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Netflix's 'All the Light We Cannot See': Pondering All Things Visible and Invisible

November 15, 2023 | By

In All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel becomes a new Netflix series, with all episodes currently available. It's a story about the power of things unseen, even in the midst of war.

What Is All the Light We Cannot See About?

Set in both the lead-up and through World War II, the story follows Marie-Laure (Aria Maria Loberti, in her first film role), a blind teenager working for the French Resistance, and Werner (Louis Hofmann), a radio operator of similar age, conscripted into the German army.

The story alternates between the two characters as well as their backstories, gradually bringing the four storylines together by the show’s end.

War-weary from the Eastern Front, Werner’s superiors assign him to the seaside village, Saint-Malo in Brittany, France. The Nazis suspect someone in the walled city broadcasts coded messages to the approaching Allies, but can’t pinpoint exactly where. They bring in Werner, whose latest unfound target is Marie.

What Are the Themes of the Story?

The four-episode limited series, like the epic novel, is about a lot of things: love, sacrifice, coming-of-age, tragedy, and family ties.

For what it’s worth, I felt the poetic prose style of the novel captured the themes better. Retaining this style for streaming would have been a difficult task for any showrunner. The producers rely more on straightforward dialogue.

Both mediums aptly revolve the plots and themes around the novel’s title, All the Light We Cannot See. Most obviously, the two main characters master the science of radio communication: transmitting and receiving audio messages via radio waves.

All Things Visible and Invisible

Radio waves are invisible, so only Marie-Laure and Werner seem fascinated with a particular science that deals with that which can’t be seen.

Their young-adult expertise with radios began with an appreciation of the medium as children. Marie-Laure’s great-uncle, Etienne (Hugh Laurie), fought in the First World War.

Imposing a hermit-like existence upon himself, he broadcasts a children’s radio show from his attic, promoting kindness and reason to anyone who will listen. Marie listened and is later trained by Etienne in the craft.

In the neighboring country, Werner, listens, too, in a German orphanage. He’s seemingly born for radio and becomes a self-taught expert in the field. With both listening to Etienne’s message, we anticipate them choosing a different path than their countrymen.

For Marie-Laure, she avoids collaboration with occupying Germans and works instead for the Resistance. With film a new medium, Werner is not seduced by the mesmerizing visual propaganda and holds true as best he can to Etienne’s messaging.

The Light of the Unseen God

The unspoken and deepest message, then, is being attuned to God.

I, again, take a cue from the title, All the Light We Cannot See. Our senses only see light refracted through a prism. There’s an untold amount of white light we don’t and can’t see. God is, figuratively speaking, the greatest light who goes unseen.

Marie-Laure and Werner, and the real members of the French and German Resistance (overwhelmingly Christian as history records, I might add), are testaments to that light. They learned of God’s primary creation of radio waves. As secondary creators, they used radio technology for good.

By the show’s end, Werner and Marie-Laure represent young love amidst the ruins of world war. A love and hope only found due to their fondness for a science of the invisible and a God of the unseen.

Mixed Reaction to All the Light We Cannot See

The streaming series has predictably divided audiences and critics. The latter almost universally panned it in reviews. The former has kept the show as the number one or two-ranked TV series on Netflix for two weeks running.

One common critique was that there seemed to be a tone of silliness amidst the awfulness of war. I think this was part of the point, especially with the female lead, Marie-Laure. With the book and the TV series, I always thought her character reminded me of St. Therese Lisieux, a young woman who still found joy and hope in the everyday, despite suffering with tuberculosis.

An unsaid, second critique, I suspect, is that some secular critics believe any character’s participation in the Nazi war effort to be an irredeemable offense. The best filmmaker in the world couldn’t convince them that Werner’s turn to good is a believable arc. The show attempts this arc and, in my biased opinion, I believe it succeeds.

Parents: All the Light We Cannot See is rated TV-MA (Mature Audiences) for language (including some strong profanity) and war violence. It's recommend for mature high-schoolers and up.

Here's the trailer:


As a bonus, here's what Bishop Robert Barron thought about the book:


Image: (L-R) Hugh Laurie, Aria Maria Loberti in 'All the Light We Cannot See'/Netflix

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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