Werner sits in his chamber under the hotel, listening to Marie-Laure read the final chapters of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Suddenly he looks up, and an old woman seems to float down through the ceiling of the chamber. Werner realizes that he’s looking at Frau Schwartzenberger, the Jewish woman who lived in Frederick’s building. Werner has the sense that he’s sinking into the ground, being swallowed up by all the sadness in his life. He remembers how his father died in the mines, and how he’s participated in murder as a member of the German army. Then he hears the sound of artillery, and the room shakes. He hears the “shallow defeated breaths” of Volkheimer, who’s sitting next to him.
This passage could be the lowest point in Werner’s life, and when he’s closest to losing all hope. He sees a vision of Frau Schwartzenberger, and seems to grasp more of the reality of what Nazi Germany has been doing to Jews. Werner also seems to be accepting his fate: accepting that he was always doomed to death and misery, just like his father before him. Even Volkheimer, usually so stoic and practical, seems to have given up hope. (Although his “defeated breaths” could be Werner’s reading of the situation, not the reality.)