Setting any film during the second World War and skirting a theme as weighty and unimaginably awful as the Holocaust is always going to be a tricky process. When your source material is a novel ostensibly written for teenagers, you can be forgiven for dumbing things down or at the very least making concessions to narrative expediency, and much of that goodwill has to be extended here. What made this stand out for me however, was a set of truly weird choices that made it a lot more interesting than the bloated sub-genre of Holocaust fiction.

Although we’re reminded pretty constantly of the backdrop of war, the true horrors of the Nazi regime are kept more or less in the background. As we see things through the eyes of a child, we end up with a child’s-eye view of the war, so that it seems scary and bewildering but the more horrific details are never really touched upon. This rankled most critics but made a lot of sense to me, and provided a pretty fresh perspective over well-worn ground. There is also a consistent streak of dark humour running through the film, again mostly used as a device to help the child protagonist deal with what is going on. Essentially, the audience are given the same treatment as the child in Life Is Beautiful – kept in the dark and kept laughing to both diminish and undermine the monsters under the bed.

The strangest choice however, and one I genuinely can’t decide what I feel about, is the way this film handles its narration. While it starts with what appears to be an omniscient narrator, we soon realise that whoever Voice-Over Man is has a real character of his own – he’s witty and acerbic and isn’t at all just a lazy device to have the novel’s prose read out loud. However, as the film concludes, his identity is finally revealed as Death – the Grim Reaper. Which is frankly insane. It certainly adds yet another fresh take on the material, but does it work? Is it even appropriate? I probably need to watch this again to decide.

Apart from those bizarre but mostly successful decisions, this relies on the usual tropes that war dramas like this do – a very talented group of adult supporting actors, the seriousness and impact that comes from the setting, and an undeniably admirable subtext of the written word being even more important in times of oppression and struggle. But again, a second viewing might be required here.

Navigating the Difficulties of Sensitive Source Material8
Justifiably Anchoring the Narrative From a Child's Perspective8
Pitch Black Humour9
Choice of Narrator6
Books Are Good, M'Kay?8
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
  • The female characters talk to each other
  • They talk about something other than men
Bechdel Test Failures
  • n/a
8Overall Score

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