Over the last several weeks I’ve read a novel, watched a film, and attended a play all set in WWII — specifically, the Nazi occupation of Guernsey and Normandy. Given that Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful put me into a sort of perpetual hangover with Nazi films, the experience has been unusual.
How did it come about? The novel was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and it was for a book club. The film was The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, and it was recommended by a friend and had “literary” in the title, so I was in. The play was Gabriel.
I enjoyed and happily recommend all three, but I’m not giving up my avoidance of movies with Nazis. The thing is, Nazis are a perfect foil for absolutely every kind of evil ever perpetrated, world without end, amen. A foil so universal isn’t that useful in terms of storytelling, and often leads to shortcuts.
A story about WWII has three kinds of people: the good people who are completely pure and never compromise; the bad people, who are pitch-black; and the weak people who compromise (but still deserve to die because everyone knows with 20/20 hindsight that it’s better to die than cooperate with Nazis).
Both Guernsey and Gabriel struggle against this reductionism, each somewhat successfully. The film has one good German who isn’t “really” a Nazi. The play has a mysterious and perhaps mystical character who might be English, might be German, and might be an angel.
The novel is a masterpiece of complexity and ambiguity, and avoids reductionism by seeing through the eyes of two children trying to make sense of their worlds.
Complexity and ambiguity are hallmarks of great art. The acknowledgement of the complexity and ambiguity in the world are necessary for civilization: for a balanced view of history, for bracing and civil political discourse, for justice, even for simple neighborliness.
A certain Princeton professor of jurisprudence is in the habit of asking his students if they would have opposed the Nazis. Unsurprisingly, 100 percent say they would have. Then he asks them, “When is the last time, if ever, that you uttered an opinion that sparked disapproval by your peers?” Many hands shoot up.
He then asks, has your stance cost you, socially or legally? Have you lost friends? (hands begin to go down); been barred from clubs? fired from a job? denied a job? sued in court? By this time, all hands are down. And he finally asks, imprisoned? starved? tortured?
We’re not a hearty bunch, folks. If you really think fascism is threatening this country, shouldn’t you be doing more than posting on social media?
Gabriel plays at North Coast Rep through March 24.