The Implications of War: A Comparison of The Book Thief and Life is Beautiful
Markus Zusak’s narrative The Book Thief and Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful use historical perspective to explore the impact of war. Zusak’s The Book Thief uses the narration of death to follow the life of a young girl in war torn Germany. Benigni’s Life is Beautiful then offers an internal perspective of a German concentration camp in Italy during the Second World War. The atrocities that occur in wartime and their ability for the impact to spread is highlighted through comedic devices, historical, and social context. The power of words acts as a symbol, exploring the ability for words to bring power and oppress, and music is then used to reveal the importance of hope and comfort during war.
Both Zusak and Benigni use comedic devices to highlight the atrocities that occur during wartime and the impact they have on people’s lives. The comedic devices in The Book Thief are subtle and dark to reveal the extent of the horrific events. In contrast, the overarching comedic tone in Life is Beautiful disguises the reality for the characters in the story and portrays the grim nature of the fascist regime. The Book Thief is primarily situated on ‘Himmel Street’; the ironic use of ‘Himmel’, which means ‘Heaven’ in German, leads the reader to consider life and death atrocities that happen within war. Repeatedly, the street is the setting of many terrible events inspired by the war, including ‘the parade of Jews’, headed to the concentration camp. The contrast between heaven and the events that occur on Himmel street draw the reader to reflect on the atrocities, and the deep impact the war has on the character’s lives. Alternatively, the impact of war is portrayed in Life is Beautiful with slapstick style humor and exaggerated through camera angles. While Guido hides the events of the concentration camp from his son, the audience can clearly see the depravity of the situation. To create irony, Guido’s applause for the German soldiers ‘organisation’ as they ‘leave right on time’ is in contrast with the audience’s understanding of the historical events about to occur. This is further reinforced with a full shot to depict the effectiveness of the German military machine, and Guido’s ebullient character next to the one-dimensional soldiers. Additionally, Zusak’s use of hyperbole, complemented with metaphor demonstrates the magnitude of the situation. The dramatic overstatement as Death encounters survivors during the war who have ‘punctured hearts… [and] beaten lungs’ draws the reader to understand the magnitude of the war and its effect on more than those fighting at the front. Guido’s slapstick style comedy then provides a contrast for the readers against the stony faced Nazi characters to highlight the depravity of the events. This is seen when Guido is ‘translating’ the rules of the camp. Guido himself cannot speak German, and uses this as an opportunity to hide the brutality of the Germans from his son, instead explaining the rules of ‘the game’. In both texts, there is an undercurrent of comedy that contrasts the traumatic context of each setting. Whilst The Book Thief uses dark and subtle humor to comment on the impact of war, Life is Beautiful’s use of overt comedic devices as coping mechanisms for the characters creates a stark contrast to the insurmountable adversity.
Zusak and Benigni explore the power of words to inspire and oppress during wartime in their representation of language as both symbols of hope and depictions of propaganda. Books and words are used as a symbol of power in The Book Thief, whereas Life is Beautiful uses the lack of words and riddles as symbols of bravery and cowardice. In both texts, Hitler’s presence is unspoken, yet creates friction for the role of language as he turned Germany into a ‘nation of farmed thoughts’. In The Book Thief, the ability to claim power through words is demonstrated as Liesel steals books. Liesel steals the books because she loves to read and while the books do not belong to her she is obsessed with the need to read them, and learning to read. They provide a source of comfort and enjoyment in adverse times. In her naivety, she only sees the books as something as a small crime, a simple object ‘that wasn’t always [hers]’. She is unaware that she struck at the heart of the Furher’s control and power. Though unaware Liesel commits an act of resistance defying the control over the German people. Liesel’s innocence symbolizes the ability to take back power and hope, but not yet tainted by the cruelty of the world. In Life is Beautiful, Guido and the doctor share an interest in riddles and they feature as a metaphor for the manipulation of the truth to oppress and ‘silence’ a population. As the corrupt circumstances are complemented by the riddles throughout the text, the depravity of the situation, and Hitler’s attempt to make the Jews ‘vanish’, is highlighted to the reader. In the same way propaganda hides the truth and is used to control beliefs. In comparison, Zusak uses the character Max to highlight the ability to break free from manipulation. Throughout the text, Max hides in the Hubermann’s basement, ‘[left to] suffer’ and oppressed by the ‘fists of an entire nation’. He fantasizes about fighting the Furher; however, Max is always beaten down and Hitler remains ‘undefeated, over many Jews and any other threat to the German ideal.’ However, Max fills his days defacing Hitler’s book ‘Mein Kampf’, creating a story for Liesel. This demonstrates to the reader, the ability to resist manipulation, to take back power and remain resilient against the brainwashing power of oppressive leaders. Alternatively, cowardice and bravery are juxtaposed in the absence of words in Life is Beautiful. Guido’s uncle is brave and silently faces his death, whereas the Doctor, who has the power to save Guido remains silent out of fear. In the concentration camp, the doctor poses a final riddle to Guido. His pathetic ‘help me’ leaves Guido bewildered and at a loss. In this situation ‘help me’ does not mean the same thing for the doctor as it does for Guido. The doctor’s inability to speak up, leaves Guido powerless. The Book Thief demonstrates the power that comes from words and understanding the full truth, Life is Beautiful demonstrates the ability of words to oppress during wartime.
Zusak and Benigni use music to symbolize the importance of hope and comfort for people during wartime and in so doing, comment on capacity of human resilience to survive adversity. In both texts, music harks back to earlier times of comfort and comradeship, and brings out memories at moments of need. The Book Thief employs the accordion to symbolize safety and comfort for the characters, whilst hope is symbolized by music in Life is Beautiful as it transcends the horror and isolation of the concentration camp. Throughout the text of The Book Thief, the accordion is always present in times of adversity, and acts as an ‘announcement of safety’ during the war. The constant companionship of Hans’ accordion and comfort of safety demonstrates to the reader the need for comfort during adversity. When Hans is conscripted into the army it then offers a reassurance for Rosa and Liesel, as Hans ‘made the accordion live’, for them. Similarly, in Life is Beautiful, the ability of the characters to find hope in the smallest actions, demonstrates their desperation for survival. Guido and his wife share a memory of the Barcarolle before their lives were shattered by the war. For the two, the memory looks back on a time when they were happy, where they could share ‘chocolate ice cream’, resembling ‘heaven’, rather than hell. The music Guido plays in the camp draws attention to the atrocities that occur and the ability for the smallest actions to help survival. Additionally, within The Book Thief the accordion acts as a symbol of safety for Max. When Max finally makes it to the Hubermann’s house, he asks Hans if he ‘still play[s] the accordion?’ Initially, this statement appears as a simple question; however, for Max, ‘Hans Hubermann’s accordion [is] a story’, that holds memories of his father. It acts as a symbol of hope, possibly the last chance of survival for Max in war torn Germany. In both The Book Thief and Life is Beautiful, music acts as a symbol of hope and comfort. It demonstrates to the reader the capacity of human resilience in the hardest of times, finding small comforts in the most deprived situations.
The historical context and setting of The Book Thief and Life is Beautiful demonstrates the impact of war on ordinary people’s everyday lives and gives meaning to the subtle details. The Book Thief’s distant setting explores the possibility of war to effect civilians distant from the front line. Life is Beautiful then uses the historical context to help the viewers understand the motivation behind the actions taking place in the narrative. The Book Thief highlights the vast impact of war by providing a contrast between the historical setting of war and the setting of the text. The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany, in a small country town, ‘beyond the outskirts of Munich’. The civilians of this town are rarely directly affected or exposed to the ‘violence’ of the ‘fighting’. However, they are exposed to the violence of the political campaign and are suffering great deprivation. The Huberman’s are rarely ‘lucky enough to have work’, and Hans faces backlash for his political views as he ‘does not [join] the Nazi Party.’ Despite the remoteness of the village from the war, the characters are directly affected by its impact. This contrast demonstrates how the tentacles of the war profoundly invade every corner of people’s lives. Alternatively, Life is Beautiful uses the contrast of color and setting from the start of the film, to the end, to demonstrate the impact the war. The story begins as a seemingly perfect fairy tale of a lowly man winning his ‘princess.’ The colors used are bright and compliment the happy nature of the story However, Benigni places several historical references throughout, such as the racial slurs graffitied on Guido’s uncles supposedly ‘Jewish horse’, that foreshadow to future events. When the characters are placed in the concentration camp, the colors quickly become gloomy and complement the immoral events. The absence of explicit mention of war until it is right in front of the characters faces highlights how quickly war can destroy a person’s life. Furthermore, both texts utilize historical context to frame the events. A sound understanding of the historical context behind a text can give a fuller appreciation of the narrative. In The Book Thief the narrator Death is not specific about the events he describes. However, Death makes reference to the ‘Germans’ and ‘towns [that] had been flung apart. Similar references can be seen throughout Life is Beautiful such as shops that do not ‘Jews or Dogs.’ The historical context within these texts offers a deeper understanding of the significance of the events that are occurring, and the impact they are having on the characters’ lives. Where setting is used in The Book Thief to demonstrate the magnitude of war, Life is Beautiful utilizes setting to highlight the stark contrast between everyday life, and life impacted by war. Both texts then use historical context to help the audience have a greater understanding of the reasoning and magnitude of the events.
Zusak’s The Book Thief and Benigni’s Life is Beautiful both explore the impact of war and demonstrate to the audience the magnitude of which people’s lives are affected. The main characters in the story both offer a lens into the chaos of the war for both the victims and the survivors. Symbolism explores the oppressive nature of war, but demonstrates the power of individuals to take back power, and find comfort in adversity. Comedic devices and historical context then serve to highlight the magnitude of the impact that war had on individuals lives and the extent of the depravity that occurred. Both texts serve to educate the readers about the ability to overcome adversity, whether this is surviving the war, or surviving each day as they come.
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Markus Zusak’s narrative The Book Thief and Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful use historical perspective to explore the impact of war. Zusak’s The Book Thief uses the narration of […]