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All The Light We Cannot See — fictional stories of human resilience can undermine real ones

All The Light We Cannot See — fictional stories of human resilience can undermine real ones
Lars Eidinger as Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, Louis Hofmann as Werner Pfennig in episode 104 of 'All the Light We Cannot See'. Image: Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix © 2023

‘All The Light We Cannot See’ is a new Netflix series about kindred spirits in World War 2, which prioritises name-dropping actors over the subtlety of the novel it was based on. 

The majority of fair expectations one might have of a World War 2 limited series directed by Steven Knight, creator of Peaky Blinders, would have been disappointingly mistaken in this fable-like adaption of a well-loved Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Anthony Doerr. It tracks a little better that the four-part series was written by Shawn Levy of Stranger Things, but not in the fun ways. Stranger Things was a smash hit despite its twee dialogue because the child POV and charming nostalgia of the 80s shielded it — that shmaltz goes down a little messier in a war series. 

The story mostly takes place in Nazi-occupied France in 1944, just as the Americans are closing in. The walled city of Saint-Malo is under siege by a bombing campaign, but the German forces refuse to open the gates to let the civilians evacuate. Marie-Laure (Aria Mia Loberti’s first role), a blind French teenager, broadcasts inspirationally adolescent clandestine pacifism via radio from an attic somewhere, and pleas for her father (Mark Ruffalo) to come home. 

The explosion of an ally bomb knocks her off her feet and rattles the entire house. She sits up and continues to broadcast as if nothing had happened. “And now, for those of you who listen to my broadcast for pleasure, I will continue my reading of Ten Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne”. Of course, she’s not really reciting Jules Vern’s beloved story for pleasure — it’s a code to help the Americans, instructed to her by her revolutionary uncle (Hugh Laurie). 

Listening in and clinging to her every word, is Werner (Louis Hofmann of Dark), a young German soldier and radio technician enlisted by Hitler’s regime to track illicit broadcasts. This most unlikely kindred spirit, who is literally on the same wavelength as Marie-Laure, is tragically bid to track her down by an evil Gestapo officer who is searching for a cursed diamond he believes will grant him everlasting life. 

This colourful premise, which made for a moving, nuanced story, is undercut by a cliché approach captured in the series synopsis: “a story of the extraordinary power of human connection — a beacon of light that can lead us through even the darkest of times”. Seems a little happy clappy for a story of genocidal war, doesn’t it?

All the Light We Cannot See. (L to R) Mark Ruffalo as Daniel LeBlanc, Lars Eidinger as Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel in episode 104 of 'All the Light We Cannot See'. Image: Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix © 2023

Mark Ruffalo as Daniel LeBlanc, Lars Eidinger as Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel in episode 104 of ‘All the Light We Cannot See’. Image: Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix © 2023

All the Light We Cannot See. (L to R) Oscar Hoppe as Institute Bunk Master, Louis Hofmann as Werner Pfennig in episode 102 of 'All the Light We Cannot See'. Image: Katalin Vermes/Netflix © 2023

Oscar Hoppe as Institute Bunk Master, Louis Hofmann as Werner Pfennig in episode 102 of ‘All the Light We Cannot See’. Image: Katalin Vermes/Netflix © 2023

All the Light We Cannot See. (L to R) Lars Eidinger as Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, Aria Mia Loberti as Marie-Laure in episode 102 of 'All the Light We Cannot See'. Image: Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix © 2023

Lars Eidinger as Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, Aria Mia Loberti as Marie-Laure in episode 102 of ‘All the Light We Cannot See’. Image: Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix © 2023

Making light of darkness

For a tale spun through World War 2, the series is unusually gentle and uplifting. That’s not inherently a bad thing. Many films and books have war as a framework for stories that do not centre on war itself. Life and smaller human experiences persist even through the most eventful and violent periods of history, and there is something fascinating about exploring “normal” moments during abnormal times. 

But, if the focus on little things undermines the horror of violence, not only are those little things less interesting, the whole story starts to seem insincere. This overzealous optimism is what makes All The Light We Cannot See so trite.

Instead of depicting or even hinting at the pain caused by the war, the series caricatures Nazis as unintentionally comical villains of olde, homogenously gross and flamboyantly malevolent, akin to retro Batman supervillains or Bond villains. Audiences’ willingness to accept stories of World War 2 films as simplified fables of good and evil, resembling Star Wars or Lord of The Rings, are a possible explanation for why there have been so many of them, but when compared to the nuance of real stories or even this series’s own source material, they seem embarrassingly inauthentic.

Hugh Laurie as Etienne LeBlanc in episode 101 of 'All the Light We Cannot See'. Image: Doane Gregory/Netflix © 2023

Hugh Laurie as Etienne LeBlanc in episode 101 of ‘All the Light We Cannot See’. Image: Doane Gregory/Netflix © 2023

Aria Mia Loberti as Marie-Laure in episode 104 of 'All the Light We Cannot See'. Image: Doane Gregory/Netflix © 2023

Aria Mia Loberti as Marie-Laure in episode 104 of ‘All the Light We Cannot See’. Image: Doane Gregory/Netflix © 2023

A closer look

Some science fiction titles planned or made before 2020 got lucky with the Covid pandemic — suddenly their themes hit harder and were more poignant than the writers could have predicted. Conversely, the fact that war has broken out around the world at the same time as this war series came out has not done it any favours. With so much upsetting war-related content online, the softening of the series seems disingenuous. 

There is a moving portion of the series set aside to show the cruelty of the Nazi youth programme which Werner is forced to attend, but it seems bizarre that this is depicted more impactfully than the war itself or the evils committed against minority groups. 

The anticipation of waiting for this action to occur makes the series seem ploddingly slow, and the brevity when it (sort of) does makes it seem simultaneously rushed. DM

All The Light We Cannot See is available in South Africa on Netflix.

You can contact We’re Watching via [email protected]

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