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All the Light We Cannot See: Series Review

Werner: “I have done bad things. Many of them.”
Étienne: “So have I.”

This intense, four episode series captured me from the moment it started; my husband was also intrigued. However, not all viewers agree.

All the Light We Cannot See is based on a novel by Anthony Doerr. Bringing a story from one medium to another always has challenges, because some things work better than others. I have read several of Doerr’s novels but not this one, so my reactions are based just on the series.

Let me warn you that this review contains spoilers.

The series opens in the tensest way. It is August 1944, and American bombers are coming to Saint-Malo, an occupied French city on the coast. Most of the French in Saint-Malo want the Nazis gone, but naturally no one wants to get bombed. The Americans drop leaflets telling the population to leave, but they cannot because the gates are locked. I like how the series shows that this inability to leave is felt by both the people of Saint-Malo and many of the German soldiers, who complain about being forced to fight old men’s wars.

While their grip was complete, the Nazis could compel, but now the local citizens are emboldened to fight – or perhaps they are afraid of the resistance. In the meantime, we get the main storyline: the Germans are sure their positions are being given away by radio transmissions, so they want to discover anyone who is broadcasting. We, as the audience, discover that they are being done by a blind young woman, Marie-Laure, who broadcasts on a frequency and reads from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. On the other side, we have Werner Pfennig, a young German soldier who is a radio whiz and who has been tasked with locating her. However, he does not want to: not only is he against the Nazis, he’s for the truth, which has been broadcast on this particular frequency for years.

I love that there’s a blind character in the story, as it reminds us that people who encounter events in history start with their own strengths and weaknesses. Marie-Laure cannot see, but her hearing is exceptional. She is also beautiful and brilliant and extremely capable. She sneaks a message about breaking bread into a broadcast, and that allows her to meet with her uncle  Étienne at the bakery (it’s too dangerous to meet at the house). Alas, there is little bread to be had – people are starving, although there appears to be no shortage of cigarettes – but Marie-Laure knows her way to a sea grotto where she can find fresh oysters (or mussels, I am not too clear on this).

Although one of the main characters is blind, many scenes in the series are stunning. We get Paris in the 1930s and 1940s, and Daniel walking around with his blind daughter. We get the museum in Paris. The city of Saint-Malo. We get the bombs, both above and below. The institute where Werner is taken. The carved wooden city that represents Saint-Malo so Marie-Laure can find her way around. A farm in France with chickens. Étienne’s study and Manec’s kitchen. These are just some of the visual treats.

On the other hand, sometimes the dialogue feels stilted. Sometimes when people are talking, I had the impression, “exposition” – although I don’t know how else the necessary information could have been conveyed. And a few items get repeated a little too often.

Despite that tiny issue, the story is compelling, in part because so many themes feel especially relevant today. Some examples:

  • We’re told over and over how foreign radio stations are forbidden by the Nazis; listening to one means death. It reminds me of how tightly controlled media are in many places around the world. Consider the risks certain journalists have faced, such as Jamal Khashoggi (murdered in Turkey by Saudi Arabia) or Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journalist currently imprisoned in in Russia.
  • People are sometimes compelled to do what they do not want to do, such as hurting or even killing others. Werner is taken by the Nazis and we can be sure his work in Ukraine meant many radio operators died. He does not want to kill the blind girl and when he has his chance, he murders his commanding officer and surrenders to Uncle Étienne. How is this relevant today? Many politicians have reported receiving death threats for not voting certain ways. We can be sure that some politicians have yielded rather than let their families and themselves be put in danger.
  • Can also see the cult of Hitler, with all the Heil Hitlers. When we have millions of people practically worshipping a political leader – a political leader who believes he should be worshipped, and who sends out photoshopped pictures of him hugging Jesus (where Jesus is happy in his embrace and is shorter than that political leader) – we know it’s a cult.
  • An idea that gets mentioned more than once is that World War II is a war of old men. Well, so are many wars we see today, and it’s really not just old men, but people with insatiable egos who want more than they can have.
Hence, the series seems especially relevant.

There’s one storyline (again, spoilers!) that is a bit out of place. The "Sea of Flames" is a precious diamond that belongs to all of France and so Daniel LeBlanc takes it with him to Saint-Malo. The diamond is said to have magical properties: anyone who owns it will not die, but those who are most loved by the person who owns it will suffer terribly. This serves as a motivation for von Rumpel, a Nazi dying from cancer. The two museum employees, Daniel and a foreman whose name was not listed, at least not over at IMDB, are men of science, and they don’t believe in either the promise or the curse. Hence, both touched the cursed diamond with their bare hands, and terrible things do happen to their loved ones. We don’t know how Daniel LeBlanc’s wife died, but von Rumpel blames Marie-Laure’s blindness on the curse. Von Rumpel makes a point to make sure the foreman’s family will be killed, too, assuring that the curse is fulfilled in his respect.

Like I said, I have mixed feelings about this storyline. The rest of the action, although improbable, does not go into the area of fantasy. The rest of the story is possible. Yes, our characters survive threats in unlikely ways, but that is what happens in war. But this story line – and it is only believed by one character in the series, not the others and we never see anyone who owns it live forever – seems to be out of place. On the other hand, it reminds us that this story is only a story and not something that really happened.

Title musings. All the Light We Cannot See is the title of the series, chosen by the author on whose book this series is based. This title can be interpreted in so many ways, that I could base the entire review on just this phrase. Of course there is Marie-Laure, who is blind, who can see no light but whose soul shines through so much of the events. The light not allowed the knowledge with all foreign radio transmissions being forbidden. The fact that Étienne has shut himself up in his radio tower and has kept away from outside light. Radio waves are not visible, but unlike sound waves, which need to go through air or water or some other medium, radio waves are part of the spectrum we cannot see. Radios convert them back into sound, bringing stories and the truth. It’s a great title, but we must give credit to Doerr and not to those at Netflix.

Bits and pieces

One thing I found strange was listening to alleged French people speak with American and British accents. The main German characters were actually native German speakers: two from Germany and one from Switzerland.

Interesting that von Rumpel is the only non-Jewish jeweler in Germany. I recently watched Oppenheimer, and it was suggested that one reason Nazi Germany lost the race to make nuclear bombs was because they were antisemitic and so most of the top physicists left.

Thought it interesting that all our characters had the surname LeBlanc, which means the white. White light contains all lengths of light (at least those we can see with our eyes).

The professor – I think it’s funny how professors in certain shows are expected to know so much (okay, the example that comes to mind is Gilligan’s Island). I am the daughter of a professor, the wife of a professor, and even my daughter was a professor. They are (or were) bright but not as infallible as gets made out.

They decided to make sure that both actors who play Marie-Laure were blind. Aria Mia Loberti was said to be legally blind in one piece I read, but according to the Netflix bit about casting her, she has never seen her own face, so any vision she might have must be extremely limited. It appears as if the younger actor, Nell Smith, is completely blind, and she waits for her father to move her about.

Had not consider the probable sexual abuse of boys in places like the elite Nazi institute, but am sure it took place. We could see the “doctor” almost salivating when he told Werner to undress (all) and then there were the very young boys being forced to march down the hall in their underwear.

The series had lights on when Marie-Laure was broadcasting. Now, I understand a fire if it’s cold (August, so it shouldn’t be, but it was on the coast, which could be cooler), but blind people do not need lights, and fuel, especially in wartime, would need to be conserved. Of course, in order for the audience to see what is on the screen, lights are necessary.

Loved how Marie keeps challenging her great-uncle Étienne to leave his room. He will do for her what he will not do for others. And I know how true this is, because I will do things for my grandkids when I would not do them for anyone else.


Volkheimer: Werner. Take a last drink before we die? Brandy. Older than both of us. Older than we will ever be.

Orphanage lady (Frau Elena): So often people discard things that are of no use to them but are precious to others. Just as Werner and all of you are precious to me.

Marie-Laure: No one is going to give us a ride because kindness is dead and all the people of the world have become evil at the same time.

Overall rating

For me, the show was extremely satisfying. It was tense, entertaining, and covered themes that are so important. I was happy, too, with the ending. However, I have not read the book, and I understand that not all the people who read it were happy with the Netflix interpretation. My recommendation is to take the series on its own merits and then to read the book later and get more depth. I award this series three and a half out of four extremely fresh oysters.

1 comment:

  1. Since posting the review, I have read the novel. I can understand why its devotees would be frustrated, as the series is so different from the book, with even portions of the end being different. I actually preferred the series, but I would not expect the same reaction from everyone.
    Oh, and one thing I saw in the book that was not really in the series: Werner's hair is so blond as to be virtually white, which allies him (and Werner's sister Jutta) with the LeBlanc family, and emphasizes that these two, like the LeBlancs, represent all wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum.


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