The Book Thief
Special to The History Place
Watching The Book Thief in a packed theater last Saturday, I kept recalling The Reader, a film I reviewed in this space back in 2009. Both films are based on novels by Germanic writers. Both focus on a love of words and books, and the power of the written word to surmount the Nazi terror. Sophie Nelisse, who stars as Liesel in the new film, even looks like a teen version of Kate Winslet, who won the “Best Actress” Oscar for her performance in the earlier movie.
The Book Thief begins with Liesel’s journey, just before the outbreak of the war, to an unnamed German city, where she is placed with foster parents, the Hubermanns, played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. We learn that Liesel’s mother is a Communist, presumably destined for a concentration camp. Not long after her arrival, Liesel accompanies her stepfather to a book burning in the town square. Hans Hubermann has been teaching his illiterate charge to read. He finds her to be a quick study. So intense is her love of books that she spirits a smoldering copy of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man from the bonfire.
Later, tasked by her stepmother with delivering the Burgermeister’s laundry to his palatial mansion, she discovers his succulent library. Denied access through the front door, she ventures through a rear window in order to “borrow” his books. Thus, she becomes the thief of the film’s title.
Meanwhile, Ma and Pa Hubermann have hidden a young Jew in their basement. The young man’s father saved Herr Hubermann in the trenches of the first Great War. Says Hans to Frau Rosa, “I owe him everything.” And, as you might expect, everything is soon at stake in this harrowing two-hour tale…, which, oddly, is narrated by Death.
Yes, indeed, Death himself tells us this tale. Not having read the much-beloved young-adult novel, I can only assume that as a literary device this worked with teen readers. The book sat on the New York Times Best Seller List for some 230 weeks. However, as a cinematic technique in a motion picture aimed at an adult audience, it seemed to me to be ill conceived. To me Death’s sappily sentimental soliloquies soften the impact of what would be a more powerful film without his intrusion. The straightforward, raw dramatization of The Reader is the only confirmation I need for my conclusion.
That being said, Rush, Watson and Nelisse provide terrific performances. So does another youngster, Nico Liersch, as Liesel’s best friend and stalwart confidant. I see some actor and actress nominations coming out of this movie.
Particularly well developed is the relationship between Hans and Rosa Hubermann. At the film’s start, Hans comes across as the classic hen-pecked husband and Rosa as the stereotypical shrew. Liesel’s little brother having died on their journey to the Hubermann’s home, Rosa complains, “We were supposed to get two children and two allowances.” But there’s a whole lot more to Rosa than meets the eye in that opening sequence. Watson infuses her Rosa with multiple dimensions in a powerful performance.
The same is true of Rush’s Hans. We learn that he has foregone opportunities to work at his sign-painter’s trade because he won’t join the Nazi Party. He hides Max, the Jewish refugee (Ben Schnetzer), despite the terrible risk. He goes off to the war when conscription dips down into the ranks of the aged. With calm resignation, good humor, and courageous tenacity, he endures the relentless slings and arrows of the worst time and place on a much-troubled planet.
And Liesel? A woman-child, who has buried a brother, fathomed that she will never again see her mother, and dared to breach the Burgermeister’s sanctum sanctorum, she represents all that remains hopeful in the rotten, doomed world of mid-century barbarism. She carries the future with her. Nelisse convinces us that she has the heart and soul to do it. Death’s confirmation of this at the film’s conclusion is satisfying, if also cursory and pat.
On balance, The Book Thief was well worth the price of admission. But it suffers by comparison to The Reader, a comparison I found impossible to ignore.
Rated PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material.
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Jim Castagnera is the author of 19 books. His latest is Counter Terrorism Issues: Case Studies in the Courtroom