Netflix’s new World War II series All the Light We Cannot See is a ghastly failure.
The glossy adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name flattens morally ambiguous characters into two-dimensional avatars of pure good and absolute evil. It prioritises the pursuit of a ridiculous MacGuffin — a rare cursed jewel named the “Sea of Flames” — over the everyday pain and horror of war.
But, really, All The Light We Cannot See lost me as soon as I realised that director Shawn Levy was more interested in style over substance, transforming the reality of a war zone into an aesthetic I can only call “World War Twee.” Levy goes so far in his pursuit of tidying up a tragic time that he goes out of his way to absolve his “good Nazi” hero Werner Pfenning (Louis Hofmann) of all sin! All The Light We Cannot See is a stinker that thinks explosions cast a brighter glow than nuanced storytelling.
All the Light We Cannot See is a four-part Netflix miniseries based on Anthony Doerr’s best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning 2014 novel of the same name.
It follows the parallel stories of Marie-Laure LeBlanc (Aria Mia Lobetti) and Werner Pfenning in the French city of Saint-Malo during the final days of World War II. Marie-Laure is a beautiful angel of a French girl, bravely committing herself to broadcasting NPR-esque radio shows that are secretly transmitting codes for the Allies.
Her only “flaw”? A horrific accident left her blind as a child. (Which isn’t really a character flaw, meaning she is improbably perfect.)
Werner Pfenning is a genius German orphan who was pushed into an elite school for the Nazi Youth, which we hear he graduated with flying colours. He taps into Marie-Laure’s broadcasts every night, but keeps them secret because she operates on the same frequency as a kindly Professor (Hugh Laurie) who kept Warner’s spirits up in his youth. Much like Marie-Laure, Werner’s only flaw seems to be not his fault.
He just so happened to be alive in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich. He’s a good boy, you see. The multiple atrocities we’re told he committed only happen off-screen. Marie-Laure and Werner are both simply perfect.
Marie-Laure and Werner are only part of the story, however. During the Nazi occupation of Paris, Marie-Laure’s father Daniel (Mark Ruffalo) absconded from the museum where he worked with the Sea of Flames. Think Titanic’s “Heart of the Ocean,” but it’s magic.
Marie-Laure has been dutifully hiding the gem on behalf of her missing father, using her nightly transmissions to tell her Papa that she’s keeping the faith.
Closing in on her heels is Reinhold von Rumpel (Lars Eidinger), a stereotypically villainous Nazi who believes the jewel will cure his cancer. These three main characters — Marie-Laure, Werner, and von Rumpel — eventually collide in the ludicrously action-packed climax of the miniseries. The title All the Light We Cannot See clearly refers to any shades of grey.
Marie-Laure and von Rumpel don’t feel like fully rounded human beings, but rather archetypes in a children’s puppet show. But no character is more underserved by his moral makeover than Werner, the one good Nazi, himself.
I had a German-born teacher growing up who would regale us ’90s kids with insane stories about Cold War Europe. The most grisly of her tales, though, was that of her father.
Her then-teenage father and all the young men of their small German town were forced into becoming Nazi soldiers. They fought for the Reich and died for it. None of them came home to their impoverished, pregnant wives.
In her telling, her father was neither a hero nor a good man. He was, like Werner, one of history’s unlucky ones, doomed to spend his short time on earth assisting evil.
Werner’s eventual acts of heroism are only extraordinary if we understand the darkness he has overcome to finally step into the light.
We see him arrive at the National Political Institutes of Education in Schulpforta, aka Hogwarts for Nazis, but we never witness his diabolical transformation into star student. We only see him victimised or impressing tutors with his prowess over the radio.
All the Light We Cannot See refuses to show us Werner in any sort of negative light. The Allied rebels he eventually locates via radio transmission in the field are shot off-camera, his few kills in service of a Marie-Laure in distress.
Similarly, Marie-Laure’s single-minded devotion to the Allied cause overemphasises her blindness as her only defect. If there’s nothing flawed about a character except their disability, their disability becomes something “wrong” with them.
Even the eventual arrival of the Americans is treated as a cause of celebration, despite the fact the “liberators” achieved victory blowing up St. Malo and killing innocent people in the process. Levy prefers to turn his protagonists into unlikely action heroes instead of exploring any moral ambiguity, which ultimately is a disservice to the characters, the audience, and most of all, fans of the book.
What’s baffled me the most about All The Light We Cannot See is the way in which Netflix has been pushing this epic misfire as their masterpiece for months.
While it’s true that newcomer Aria Mia Loberti — a legally-blind actress discovered by an open-casting call — is a revelation, her performance isn’t enough to offset the production’s sins.
Its cowardice in exploring the knottier parts of World War II render it toothless, if not tonally incoherent. Of course, none of this will stick to the talented cast or Taylor Swift’s pal Shawn Levy.
This adaptation won’t even sully the reputation of Doerr’s novel. What it might do, however, is add to Netflix’s ever-diminishing profile as a home for quality entertainment.
This story originally appeared on Decider and is republished here with permission