Vienna, 1940. Almost-16-year-old Lilian “Lilo” Friwald lives a comfortable life with her father, an amateur violinist and master clockmaker, and her mother, an artisan who makes high-end lace. She spends summers with her uncle, who trains Lipizzaners and their riders, she goes to a good school and there’s always good pastry in the house.
Yes, there have been rumors about Gypsies* being rounded up and sent to internment camps in the east, about children who share her cultural and ethnic heritage being turned away from school, but so far, Lilo has only been fingerprinted. So far, they—the ever-nebulous and ominous they—haven’t been targeting the Sinti people, only the more transient Romas. As her father puts it, “They’re not going after Sinti. Street musicians, yes. But a Sinti playing in the most expensive restaurant in Vienna? Not a chance.”
That, of course, is the moment that the Gestapo comes for the Friwald family. Before long, Lilo and her mother are separated from Fernand, who is eventually shipped off on a bus to god-knows-where. It’s the last time they see him.
Shortly thereafter, though, they have a stroke of luck: They are chosen by famed actress and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to be extras in her newest film. It isn’t long before Lilo and the others see that their “stroke of luck” was anything but: While the actual work of being an extra on Riefenstahl’s screen isn’t physically grueling, they’re always one misstep away from being disappeared to a work camp—or shot on the spot—and their living conditions are inhumane. Some of them are able to fool themselves into believing that they’ve “gone Hollywood” for a short while, but the fact of the matter is that they’re slaves. Film slaves.
Kathryn Lasky’s The Extra has a fascinating—if depressing and revolting—premise, which is made only more so by the fact that it’s based on a true story. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that the rest of the book is only semi-successful. For the first 50 pages—the pre-film segment—much of the dialogue and narration is stiff; the prose flip flops between a historical feel and a modern feel; and the historical facts and details are just plopped in, rather than worked in naturally. The last third of the book—after the film—feels rushed and uneven, just a way to wind out the war and finish Lilo’s story. That, compounded with Lilo’s Everygirl persona and other characterizations that were more tell than show, led me to wonder if Lasky was less invested in her fictional characters than in her portrayal of the very-real Leni Riefenstahl and the story of the making of Tiefland.
Nutshell: The section about the film is compelling, Riefenstahl’s portrayal is chilling and occasionally flat-out terrifying (though her physical descriptions are somewhat repetitive, with multiple references to her “close-set eyes” and “feral” look), and the depiction of peoples’ ability and, sometimes, need—both on the part of the film slaves and on the part of Riefenstahl’s paid employees—for self-delusion is well-done, empathetic and subtle. Overall, though, readers who are looking for an excellent book about a girl and a lesser-known chapter of World War II would probably be better served by picking up Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Grey.
*The term “Gypsy” has passed out of favor in the present day, but as the characters use it to self-identify, I used it rather than “Romani” here.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.