The Book Thief – 2013

Director Brian Percival
Actors Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nélisse, Ben Schnetzer, Nico Liersch, Roger Allam, Barbara Auer
Writer Michael Petroni based on the novel by Markus Zusak

Narrator: One small fact: you are going to die. Despite every effort, no one lives forever. Sorry to be such a spoiler. My advice is when the time comes, don’t panic. It doesn’t seem to help.

In the most clinically respectful way possible, I have been done with Nazis, Jews and WWII in General since about the time Life is Beautiful came out.  There is no sensible person who denies that it happened.  It’s just not the only atrocity of the kind that happened, even if Hollywood seems to think so.  Despite this, at my wife’s suggestion, I watched the movie.  After watching The Book Thief for the first time, I read the book and then watched twice more.  I knew I had to know more before I could write about it.  Like the character Death, from the first time I look into the haunted, but still wide open eyes of revealing the profound depth of Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), I cared.

The film, like the book that inspires it, takes place in the late 1930’s to the mid 1940’s right in the wounded heart of Germany.  There are no platitudes, no great speeches that changed minds.  Nazism is not presented so much as a profound idea sweeping the nation as much as a job for people to do and a flag to wave to prevent the men with guns from taking everything away.  In showing the most common people of Germany as being so pragmatic and powerless, it lends even more depth to the Hebrews and Communists who had lost the most.  These people hold no ill will for their neighbors of different religion or political persuasion, but they were not going to change the minds of the fanatics in charge, even if they were members of “the party.”  They were members, held the Nazi flag, and celebrated the burning of books because if they didn’t, their own names were added to the list.

Alex Steiner: …You shouldn’t want to be black people.
Rudy Steiner: Why?
Alex Steiner: Because I said so.

In the midst of this horrific backdrop, we have Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Rush and Watson, both typically brilliant).  They are an older couple looking for money where they can find it in their situation. They agree to adopt Liesel and her brother, after her father has disappeared and her mother is soon to join him.  The word used in describing Liesel’s parents is “Communist,” but the details are purposely vague.  By the time her mother has crossed the country in a train with the kids, the boy is gone, and Liesel catches a glimpse of Death (unseen to us) as he takes the boy away.  In doing so, Death is drawn to her and lingers a while.  From his lingering we see the first book Liesel steals (a Gravedigger’s Manual) and watch her amazing story unfold.

Hans Hubermann: Your first book! Are you sure this is yours?
Liesel Meminger: It wasn’t always mine.

The rich tapestry of characters that surround young Liesel allow her to wake up to the world, even in the midst of the strife.  Her understanding of life and her role within it is constantly changing with the help of these people.  In particular, her friend, Rudy Steiner (Liersch), the Jewish man Max Vandenburg, who becomes a brother for her, and Ilsa Hermann (Auer), the mayor’s wife.  The latter two are characters haunted by the loss of loved ones, but each approaches their malady in a different way.  Max is struggling incessantly to hold onto life, and Ilsa seems trapped by it.  Rudy is young and waking up to the same world that Liesel has experienced.  The love and dedication of all three to young Liesel is for differing reasons, but each of them is equally valid.  They exist with her in the subtext of this society, and they thrive together, despite their varied struggles.

Max Vandenburg: Tell me, where do you get these words?
Liesel Meminger: It’s a secret.
Max Vandenburg: And who would I tell?

The place where she gets the most out of her life are from her foster parents, Rosa, and more particularly, Hans.  Even though he is of limited ability, Hans wish to connect with his daughter is the film’s most remarkable source of life.  There is much to identify with in Hans Hubermann.  His resiliency is equal to his gentle nature, and he is the perfect match to draw out the fire of Liesel’s soul.  At this point, it’s hard to distinguish Rush from the characters he plays, as he absorbs them so deeply.  He may well be the best actor of our time.

The same could be said for Watson, in all honesty.  Her Rosa, a hard exterior barely concealing her huge heart provides a perfect counter-balance to her husband. Without Rosa, there is no Hans.  It’s upon her backbone that he is able to extend kindness to Liesel, Max and so many others.  Hans realizes, like most others who know her, she works harder than anyone because she believes in her husband, even if her mouth says otherwise.  Her commonly expressed insult is used especially for those she loves most.  It amounts to the male and female descriptor for lazy/filthy pig.  After seeing the movie and reading the book, one will likely find themselves referring to those they love as saukerl or saumensch.

Max Vandenburg: I’m not lost to you, Liesel. You’ll always be able to find me in your words. That’s where I’ll live on.

There are some distinct differences between the film and the book.  Most of these are forgivable, given the wandering narrative that the book has and the necessity for a more straightforward approach for a movie that is just over two hours.  The wonderful thing about the film is that it inspired respect from me for everyone portrayed and made me want to know more about them.  Even if I am not sure it would have worked the same way for me had I read the book first, I know that I would still be drawn to the images in both, even if it was in a different way.

Percival’s work on Downton Abbey makes him particularly well suited for this material.  It takes the clinical and unsympathetic eye he perfected on the classic British drama to allow his actors to carry the load and push the story through example, rather than mawkish sentimentality.  There is a reason Death is our narrator, and Percival does not ignore this.  The lens is cold and beautiful.  The images are crystal clear, even if there seems to be a fog in the air over the characters portrayed.  John Williams’ score sets the perfect tone of subtlety to match the events.

The best thing about The Book Thief, though, is the acting of Nélisse.  Everything we know about Liesel is expressed through her eyes.  The gradual turn from scared ignorance to an educated fear and despising is the most crucial aspect to the story.  Nélisse conveys it perfectly without being showy or any sort of scene stealer.  She has to be part of the background of life to be the most effective centerpiece to the story.  Sophie has a remarkably diverse presence and will definitely be heard from in the future.

The film, like the book, should be required for all people Liesel’s age or older.  By showing us the paucity and providence of living in the most beautiful way possible, The Book Thief gives one a new respect for words and the color that they add to living, just by describing it.  The master stroke to this achievement is in having Death as the narrator.  His job is to be distinctly unaffected by humans.  It’s in the monotony of his existence that he first notices her.  And in noticing her, brought to a new understanding of people.  And in this new understanding he is, ultimately “…haunted by humans.”  The ghost is still with me, too.

(***** out of  *****)

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