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The Book Thief

There are some movies that excite me; “The Book Thief” is one of those movies. It is a low-budget but well-made film about a girl in Nazi Germany. Leisel, played by the beautiful child actress Sophie Nelisse, begins the movie as a 12-year-old orphan girl who is adopted by a childless German couple in 1938. At first, the adoptive mother seems mean, but the father is kind. After some time, the mother softens up and we see that she is capable of loving too. Leisel is unable to read, so her father teaches her how to read, and she quickly learns to love books. When she attends a Nazi rally and sees them burning books, she risks her life to save a book from the flames. The years pass, the war starts and then progresses. A Jewish boy comes to the house and Leisel’s family hides him. Time continues, and the hardships caused by Germany’s worsening plight are sorely felt by Leisel and her adoptive parents.

Spoiler alert: in the end, a bomb hits the house and the parents are killed, but Leisel and the Jewish boy survive.

The family in this movie, especially Leisel’s father, is admirable. This raises the question: what is the purpose of art? Art always reflects reality more or less. It must be so. If a work of art was completely unrelated to anything real, then nobody could relate to it and so nobody would like it. All art reflects reality more or less. It is in the “more or less” that the question lies. Should art be an exact image of reality, like a photograph? Or should art be an idealized version on reality, like a Greek statue? So-called ‘modern’ art is often realistic, in the sense that it tries to show reality as it really is. The characters in modern stories are internally divided, with both good and bad, strengths and weaknesses, beauty and filth. The line dividing good from evil is in the heart of each man and each woman, and modern art often represents precisely that. So-called ‘romantic’ art represents ideals. There are real heroes, and real villains. The heroes are entirely good, and anyone willing and able to imagine them must love them. The villains are entirely evil, and anyone willing and able to imagine them must hat them. The problem with romantic art is that sometimes it differs so much from our own experiences that we cannot relate to it and so it is implausible. If the artist is able to make it believable, however, then it can move those who receive it to become better persons in imitation of the admirable characters represented. Modern art is easier to believe, because it is like the lives that we experience, but though it is easier, it is worth less; it is mere entertainment; it does not make us better. What benefit is there in imitating folks who are no better than we are?

During the Middle Ages, much art was religious, and so none of it was ‘realistic’ in the way that modern art is. The great artistic debate during the Middle Ages was not whether art should be realistic or idealistic, but rather should art be so idealistic that imitating it would be completely impossible, or should it be near enough to real human life that some people could aspire to become like the characters they admire. With regard to the Saints of the Catholic Church, for example, some were represented as men and women with superhuman, miraculous powers, and no human weaknesses, while others were represented as impeccable men and women, but still human, without sins, but with weaknesses and no powers that ordinary individuals could ever attain.

So, which is better? Which do you prefer? “The Book Thief” is romantic in the sense that it portrays characters who are ideal human persons, which we can benefit by emulating, but it does not represent them as superhuman, as some medieval art did.