Marie-Laure is a blind French girl who flees with her father from Nazi-occupied Paris with a valuable, powerful diamond. They take refuge in the house of Marie’s great-uncle, a war veteran and member of the French resistance who makes clandestine radio transmissions. Werner is a German soldier trained to track illegal radio broadcasts. A shortwave station will connect the two young people in occupied France during World War II. This is the survival story that is told in All the Light We Cannot See, a four-episode Netflix limited series that adapts the novel that earned Anthony Doerr the Pulitzer Prize in 2015.
Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) was in charge of adapting this story about the power of human connection and resilience. For director Shawn Levy, creator of comedies such as Night at the Museum and action films like Free Guy and The Adam Project, as well as one of the main directors behind the series Stranger Things, this was a first experience with a period drama. “I read the book and I found it captivating. I found it suspenseful and beautiful, but also filled with so many rich ideas and emotion. And I was excited at the opportunity to do something visually luxurious and authentic, but also to tell a story that was very personal to the characters and ultimately very emotional with ideas that I connected with,” the filmmaker explained via video call in an interview with EL PAÍS at the end of August.
Facing a story set in World War II, the biggest challenge for Levy was making a credible depiction of the time and place in which the action takes place. “It required more research, more pre-production. You know, I do Stranger Things, which is a period piece, but that’s easy because I was alive in the 1980s — but I wasn’t alive in the 1930s and 1940s of Europe,” he explains. The series recreates the arrival of the Nazis in Paris and a port of Saint-Malo with the German army at its walls. Although All the Light We Cannot See is not a series about war, war is very present. “This is a cliché, every filmmaker will tell you this, but it’s very fun to get to paint on a huge canvas. The visuals and the spectacle of war are ambitious and huge. It really allowed me to paint in large brushstrokes. And again, it also forced me to represent things in a way that is historically accurate,” he explains.
A fundamental element of the series are its characters and the actors who bring them to life. For the lead role of Marie-Laure, Levy wanted actresses, a little girl and a young woman, who were blind or had a significant visual impairment. “I thought it was ethically right to let them represent their own experience. But additionally, I thought it would make the show better. We have seen so many movies and shows where someone is pretending to have a disability, and sometimes that’s okay. Historically, that’s been the norm. But I found these two girls who are captivating and really talented, and I knew that they would portray the authentic experience of blindness in a way that is instinctive and profound and therefore make the show better.”
To find Marie-Laure, they launched an open global casting call. The teacher who taught the American Aria Mia Loberti how to handle a cane heard about it and thought that her former student could fit the role. Loberti was studying a doctorate in ancient rhetoric and had no experience as an actress. Levy remembers how the young woman appeared dressed in her grandmother’s clothes and did an “impeccable” British accent. “She has an intelligence and a strong internal life that is true to the character on the page. She wasn’t yet great at acting, but she had all the right instincts. And I saw that she wanted to be great, and she was willing to work to be great. That’s why I gave her the part,” Levy recalls. For the youngest version of the character they chose the also inexperienced Nell Sutton, a Welsh girl with congenital glaucoma that was only seven years old when the series was filmed.
Aria Mia Loberti began to go to the shoot a month before they started filming her scenes in order to get used to life on a set, a space that is usually full of cables, cameras and people running around. The location was adapted for Loberti and Sutton’s needs, and there was an accessibility and blindness consultant to advise on both the scripts and the day-to-day work. Aria Mia Loberti herself helped give her character more credibility. “Every day there was something in the script or in the scene that Aria would tell me, ‘Shawn, this isn’t quite realistic.’ Little things, like, ‘If I come to this attic every day and go to this radio every day, I know the room, especially if I live alone. If I live with someone and someone might have moved a chair or a table, then maybe I would need to use my cane. But if I live alone and I’m in my own home, I know the path. I don’t need my cane. I don’t need my hands out in front of me,’” recalls the director.
Along with the novice actresses, there were very experienced actors. Mark Ruffalo plays Marie-Laure’s father and Hugh Laurie plays her great-uncle, a World War I veteran who lives in isolation. “The reason I cast Mark Ruffalo as Daniel is that I knew that the father-daughter relationship was central to the story, especially to my version of the story, because I have four daughters, and I knew that Mark would bring a paternal, soulful warmth, even though Daniel is not saying ‘I love you’ 500 times a day. Mark brings tremendous affection. And in the case of Hugh Laurie, I just think that we’ve never seen Hugh Laurie like this. He’s always cool, he’s always handsome and strong, and I loved the idea of him playing someone who was almost paralyzed in their trauma and who slowly comes back to life.”
For the role of Werner, the young German captured by Nazi forces to make use of his radio skills, the chosen one was Louis Hofmann, known for his role in the series Dark, while Lars Eidinger (Babylon Berlin) plays Von Rumpel, a Gestapo officer obsessed with finding the diamond that father and daughter are hiding.
Although the characters in All the Light We Cannot See are mostly French and German, the original version was filmed in English. “First of all, the book is in English. Netflix is obviously global, but I thought that I would do it in the language of the biggest section of the audience. We certainly talked a lot about language and we talked a lot about accents; that’s always such a hard decision. I ultimately decided to do it like the show Chernobyl, where all the Russian characters were speaking with kind of British accents. My hope is that, if the show is good, people might be thinking about the accents for the first 10 minutes and then they’ll just be following the characters,” explains the director.
In general terms, the production respects the novel, but those who read it will find some changes, such as the progress of Etienne’s character. “The book, like all books, has a lot of interior life, and we chose not to do any voiceover, so we needed to adapt and invent certain character dynamics in order to give the series more external life.” They also created a plot and new characters so Werner would interact in Saint-Malo with other German soldiers, to add some tension to his mission to find the girl. “The story is that it is possible to preserve the optimism and the goodness in the human spirit, even though the world is so often dark and disappointing and cruel,” concludes the director.
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