November 11, 2013
Brian Percival’s The Book Thief doesn’t capture the dark poetry of the novel on which it’s based, but it does have a decided gentleness and warmth that makes it a welcome addition to this fall’s releases.
It is important to stay open to the movie on its own terms. The magical realism of Markus Zusak’s original 576-page bestseller, which is highly recommended, is blunted by the need to tighten the film’s plot, and craft something that will appeal to the widest possible audience.
Zusak, who created his book partly from his mother’s stories of Jews being marched through her small town, says he was quite pleased with the finished cinematic version. The screenplay eschews his poetic syntax, but still focuses in an authentic way on the side of Germany that didn’t just accept what was happening or blindly follow rules.
The movie version of The Book Thief focuses on how the world-changing event of WWII and Nazi control of Germany affects a single family. Almost all of the alternately sweet and heartbreaking story takes place on one block of the small town of Molching.
Death AKA The Grim Reaper (Game of Thrones’ Roger Allam, an English Shakespearean acting treasure) is the narrator for the story of an illiterate girl (Sophie Nelisse) who learns to read and attempts to understand the complexities of the human condition after losing her brother, and being given up by her mother to be adopted by a quirky German couple.
She is taken under the wing of her foster father Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush). Each night, they read from her first book, which she finds next to her brother’s gravesite. When a Jewish refugee named Max (Ben Schnetzer) shows up, Max and his wife Rosa (Emily Watson) take him in to repay Max’s father, who died saving Hans in the last war.
Attending a Nazi-run school, learning to read with her new family, making friends with her neighbor and pre-teen suitor Rudy (a fresh-faced and sincere Nico Liersch), and becoming close to wise but imperiled Max, form a forced education in which loss and optimism are seen and felt in equal measure.
Sophie Nelisse was 12 at the time of filming and had only one previous movie under her belt, Alice in Monsieur Lazhar, for which she won a best supporting actress Genie Award, the Canadian equivalent of the Oscar. For The Book Thief, she did research by watching movies like Schindler’s List, Life Is Beautiful, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and visiting historical sites throughout Berlin, where the film was shot.
As the protagonist, she must carry the movie, and plays Liesel as rather emotionally battered but looking for reasons to prevail, which makes the audience lean in her direction almost from the first. There is an objectivity to her portrayal that could be mistaken for blandness, but a more overtly emotional characterization would have been cloying and ineffectual. The simplicity of her acting choices may have been enhanced by learning on set from Rush and Watson, both of whom are known for choosing their movements and physical choices very carefully based on their roles.
The Book Thief offers another lovely treat for fans of veteran actors Rush and Watson. They both play very idiosyncratic characters with conviction, and in very different ways. Rush has a bone-deep kindness and a little mischief in him that endears him to the audience, as the depth inside his reserved nature speaks through his accordion.
Emily Watson as Liesel’s adoptive mother has a way of being stern and loving at the same time. She makes Rosa sympathetic to the audience while being highly annoying as a character, which is no small feat.
What director Percival is missing is the intensity and darkness so naturally a part of any film detailing the experiences of the Holocaust. Some argue, because most of the story takes place in and around the Hubermanns’ house, it feels as if the war is peripheral, and not nearly as devastating as it was in reality. It limits the scope and visual diversity. That smaller, reduced perspective, which was a conscious choice made by the director, is partly what makes this film unusual, as it asks questions about “the little guy.”
How did people in small villages in Germany deal with and experience WWII, even as there were Jews being taken away, and strangers with yellow stars were being abused, and treated like the enemy or worse?
As in The Book Thief, some showed loving, kindness and compassion, others became brainwashed bullies. Loss, suffering, and fear, as well as perseverance, are seen from the perspective of a child, and it is for that reason, parents will find The Book Thief a good cinematic introduction to a very difficult subject. Be warned, however, the death or loss of loved ones and close relationships is a repeated and integral part of the story.
There are two other particularly important messages that make The Book Thief so worth bringing your children to see. Firstly, loving books and allowing them to comfort us and carry us through the hardest times of our lives is something many adults can relate to and have embraced, and a great thought to pass along to younger audience members.
Moviegoers will also find foster and adoptive parents who are wholeheartedly committed and unconditionally loving to their new charges represented beautifully here. Thinking of all the families who so rarely see the best portrayals of what they have chosen to create, it is not only pleasing but gratifying to see it shown on film.
Other messages of tolerance, compassion and optimism are present as well. They are strong enough to bolster whatever lack of intensity audiences might expect from Holocaust movies, or perhaps they are strong enough because Percival correctly trusts his viewers will find a truth and depth in a more microcosmic representation of life during wartime.
World War II left its indelible mark on every person in Europe in some way or another. Here, we live it in one town, with one family. This could have been a more effecting or haunting film had starker choices been made. As it is, The Book Thief still finds its way into your heart slowly and over time, and it stays there way after leaving the theater.
3 out of 5 stars