“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” (2018) Review; and the Ethics of Cinematic Representations of “The Good Nazi”

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018) 

Dir. Mike Newell; Lily James, Michiel Huisman, Nicolo Pasetti
[1 out of 4 stars]

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018), a Netflix original released this fall, is a superficially charming film that raises serious ethical questions. In 1941, four friends, the younger Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Findlay), Dawsey (Michiel Huisman), Isola (Katherine Parkinson), and the elderly Eben Ramsey (Tom Courtenay), on the Nazi-occupied English island of Guernsey are stopped on their way back from an illicit, after-curfew picnic of roast pig and potato peel pie. Questioned by the Nazis, the friends invent “the Guernsey Literary…,” and interrupted by the rather intoxicated Eben, “…Potato Peel Pie Society.” Five years later, Juliet Ashton (Lily James), a London writer and lover of Austen and the Brontes, is on tour promoting her latest book. Somehow, a letter from Dawsey arrives in her mail, requesting Charles Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare to be sent to the now very real society. The intrigued Juliet leaves London, her publisher, and her wealthy American fiancé, Mark Reynolds (Glen Powell) behind, and explores the protective island community. Initially less-than-friendly, the Islanders open up to Juliet when she reveals herself as Dawsey’s literary correspondent (the film was adapted from an epistolary novel), and she is quickly invited to the book club.  

Juliet quickly realises that there is more to meet the eye on Guernsey. Dawsey mentions that it was Elizabeth who first suggested created an actual society: “We were all hungry, but it was Elizabeth who realised our true starvation…for connection, the company of other people, for fellowship,” but Elizabeth is mysteriously missing from the island. When Juliet questions Mrs Maugery (Penelope Wilton), the initially abrasive matron of the group, she merely tells Juliet: “Everyone lost someone in this war.” Understandably curious, Juliet asks the overzealous innkeeper about Elizabeth, and the latter exposes the dark secret of the Society. Elizabeth, she discovers, had fallen in love with Christian (Nicolo Pasetti), one of the Nazi soldiers stationed on Guernsey, and had a child with him. After being denounced by one of the local residents, she was sent to a concentration camp in Germany, and is presumably dead. What follows is your typical cheap romance (i.e., Lady Chatterley’s Lover [BBC, 2015]) crossed with the book-lover’s fantasy (à la Dead Poets Society [1989]): Juliet realises that her fiance can never understand her love for literature, and eventually falls for the rugged, diamond-in-the-rough Dawsey.

Since the late 1940s, several films have tried to deal with the difficult subject of the Nazi occupation of Europe, a subject that takes a little more emotional and ethical work than the typical World War II film. Whereas military-driven war films paint German soldiers with a broad brush – Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) continually reinforce the dichotomy of “us” and “them” – occupation films are forced to psychologise both occupiers and the occupied. From such films comes the question of “the good Nazi,” that is, the question of whether all German soldiers were equally evil.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Silence de la mer [The Silence of the Sea] (1949) is perhaps the most touching and nuanced of these films. In Silence, Melville, a French Jew who took his name from his favorite American novelist, deals with the implications of the occupation. Set in 1941, Silence takes place in the country house of an unnamed bourgeois Frenchman (played by Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (played by Nicole Stéphane). Placed into this home is Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon), an enthusiastic Nazi officer, convinced that the war will bring peace to Europe and unite France and Germany forever. Over the course of six months, the girl and her uncle resist through silence: although required to give him lodging, they refuse to acknowledge his presence. The film’s nuance comes because Melville’s Nazi officer is no barbarian. He is handsome and soft-spoken. He loves literature and culture, speaks French and German indifferently, and is unusually kind to the girl and her uncle. He reads from the French classics stacked neatly on the mantelpiece, and plays Bach on the harmonium. It proves ever more difficult for the girl and her uncle, and likewise the viewer, to condemn him. But the crucial element of Silence comes at the end: the girl is able to look past his guise and recognises that his ability to quote Hugo and Baudelaire does not take away from the fact that he is a Nazi.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society comes to a different suggestion about the ethics of Nazi sympathy, one that I find inexcusably immoral. Although the film does not shirk from portraying the evilness of Nazis – there is a particularly horrifying scene involving the “Todt workers,” slaves used by the Nazis to build roads and camps – Christian is put into the role of “the good Nazi” without any self-reflection. In many ways, Christian is essentially Werner von Ebrennac’s progeny: they share a love for high culture and seem genuinely kind to the people they are in charge of watching. In Guernsey, Christian is juxtaposed with the crude, harsh German occupiers. In one scene, the fearful English farmers watch as he approaches their barn. The tension rises as he asks what they are doing, but he suddenly reveals himself to be a doctor, and offers to help them with the birth of the calf. Christian even attends the book club with Elizabeth and appears to truly love the event – unlike a German officer who supervised their first meeting and began snoring after a few verses.

I might have been able to look past Guernsey’s questionable ethics if there had been some nuance to the film. There are plenty of films that are able to take difficult subjects – murder, sexual assault, torture, etc. – and are able to deal with them in a way that does not make the film an apology for that subject. This is a question of the camera’s sympathy: who does the film want you to side with? In Guernsey, it is entirely clear. Those who do not accept Christian are shunned from the community. At one point, Mrs Margery tells Juliet that one of the other members could not understand the others’ interest in Christian: “She wasn’t able to see that Christian was different…he was a lovely man.” But what makes Christian a “lovely man” has nothing to do with his own ethics, and everything to do with those vague notions of culture and kindness he sometimes exposes. There is never a moment when we see him stand up for himself; he never even seems to question the ethics of the Nazi party. Compare this with another classic example of “the good Nazi,” the character of Rolfe (Daniel Truhitte) from Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music (1965). Even though Rolfe never publicly decries the horrors of Nazism, he does, at least, waver for a moment in his duties, giving the Von Trapp family time to escape to Switzerland. In the end, there is some question about Rolfe’s morals, but the film actively muddies the waters enough that we can find some good in Rolfe. Tellingly, Eddie Meares (Andy Gathergood), the Islander who denounced Elizabeth, is treated far less sympathetically by both the residents and the camera than Christian. Juliet discovers that Dawsey physically attacked Eddie after a few drinks in the local pub, and from her reaction, it is clear that Dawsey, the Nazi-sympathising book-lover, is the hero of this story. I find something objectionable in the treatment of Christian and his supporters. Rather than condemning Christian, Guernsey turns Eddie and the Islanders into the real villains.

The problem with Guernsey is that it takes the trope of “the good Nazi” too literally, offering Christian up as the hero, when in reality, he is by definition, the enemy. Love of high culture – a trope among Hollywood representations of Nazis (think: Schindler’s List [1993] and the soldier who pauses mid-pogrom to play Bach on the piano) – does not absolve moral responsibility. Whereas Melville’s Silence and even The Sound of Music offer criticism for the “good” but ignorant Nazi, Guernsey embraces this character and turns Christian into a martyr, all because he was kind to one woman and liked a good book. As Stanley Kubrick once said in an interview about the use of Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange (1971) – another film whose ethical implications should be examined – “Hitler loved good music and many top Nazis were cultured and sophisticated men but it didn’t do them, or anyone else, much good.”

My qualms about the film’s ethics aside, Guernsey is nothing more than a mediocre period piece. Its portrayal of postwar England is hardly nuanced – these are your tea-drinking, Shakespeare-quoting, bourgeois Londoners, after all – but its nostalgic portrayal of the isle of Guernsey is sure to charm Anglophiles. The film’s more ambitiously cinematic moments are landscape shots: the camera pauses briefly to let us take in waves crashing against white cliffs, or the tiny, fog-covered cottages in the middle of fields, where sheep wander between stone fences. There is only one shot worth talking about in Guernsey. Late in the film, Mark and Juliet are standing in a pasture overlooking the cliffs and the beaches. Waves ripple in from the channel. They are directly in the middle of the frame – little below the midline, and the camera zooms out slowly, and a little longer than expected. The tension is clear: they are like two buoys bobbing in a stormy ocean – the world is so much larger than they are. The length of the shot, which holds just longer than necessary, informs us that there is something on this page that isn’t quite right. And this holds out: Mark’s contacts in the American army have informed him that Elizabeth died in the concentration camp.

In many ways, it makes sense that the novel’s authors, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, as well as one of the screenwriters, Don Roos, are Americans. The film quotes famous British authors by the half-dozen, but only the ones that Americans are likely to have heard of – Jane Austen, Shakespeare, etc. At one moment, Juliet, whose first, and entirely unsuccessful book was a reexamination of Anne Bronte, begins to harangue the other society members with a theory of how The Tenant of Wildfeld Hall was one of the most socially-conscious novels of its time. For those who have read the Brontes, (or seen the BBC adaptations), such information is obvious; for those who haven’t, it’s boring. This literary tendency is really all that drives the dialogue. Characters either talk about books or read from books. Thus, we get such clichéd lines as Juliet’s explanation for her bibliophilia: “When I lost my parents, it was the world of books where I made my home. They saved me.” Finally, it’s extremely noticeable how many characters have lines from canonical British texts: Juliet, Elizabeth, Jane, and Dawsey (whose name is tellingly pronounced like Darcy). Of course, films about books can be highly interesting – Dead Poets Society being the obvious example – but only when they expose something about the literature, rather than merely use it to fill out the dialogue. Perhaps the writers of Guernsey would have been better served if they had stepped a little out of their comfort zone (and the American high school canon) and read something more stimulating.

Ultimately, even mediocre dramas have a responsibility to uphold moral convictions. Despite the film’s charming portrayal of the simple but kind Islanders and its romantic plot, Guernsey fails to overcome the problems of its ethical system. Christian is a minor character, but his presence and characterisation are key to understanding other characters’ motivations. Thus, while Guernsey pretends to have a feminist agenda on its mind – Juliet leaves the commandeering and overly-masculine Mark, and actually proposes to the quieter, lower-class Dawsey – it consistently undermined any of my sympathy by fully embracing a literal Nazi. At the end of the day, in portraying “the good Nazi” without offering any sort of criticism and without any cinematic representation of the possible moral struggles he faced, Guernsey lets us down.


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