Despite World War II being one of the most frequently depicted events onscreen, and those films spanning a range of genres, from epic war pictures to intimate, tightly-focused narratives and from drama to action to comedy, there have been surprisingly few films released here in the US that tell stories of life for German civilians during the war. And while The Book Thief, based on the novel by Markus Zusak, may be fictional, it paints a believable picture of what life might have been like in Nazi Germany for the characters. From the air raids to the pressures of conforming to the Nazi Party, The Book Thief told a story that felt, if not unique, at least outside of the norm. If in the end it plays things fairly safe, it’s still a beautiful and heart wrenching film with some wonderful performances.
The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel, a girl on the cusp of becoming a teenager, whose mother is giving her and her younger brother up for adoption for reasons that are never really explained. On a train ride to meet with her foster parents Liesel’s brother dies and when they bury him at one of the stops along the route she steals a book that falls out of the pocket of one of the gravediggers. She is eventually placed with her foster parents; her new father is a sweet, older man who plays the accordion and tries to make Liesel feel welcome despite her painful situation, while her new mother is strict and perpetually angry, and who seems more concerned about the credit they will get from the government for acting as foster parents. Liesel tries to ease into her new life, which includes school and the neighborhood kids, particularly a boy, Rudy, who befriends her. When her new father discovers that she doesn’t know how to read he starts teaching her using the book she stole, and she starts learns to write by copying new words she discovers on the walls in the basement of their house.
As the war progresses, things start to change and Liesel’s new life becomes threatened by the increasingly fanatical world around her. Rudy gets in trouble for painting himself dark and impersonating (and idolizing) Jesse Owens winning a gold medal in the Olympics. The family attends a book burning where the town rallies around the idea of suppressing “immoral” writings, but Lielsel stays behind after the burning and steals one of the books that survived. Things finally come to a head when the family takes in and hides a Jewish man, Max, whose father saved Liesel’s new papa’s life during the first world war. From then on every action and word spoken outside the house becomes crucial as the slightest misstep could reveal what they’re hiding.
The Book Thief feels more like a collection of events rather than a unified story with character arcs and an overriding conflict. The tension of the film grows gradually, as the war becomes steadily worse and starts taking its toll on the neighborhood. Employment becomes difficult to find, food becomes scarce, and men are drafted to fill the Nazi ranks. Max becomes sick, the SS starts searching houses, and Liesel starts a complicated relationship with the wife of a Nazi officer, who lends her books to read but whose husband does not approve. Rather than a single driving force to the film, we are instead given a series of events with ever growing stakes, all overseen by Death, who acts as narrator and who serves as a reminder of the perilous setting in which the characters find themselves. But each event offers a chance for them to grow and deepen, and to give honest, believable reaction to the situations they encounter. There are no grand heroics in The Book Thief, no one swoops in to save the day, and every person must do his or her best while Death looms above it all waiting for his opportunity.
In a film without a big, driving narrative force the cast has to take up the slack, and they more than deliver in The Book Thief. Particularly great is Geoffrey Rush (who has become one of my favorite actors in recent years), who plays Liesel’s foster father, Hans. Rush makes Hans a quiet, soulful man with a strong sense of decency, who does everything he can to comfort and encourage Liesel, even in the face of daunting circumstances. Emily Watson plays Liesel’s foster mother, Rosa, with a fiery temper but a surprising caring streak. Ben Schnetzer plays Max, the Jew who hides in the basement of their house and forms a close bond with Liesel and gives her a human face to put against the Nazi policies and viewpoints. Roger Allam gives his voice to Death, and delivers each line with a sense of sorrow at the job he must perform. The bulk of the film, however, rests on the shoulders of Sophie Nelisse as Liesel, who gives a heartfelt performance as a young girl dealing with war and injustice and issues far more serious than a child of Liesel’s age should ever have to face.
The Book Thief is richly filmed, capturing the conditions faced by the poorest of people living in Germany during the war. I don’t have the background to comment on its accuracy, but the film made a convincing display of the harsh reality facing our characters. As directed by Brian Percival, we can really feel the cold and the hunger experienced by Liesel, Max, Hans and Rosa, and the reality of sitting in an air raid shelter waiting for the worst to happen. Added to the rich visuals is a superb score by John Williams, which meshes perfectly with this simplistic but emotional tale. And having Death as a narrator (taken from the book) gives the film a funereal quality that never lets us forget who is right around the corner even when we least expect him.
As my wife and I exited the theater I listened to the mother behind us discussing the film with her two daughters. One of the girls was old enough to have some knowledge and understanding of what was going on, but the other was full of questions. She was confused by certain things, and asked her mother why Max had to hide. The mother answered that the Nazis were out to get him and the girl asked, “Why, was he bad?” The mother said that of course he wasn’t bad, but that she’d have to explain better when they got home. I wouldn’t say that The Book Thief is an especially deep or profound film, but it is a good starting point for a conversation. It’s a simple, rich and emotional film, and while it does play things pretty safe in terms of content and story, it gives us a somewhat less common perspective on events we’ve seen depicted over and over again. And if the narrative might come up a tad bit short, the craft on display certainly does not. The Book Thief is a quiet, heartfelt movie and well worth a look.