor?”

She looked up from the stove. “What?”

“I’m asking you, I’m begging you, could you please shut your mouth for just five minutes?”

You can imagine the reaction.

They ended up in the basement. 4

Liesel is making great progress in her reading lessons and the chapter ends with her thinking about how much she loves Hans in a passage I read in bed right before I fell asleep after a warm candle-lit bath, which is exactly the way it should be read:

“You stink,” Mama would say to Hans. “Like cigarettes and kerosene.”

Sitting in the water, she imagined the smell of it, mapped out on her papa’s clothes. More than anything, it was the smell of friendship, and she could find it on herself, too. Liesel loved that smell. She would sniff her arm and smile as the water cooled around her.

We need to form a Hans Hubermann Appreciation Society. Seriously, this man is THE BEST.

Aaaand that’s it! You see? There’s not much I can say about it. Nothing much happens. It basically serves the purpose of endearing us to the characters and making us care about them more. But like I said before I wish more books would have nice conflict-limited moments like this and that’s the problem: I find myself repeating what I’ve said before the way I did in my Casual Vacancy reviews. Like when I said the book is surprisingly warm. In fact, my aunt was shocked when I told her it was narrated by Death the next day!

Zusak is a master at audience manipulation, I suppose.

THE HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE SCHOOL YARD

Further evidence of this can be seen in the opening of this passage. He allowed us to know it was a few weeks into June 1939 and he had let us savor every bit of peace and pre-war bliss we can have. So with the first sentence of the following chapter he teases us:

The summer of ’39 was in a hurry, or perhaps Liesel was.

And he then proceeds to summarize that yes, Liesel’s life went on as normal and things were going well for her and says “It felt like it was over a few days after it began“. It’s as if he’s saying “Sorry for boring you with all that in the first place,” because he knows readers have been trained to love conflict and misery. The moments when characters are having fun and being happy are the dull parts, the boring parts where we must wait for things to get interesting. So he will oblige, Mr. Zusak, as he pretends not to notice we are begging him to do anything else.

So he cheerfully hurls this at us:

In the latter part of the year, two things happened.

*** SEPTEMBER-NOVEMBER 1939 ***

1. World War Two begins.

2. Liesel Meminger becomes the heavyweight

champion of the school yard.

As we stare, our mouths aghast in horror, without a clue how to react to this (With joy that the conflict is beginning? How can we? And how can we not?), he goes on, letting Death revel in the little details, reminding us humans did plenty of that ourselves, then he concludes with:

To steal a phrase from Hans Hubermann:

The fun begins.

And I’m sitting here leaning back in my chair my mouth gaping in horror, emotionally drained in less than a page and a half.

And there are FOUR HUNDRED AND FIFTY SIX PAGES left, and I’m not sure I want to read them!*

As I read on, Zusak builds up the tension to an agonizing extreme and turns us into sadists:

By the time he made it home and removed it, his sweat had drawn the ink onto his skin. The paper landed on the table, but the news was stapled to his chest. A tattoo. Holding the shirt open, he looked down in the unsure kitchen light.

“What does it say?” Liesel asked him. She was looking back and forth, from the black outlines on his skin to the paper.

I feel like my heart is about to lunge out of my chest.

“Hitler takes Poland,” he answered, and Hans Hubermann slumped into a chair. “Deutschland über Alles,” he whispered, and his voice was not remotely patriotic.

I’m sorry, I-I just can’t stop myself from crying. This is perfect.

That was one war started.

Liesel would soon be in another.

WHAT?

WHAT ON EARTH DOES THAT MEAN?

Nearly a month after school resumed, she was moved up to her rightful year level. 

XD

You might think this was due to her improved reading, but it wasn’t. 

😦

Despite the advancement, she still read with great difficulty. Sentences were strewn everywhere. Words fooled her. The reason she was elevated had more to do with the fact that she became disruptive in the younger class. She answered questions directed to other children and called out. A few times, she was given what was known as a Watschen (pronounced “varchen”) in the corridor. 

***  A DEFINITION ***

Watschen = a good hiding

What? No! This – is – not – FAIR.

She was taken up, put in a chair at the side, and told to keep her mouth shut by the teacher, who also happened to be a nun. At the other end of the classroom, Rudy looked across and waved. Liesel waved back and tried not to smile.
…..
She thought it was enough. It was not enough.

I hate you, Markus Zusak. I HATE YOU.

A halo surrounded the grim reaper nun, Sister Maria. (By the way – I like this human idea of the grim reaper. I like the scythe. It amuses me.)

This book is the most bizarre and horrible thing ever written. And I love it.

Throughout the test, Liesel sat with a mixture of hot anticipation and excruciating fear. She wanted desperately to measure herself, to find out once and for all how her learning was advancing. Was she up to it? Could she even come close to Rudy and the rest of them? 

Edge of my seat here.

Each time Sister Maria looked at her list, a string of nerves tightened in Liesel’s ribs. It started in her stomach but had worked its way up. Soon, it would be around her neck, thick as rope. 

GODDAMN IT! Stop doing this to me, Zusak who is Death!

“Very good.” Sister Maria nodded, perusing the list. “That’s everyone.” 

Phew.

What?
“No!” 

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

A voice practically appeared on the other side of the room. Attached to it was a lemon-haired boy whose bony knees knocked in his pants under the desk. He stretched his hand up and said, “Sister Maria, I think you forgot Liesel.” 

What?
No!

Sister Maria.
Was not impressed. 

<jaw drops> <falls out of chair>

The teacher looked across, for confirmation. “She will read for me later.”
The girl cleared her throat and spoke with quiet defiance. “I can do it now, Sister.” 

And thus begins the greatest exercise in tension ever!

When she looked up again, the room was pulled apart, then squashed back together. All the kids were mashed, right before her eyes, and in a moment of brilliance, she imagined herself reading the entire page in faultless, fluency-filled triumph.

I’m right there with you, Liesel. Seriously, I’m in a daze. Is this book real?

*** A KEY WORD ***

Imagined

FUCK YOU,

MARKUS

ZUSAK.

FUCK YOU

100,000,000

TIMES!

Breathing, breathing, she started to read, but not from the book in front of her. It was something from The Grave Digger’s Handbook. Chapter three: “In the Event of Snow.” She’d memorized it from her papa’s voice.

“In the event of snow,” she spoke, “you must make sure you use a good shovel. You must dig deep; you cannot be lazy. You cannot cut corners.”

Oh my God, this is amazing.

It ended.

The book was snatched from her grasp and she was told.

“Liesel-the corridor.”

As she was given a small Watschen, she could hear them all laughing in the classroom, between Sister Maria’s striking hand. She saw them. All those mashed children. Grinning and laughing. Bathed in sunshine. Everyone laughing but Rudy.

This book should be used as an instrument of torture. I can’t stand this any longer.

In the break, she was taunted. A boy named Ludwig Schmeikl came up to her with a book. “Hey, Liesel,” he said to her, “I’m having trouble with this word. Could you read it for me?” He laughed- a ten-year-old, smugness laughter.

“You Dummkopf-you idiot.”

GODDAMN IT, YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP RIGHT NOW YOU STUPID FUCKING GODDAMN SHITHEAD IDIOT LOATHSOME ABOMINABLE WASTE OF SPACE PIECE OF SHIT BOY!

Nearing the end of the break, the tally of comments stood up at nineteen. By the twentieth, she snapped. It was Schmeikl, back for more. “Come on, Liesel.” He stuck the book under her nose. “Help me out, will you?”

FUCK YOU FUCK YOU you fuckin motherfucker fuck you TO THE POWER OF ONE HUNDRED!!!

Liesel helped him out, all right.

 

 

 

OH HOLY SHIT FUCK YEAH!!!!!

She stood up and took the book from him, and as he smiled over his shoulder at some other kids, she threw it away and kicked him as hard as she could in the vicinity of the groin.

<GRINS> OH YEAAAAH.


Well, as you might imagine, Ludwig Schmeikl certainly buckled, and on the way down, he was punched in the ear. When he landed, he was set upon. When he was set upon, he was slapped and clawed and obliterated by a girl who was utterly consumed with rage. 


FUCK YEAH! MOTHERFUCKER YOU ARE BEING OOOOWNED! <FIST BUMP DE AIR>

His skin was so warm and soft. Her knuckles and fingernails were so frighteningly tough, despite their smallness. “You Saukerl.” Her voice, too, was able to scratch him. “You Arschloch. Can you spell Arschloch for me?”

can you feel the burn can you can you cause you see Liesel Meminger SHE FUCKIN AWWWESOME………

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” a girl commentated with a shriek, “she’s going to kill him!”
Liesel did not kill him.
But she came close.
In fact, probably the only thing that stopped her was the twitchingly ugly, pathetic face of Tommy Müller. Still crowded with adrenaline, Liesel caught sight of him smiling with such absurdity that she dragged him down and started beating
 him up as well.

hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha


“What are you doing?!” he wailed


 

HA HA HA LIESEL MEMINGER IS GIVIN’ YOU THE NO HOLDS BARRED BEATING OF A LIFETIME, BOYS! OH YEAAAAAAAH!

On her knees, she sucked in the air and listened to the groans beneath her. She watched the whirlpool of faces, left and right, and she announced, “I’m not stupid.”
No one argued.

………………………….. (mouth open) …………………………………………………………

Ladies and gentlemen, please give us a great big round of applause for the heavy-weight champion of November 1939 and the world’s biggest female badass since Mary Lennox stood up to Colin Craven way back in 1911, Miss Liesel Meminger! YOU RULE! YOU FUCKING RUUUULE GIRLFRIEND. DOO DOO DOO DOO DOO DOO WHOO-HOO. WHOO-HOO.

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAP

CLAAA……

“The corridor,” she stated for the second time that day. For the second time that hour, actually.
This time, it was not a small 
Watschen. It was not an average one. This time, it was the mother of all corridor Watschens, one sting of the stick after another, so that Liesel would barely be able to sit down for a week.

I did know this was coming. I just didn’t want to admit it. Because this is what does happen, sadly to say. On my last post, I received the following explanation for a passage I did not understand as “in the larger scheme, we all are doing what we are told to do.” I certainly did understand how that theme is shown here due largely to my own life. There are clear parallels between Liesel and the nun, who are each telling someone what to do and the frustrating beyond aggravating thing that I have pondered for years is that unopposed Sister Maria can assert the same force of justice and she can’t. If Liesel deserved a beating, why didn’t those two boys? But if there’s no higher power to stop you you can do whatever you want and this is likely to form the main conflict of the entire book since this is what kept Hitler in power until 1945.

And there was no laughter from the room. More the silent fear of listening in.

So I’m glad Zusak gives us that. Because it’s true. They knew she knew the consequences and maybe if she’s gotten the worst she has nothing more to lose. So she’ll just let herself have it again and again. So you’d better leave her alone.

Not….
“Sitting in a car with you is like sitting in a car with Lord Voldemort.”
“I think we might tell Mom you said that.”

<awkward shuffling> repeat repeat >AWKWARD SHUFFLING>

The chapter ends solemnly as Liesel and Rudy walk home.

Nearing Himmel Street, in a hurry of thoughts, a culmination of misery swept over her – the failed recital of The Grave Digger’s Handbook, the demolition of her family, her nightmares, the humiliation of the day – and she crouched in the gutter and wept. It all led here.

Things were going well for her. I thought Zusak was being so kind in giving her a nice family she could be happy with instead of the cruel one I had expected, a friend, reading lessons. But no, we couldn’t have that. He really does know how to depict human feelings, doesn’t he? Perfectly.

When finally she finished and stood herself up, he put his arm around her, best-buddy style, and they walked on. There was no request for a kiss. Nothing like that. You can love Rudy for that, if you like.

Oh, I do. I apologize for everything I said to you earlier, Rudy.

And I just want to fall to my knees and weep, too, because I just humiliated myself over the entire Internet and you can’t even begin to know why. My sisters bullied me constantly growing up. They would just sit in the kitchen making fun of me for no reason – I lost it one time, beat them, went on a rampage tearing the house apart – then they ran upstairs and I just sat down on the floor and waited. Then she came down without a word, just that glare of absolute fury on her face as she walked past the wreckage I had strewn in her house.

She grabbed me by the hair and she took me upstairs.

I told her one time – I told her “I can’t take it.” She told me “You better”.

I was smacked over the head with a shoe one time. I went right upstairs to her room. “What did you do to them?”

Why can’t life be fair? Maybe it was for me, when she told me I could stop coming over because of them. But I’m not sure she meant it, because she kept on saying it just to make me quit whining. Even though I wasn’t whining. She took my property away from me, made her stupid ignorant assumptions – “You wanted to give this mean note they wrote to you to your dad so he’d believe you?” Why couldn’t she tell them off? Why did she have to patronize me? Why was it always me? Fuck her. Fuck life. I just got through reading The Secret Garden. Why can’t crazy, happy, ridiculous endings like that happen in real life?

And I thought it would be worse. I thought the last page would be Hans and Rosa talking to Liesel about it, and then I read it and I still thought that. I literally forgot I had finished the chapter. I don’t know what this book has done to me and I’ve barely even started.

Guys, this is my book. All right? Mine. You may have read it first, but this is mine. You can’t have it.

For now, Rudy and Liesel made their way onto Himmel Street in the rain.
He was the crazy one who had painted himself black and defeated the world.
She was the book thief without the words.
Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain.

This book is one of the best I have ever read and I hate it so much. It has become undeniably clear that Markus Zusak is the greatest literary sadist of all time. I mean, MY GOD, what kind of demented evil human being enjoys torturing their own characters this much? And we’re not even a hundred pages in yet! 9 parts left plus an epilogue and frankly I’m not sure I feel I can continue.


 

Aunt’s reaction to The Book Thief: Chapter 11

  1. After I read the first section, “Well, these do seem like interesting people to spend time with.”
    “Saumensch dreckiges, you never hear anything!” She laughed. “She has hearing problems, too.”
    After the second section, I explained, “That’s their strange way of bonding.” She said, “Oh, she enjoys doing that task for him.”
  2. I explained “The author has a lot of little quirks like this.”
    She said, “Oh, like stage directions.”
  3. I also stopped to explain that he likes to do foreshadowing like this. She said nothing.
  4. She laughed, “Oh, dear!”
    She laughed at the grave book line, and I explained a bit about that history to her.
    She stopped at “Papa dispensed with the sandpaper” to ask if they were using sandpaper for the purpose they were. I said yes, and read on. I explained he was a house painter.
    And you already know her conclusion.
    “Well, that was very nice writing. I think I might have to rent that from you at some point.”