Monday, March 10, 2008

Strudel and Sauerkraut

I wanted to write about two great experiences with arts and literature that I've had recently and I realize that, totally coincidentally (I assume) they both take place in Germany, a place I've never visited and know very little about. Unfortunately, my knowledge pretty much extends to two wars and a wall and some really hefty female swimmers and a few foods. Neither film really extended my knowledge, but now that I think about it, I don't think that either was really about Germany so much as what happens to people when they are pushed to extremes: bravery and cowardice, murderous cruelty and suicidal generosity.

The first is a novel, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, which is marketed in the US as a young adult novel. I am far from the first person to say this, but it really is a shame that books and other art forms get put into categories. The Book Thief is appropriate for teens and adults, and can be approached from different levels. The writing style is really interesting and poetic. It is written by Death, who is just as haunted by us as we are by him. It takes place in a poor neighborhood in Germany during WWII, and follows the story of an adolescent girl and the people around her. It is far from sentimental, but that didn't stop it from making me sob on BART not once, but two times. It took me months to read it, even though I could have read it all in one weekend, because you just know that a book that takes place among poor people in Nazi Germany is not going to be about happy times, and it was wrenching at times, and stunningly beautiful at others.

The second is a movie, The Lives of Others. The funny thing about this movie is that I tried to watch it with a cold heart because I loved Pan's Labyrinth so much that I couldn't imagine Academy Award voters giving this movie the Oscar for Best Foreign Film over that one. Not only was I won over, but I would have had to join the majority of voters on this one. This time the setting is East Germany in the 1980s. The Lives of Others is about a man who so believes that what his government does is right, when to the viewer it is so clearly wrong, that it is easy to see him as evil at first. He is sent to spy on a playwright who lives a pretty satisfying life in a place where few people do. Both men have to face their own beliefs head-on as the story continues. It brings up so many questions, like what does it mean to be a good man? My favorite scene in the movie is about the transformative power of art, which manages to move a man who was unable to be moved at the start of the film.

I'm not sure I'd see the movie or read the book based on my recommendations, so let me add this: the book has a great story that moves the reader along and is most definitely not without humor and the movie is actually a really good cold war thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat at times.

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