Staff Picks: Milan Kundera, ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ and Post-War Germany

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

As an infrequent reader of classical and philosophical literature, I can only describe the choice of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being at the library as a random impulse, driven by nothing more than vague familiarity with the title and a pandemic-driven desire to try something different. Just seven pages in, though, I found myself staring open-mouthed and gobsmacked as one of the main characters, Tomáš, wracked his brain to try to determine if he truly loved the young woman he just spent the night with, or if, distressed because of his “inaptitude for love,” he “felt the self-deluding need to simulate it?” He ultimately decides he can only guess how to proceed—if we only live a single life, we can only guess what’s best to do at any given moment; so, the singularity of the feather-light sketch of the entirety of our lives saddles us with a weight that’s simultaneously unbearably heavy and unbearably light. I  disliked Tomáš, but the profundity of this revelation, an elaboration on a powerful thought we’ve all had running through our heads, shocked me. Kundera was able to crystallize this all-encompassing topic into one perfectly human moment.

The plot of The Unbearable Lightness of Being doesn’t matter, and neither, really, do the characters. Technically, it’s about a couple, Tereza and Tomáš; about their complicated relationship, romantic entanglements and connections to the people that ripple out around them, all set against the political and intellectual life of Prague in the late 1960s. In practice, these are all just tools for Kundera to lay out his philosophical musings. I’ve seen people complain about this, but I actually think it’s what makes the book great—the story’s characters and scenarios ground these high-minded concepts and make them feel surprisingly accessible. They allow for what feels like infinite room to speculate about connections between one idea and another, a web that only sprawls ever larger as you read on, because it seems as if every page has some new and interesting thought or symbol to chew on. Simply, the deeper you look, the more there is to see.

Finishing Kundera’s novel, I felt like I’d had my first solid meal after eating nothing but junk food for a month (as a recent college graduate, I unfortunately speak from experience). On my next trip to the library, for the first time in my life, I paid a visit to the classics section. —Sophie Wiener, Fellow

Stranger than Fiction 

With Chicago summer temperatures regularly reaching 90 degrees, my friends and I would pile onto one of our couches to watch movies during my first summer home from college. But while films like When Harry Met Sally and 27 Dresses made the watch list, it was a film about the conventions of tragedy and comedy, the mystery of fate and the power of words that made the most significant impression on me. This film, Stranger than Fiction, chronicles the life of a man who can suddenly hear a woman narrating his life. 

Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell, starts every day in the same way. He brushes his teeth with 72 brush strokes and walks at a rate of 57 steps per block to make the 8:17 a.m. bus to work. As an IRS agent, Harold frequently conducts tax audits on local Chicago businesses. Ana Pascal, a talented baker who often refuses to pay her taxes, owns one of these businesses and captures the interest of Harold. All the while, Harold’s frustration and confusion grows as he hears a matter-of-fact female British voice narrating his life without any explanation of her intentions. 

Soon, Harold realizes he may be the protagonist of an unfinished novel; he must learn the rules of tragedy and comedy to determine if his story will end with his death. By the end of the film, I was reassured not only of the power authors wield with the words they write, but also of the influence a character—either fictional or real—can have on their own story. —Bella Druckman, Intern

Our Miracle Years (Unsere Wunderbaren Jahre)
German with English subtitles

If you have thought deeply about the Holocaust (yes, you could say, “What Jew hasn’t?”), you inevitably hit a brick wall: What were the Germans thinking? How could a civilization that brought us Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Goethe and so many others have thought the annihilation of Jews was a good idea? And no matter how many times you see the horrific imagery of concentration camps or read books on the ordinary German’s acceptance of Nazism, you keep asking yourself, “Why, why, why”?

Several German television series now on Amazon Prime try and fail to fully answer this, despite their postwar setting, only managing to allude to collective German guilt. But the one that comes the closest is Our Miracle Years (Unsere Wunderbaren Jahre). The title is a reference to the German post-war economic “miracle,” the rebirth of Germany’s industrial might, attributable, in part, to the U.S. Marshall Plan. The one and only (so far) season follows the three sisters of the Wolf family, whose father, Eduard Wolf, owns a metal-works factory in Altena, near Dusseldorf. After the war, he procures a “de-Nazification” certificate from the Allies that enables the factory to continue. But the specter of Hitler hangs over the family and, eventually, catches up with it.

Meanwhile, the sisters each navigate their own course through the turbulence. Ulla, the blonde, clever one, wants to go to medical school. (“There are easier ways to marry a doctor,” she is told in the application interview.) Gundel is interested in the family business. But initially, she is dismissed as an inexperienced girl, in over her head. Margot is the closest to a Nazi true believer, dreaming of exile in Argentina “where people think like we do” after her bedraggled SS husband returns from a Soviet POW camp. 

They unite around a common goal: to save their father’s company and move it forward in the new, enlightened Germany. At the same time, each individually finds a way to decisively reject Nazism. (“You can’t change the past,” Margot’s husband states. “No, but you can keep it from happening again,” she answers.)

The writers and directors avoid what might have been the temptation to gloss over stark reality. At a homecoming dinner, Eduard denounces the SS husband and forces him to leave (along with Margot and their child, Winne). A Jewish pharmacist who barely escaped with the help of Eduard returns and ultimately confronts Altena’s well-fed Burghers. Against their mutters of “get lost,” he denounces the persecution they inflicted, both active and passive.

But no matter how jarring and vivid its reality, many will dismiss it as a clumsy attempt at rehabilitation. “Why would anyone want to watch a show about former Nazis who have killed millions of people living in Post War Germany,” one website commenter queried. “Ridiculous. Why should we be watching this?”

True enough. But in modern times, while Germany’s demons have resurfaced in the form of ultra-right parties employing the old familiar fear-mongering, history will record that, in an era of autocrats challenging democracy, Germany’s Angela Merkel stood against the tide. And while shows like Our Miracle Years may not play the role of exorcist, they’re certainly a step in the right direction. —Dan Freedman, Senior Editor

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