If you flipped through Voices In the Dark and only paused on certain pages, you might get the wrong impression of artist Ulli Lust. Some of Lust's drawings in this adaptation of Marcel Beyer's World War II novel are startlingly off-putting: ugly, grubby hodgepodges with no sense of composition or artistry. When she draws battlefields, cities in the throes of bomb attacks or streets full of rubble, Lust scribbles ferociously until each page is overfull. The fat, graceless lines look like something a child could have produced, while anarchic clusters of forms practically repel the eye. It's almost a physical relief to turn from these pages to Lust's other subjects.
The delicacy and assurance she brings to those other subjects — from Nazi officials to a flock of children — indicate just how much Lust is willing to risk in order to evoke the chaos of war. Not only is she not seduced by the spectacle of destruction, she refuses to allow her viewer the tiniest window of aesthetic rationality through which to contemplate it. In the face of some acts, Lust seems to say, art can only fail.
Lust's gambit is all the riskier because of the quirky nature of her talent. She's really a mismatch for this project. Marcel Beyer's original novel, The Karnau Tapes, imagines an unlikely friendship between one Hermann Karnau, a sound engineer working for the Nazis, and Helga Goebbels, oldest daughter of Hitler's right-hand man Joseph. Infamously, Joseph and his wife murdered their six children before killing themselves as Allied troops closed on Hitler's bunker at the end of the war. Beyer posits that his protagonist, also in the bunker during those final days, hid a microphone in the children's room. Decades later Hermann can listen to Helga and her siblings' voices preserved on a fragile disc. But the story, both pedestrian and firmly historical, leaves few openings for Lust's unique surrealism to dance free.
Hermann has little complexity. He's a thoroughly technical sort, who's so divorced from human feeling he thinks nothing of conducting horrible experiments on prisoners' vocal chords. Upon meeting Helga, he begins to feel avuncular — but why? It never becomes clear — there's not even a hint. Like Hermann, the Goebbels parents encapsulate the kind of bizarre duality that never loses its power to mystify. How could a monster like Goebbels rear such charming, happy children — and how could any parent, even Hitler's deputy, be capable of their murder? These are intriguing questions, but they're also familiar ones, and Beyer doesn't throw any new light on them. Worse, he's sentimental about kids. The cloying atmosphere only lapses when "a new game: brownshirts and undesirable elements" turns nasty. The parallel with the larger world is heavy-handed.
It's this kind of thing, along with the historicity of the subject matter, that makes Beyer's book such a bad fit for Lust. It's not just that nobody in the 1940s ever drew like she does, although that's part of it. She's right at home in the kids' nursery and garden, environments with a storybook quality, but her version of Hitler's underground bunker is clumsy and incoherent. That's not entirely her fault: She's wasted on scenes of realism. Her natural style is subversive, a combination of wavering, noodly lines and tight little faces. When Joseph's nose grows as he lies to his daughter about an affair; when Hitler's mouth is seen in gross closeup as he slurps on chocolate; when Magda Goebbels, face crumpling, prepares to poison the children — these moments are electric.
Although Lust's panels are too small and unvarying, her delicate and symbolic color washes enliven them. Peachy-red, sepia gold, ominous mauve and a thousand different grays convey feelings far subtler than what's in the word balloons. Sadly, though, the misty shades can't rescue every awkward composition. It's understandable that Lust would have been drawn to this novel. The story of the Goebbels children is timelessly fascinating (and creepy). It's just not a story that she's meant to tell.