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Reading Rainbow of Doom

We'll probably never get to see The Day The Clown Cried. That's the 1972 Holocaust drama directed by Jerry Lewis. It's about a circus clown in a concentration camp whose love for children -- and concern that their last moments of life not be lived in fear -- causes him to volunteer to lead them to the gas chambers, laughing all the way. The kids, that is; the clown cries, as per the title. And the whole thing sits in a vault somewhere, never released and seen by only a handful of people, a movie too bad and weird for human consumption.

What must be in that film that makes it so unfit to be seen? How rotten can it be? Because it's not like the years since have been host to the most tasteful of Holocaust films. If anything the plot of Clown brings to mind other tragedy kitsch like Jakob The Liar and, worse, Life is Beautiful, the bizarre Oscar-winner about a man (Roberto Benigni) and his son trapped in a concentration camp, with the man convincing his little boy that the entire place is really a big game to be played and that the rest of the prisoners and guards are part of the "fun."

Following in that weird tradition comes The Book Thief, a drama about… actually it's kind of about nothing. Okay, technically it's about reading and the power of words but its plays like an advertisement for digging your nose into to book on the subway in order to avoid watching another rider getting mugged and stabbed. A young blonde German girl named Liesel (Sophie Nelisse, blameless here, giving it all the big, wet-eyed, earnest power she's been directed to give), adopted into a poor but loving family (Emily Watson, stern with German accent and Geoffrey Rush, twinkly with German accent), endures the fear and uncertainty of World War II by stealing books and learning to read and write. She raids an extremely hot, still-smoldering copy of The Invisible Man from a Nazi book-burning and a few more coveted titles from the untended, luxurious library of the local Burgermeister. She shares the books with the young Jewish man (Ben Schnetzer) her family is hiding in the basement and shares her safety-endangering secrets with the little Aryan boy next door. She also sings, innocently, in the Hitler Youth children's choir. Cosseting this go-nowhere tale of inspirational tween literacy is narration by "Death." You read that correctly. This film is narrated by Death (the voice of Roger Allam). I know, I'm making it sound cool. Sorry.

Death is a fairly clueless dude here. He seems both disinterested in the story at hand -- long stretches of no commentary suggest he's very busy collecting souls elsewhere -- and possessed of very little understanding of humanity, despite having been Death for the entire history of the universe. It takes the perpetual anxiety and fear unfairly visited on the existence of a sweet little girl, a kid with the determination and goodness of a saint, one whose entire life will be informed by tragedy, to help Death figure out important truths about all the people he's been "folding into [his] arms." And if Death can hardly pay attention then why should you?

It is, in the end, a film-length reminder to be nice, especially during times of genocide. It further means to remind you that kids are cute, that reading is an excellent pastime, that Nazis are bad and that if you're really in touch with the thrumming heartbeat of humanity, a clown so sensitive to the feelings of others that you're willing to sacrifice whatever it takes, the bombs will blow up everyone except you. Sweet. Thanks, Death.


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