The Book Thief begins in the clouds, literally. As the clouds part, we see a steam engine locomotive pulling a train. There’s a voice over. We learn that this narrator is Death, and he is about to do his thing.
His victim, a passenger on the train, is a small young boy, who is the brother of Liesel Meminger. Yes, having Death do a voice over narrative is a literary device, and I didn’t have any issues with it being in the film.
So begins The Book Thief, a film adapted from the best-selling novel of the same name penned by Markus Zusak. The film was directed by Brian Percival who has worked mostly in television and notably had directed six episodes of Downton Abbey. The screenplay was authored by Michael Petroni.
I was very pleased with the film, especially by the performances of the actors. Sophie Nelisse has the lead role as Liesel. She’s just 13 years old and is a French-Canadian from Quebec. She will capture your heart as this young girl who is sullen and withdrawn and struggling to come to grips with her situation which includes the death of her small brother, the abandonment by her mother, and her relocation to a new home, in a small town near Munich, and new parents as the film begins.
But she will emerge and surely brighten your day. Yes, this is a coming of age kind of film. Sophie will struggle to find a kind of normalcy in a place that is any thing but normal. This is a small German village in the late 1930’s. Children and adults are being shoehorned into a world of Nazis. Their blood-red flags are seen early and often. For most of the populace of this small town, resistance is but a concept, not a reality. Sophie who begins as an illiterate 11-year old child will be taught how to read and write by her new parents.
Especially her ‘Papa’, Hans Huberman, played by the always marvelous Geoffrey Rush. Rush is a true crowd-pleaser.
He has a lengthy list of successful films on his resumé. The Kings Speech, The Pirates of the Caribbean, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and Munich to name but a few. In this film, Rush plays the warm and loving parent, who while doing his best to win over young Liesel, must also face the fact, that he is living in the German heartland, and amid the rising tide of Nazism, this is more than just something he reads about in the news. It is right there on his own street – Himmelstrasse, or just outside his door.
His reticence to join the party has cost him work, and if he dared to speak out, he would be taken away to a fate unknown.
Emily Watson plays the outwardly stern Mama, Rose Huberman. Watson conveys a quiet steeliness inside of her, and yet, she will show Liesel all the compassion and love necessary, whenever needed. It is as if, Papa and Mama Huberman are playing the good cop and bad cop in their roles as parents.
Two other characters have earned kudos as well. Ben Schnetzer plays Max – a young Jewish man, who the Hubermans hide in their home for two years. Max – spends a good amount of time in the film, as someone who is quite sick, and besides that – he’s Jewish – so they can’t just take him to a hospital or to a doctor for treatment. Max is read to by Liesel.
By reading to him, she’s constantly reminding him, and herself, that they are both still alive, and there’s a world outside of the dark, damp, and cold cellar. Max will repay Liesel by encouraging her to write.
As Max said to Liesel: If your eyes could speak, what would they say? Words are life, Liesel. All those pages (he’s referencing a book, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, that Max has made blank with white-wash) – they’re there for you to fill.
Later, Liesel would tell stories to the others gathered in the bomb shelters as a way of getting the terrified people’s minds on to something else beside the falling bombs. She began one story:
There once was a girl, who had a friend that lived in the shadows. She would remind him how the sun felt on his skin and the air felt like to breathe, and that reminded her that she was still alive…
Liesel had a friend in the village as well. This would be young Rudy Steiner, played by Nico Liersch. Rudy was a boy of the same age as Liesel, but he was decidedly blonde, a picture image of the Aryan youth that the Nazis held up as the ideal. In fact, a few years later, Rudy is handpicked by the SS to be taken from home for training as an elite.
The only problem is that Rudy despite having to sing the ugly anthems, and give the Sieg Heil salute, is no Nazi. Rather than face going off for his elite training, Rudy decides to run away. It is for sure a spur of the moment decision, and beside packing a lunch, Rudy hadn’t given it much thought. Liesel is able to talk him out of it.
On the other hand, Hans Huberman, as an adult, could not run away from his conscription. There’s a remarkable moving scene at the railroad station when Liesel has to say goodbye to him. Papa was off to war.
And that is the basics of the film. For sure, it is an uplifting film, with characters you can feel good about. About situations where you can feel fear and dread. And, of course, moments when you can wrap your arms around hope, and decency, and courage, and inspiration.
I’m calling the film a success and recommending it. It is of course, not about a particularly new subject – we’ve seen the Holocaust as a subject of many films. Yet, despite this film being set so long ago, and giving us another movie about that dark time, this film still resonates.
While I enjoyed the film and heartily recommend it – the film has received some decidedly negative reviews. For example – Stephen Holden, writing in the New York Times, ended his review by calling The Book Thief – a shameless piece of Oscar-seeking Holocaust kitsch. Strong words indeed. But are they fair?
Robert Abele, writing for the Los Angeles Times headlines his review with ‘The Book Thief’ robs the truth from an evil time. Abele is dissatisfied that we only got a hint of the atrocities. He’s unhappy that the film is sanitized and spares us from seeing the worst of the Holocaust.
May I suggest that Mr. Abele have a look at the TV Mini-series made from Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War. This seven episodes series will offer him a look at the atrocities (the extermination camps with their gas chambers and the killing fields of Babi Yar) with all the graphic horrors on-screen that he decries as missing in The Book Thief.
That series was broadcast in 1983 – that’s thirty years ago – and I am still haunted by it. Especially when I visited The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam in November of 2012, as well as seeing a Holocaust Memorial in Hong Kong just a few weeks ago.
One critic was dismayed because these Germans were cast in a ‘too sympathetic light‘. Or said another way, he doesn’t want to consider that there were ‘good Germans’.
I reference these comments because I want you to understand that even a feel good film can have detractors. There’s something so true in the statement that you can’t please everyone. Beyond that, the Holocaust will be forever remembered. Showing less or more of that awful period of history, should not be something that adds or detracts from the appreciation of a film.
Four point zero is my rating.