A preface: I occasionally look at other reviews before writing my own because – let’s face it – sometimes we miss things during a two-hour film, and it helps to check around. This time, however, I haven’t missed anything. Of the reviews I’ve read, about 95% have been very negative. Of those 95%, about 100% are wrong.
To watch The Book Thief is like assembling a lovely but mysterious puzzle. Minutes, like puzzle pieces, are introduced and put together, a few here and there, more there and here. The pieces themselves are pretty and interesting but not spectacular on their own. Not until the entire puzzle is finished, not until the final minutes are clicked into place, not until the box is empty and all 1,000 parts are assembled, can you be fully aware of the beauty that is The Book Thief.
If you never cry in a film, then it could be argued you have neither a heart nor the ability to appreciate film. If you never cry in a film, then you have no right to review, critique, or even watch film. If you never cry in a film, then please don’t waste your time buying a ticket to this one. I watched about an hour and fifty minutes of The Book Thief wavering between frowns, smiles, and tension. Nothing too far in any direction, but the remaining twenty minutes drained my emotions as few films ever have. As beautiful as it was, the story had one confusing element that might have worked magic in the book, but in the film was not quite on the mark, and that’s how the film begins.
Death sporadically narrates the story. He opens the first shot, letting us know that one day, we are all going to die, just a matter of time. Death also tells us that occasionally, he finds reason to watch and get closer to certain people. It is at that moment that Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) is with her mother and brother on a train from Russia to Germany, where her mother intends to give up her two children for adoption. Death, however, has other plans and takes the boy’s life. This is our introduction to mortality and its consequences.
One consequence is that Liesel is now alone when turned over to her new parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson), an older couple who have arranged to adopt two children. When Rosa learns that the boy has died, she’s more upset about the stipend they won’t receive than the loss of a boy’s life and, more important, a younger brother to a 12-year old sister who is now alone in a strange land.
Rosa appears rather gritty and harsh, but Hans lets Liesel know immediately that he will be a father, friend, teacher, and – when needed – her clown and servant. She knows this immediately when he refers to her as “your majesty,” as he escorts her from the car to their quaint home in a German village. While Hans paints houses, Rosa does the laundry of more well-to-do folk, like the mayor and his wife. They attempt to bother nobody and just live as a happy family in their blissfully ignorant corner of 1939 amid the Nazi rise to power.
Through no fault of her own, Liesel cannot read and on her first day of school is bullied, until she not only fights back but beats the crap out of the bully. Instant street cred. Hans is not the greatest reader, but he knows it’s a key to education and happiness. He finds what books he can, and together they read and learn with great excitement.
One of Liesel’s first friends is Rudy, the perfect depiction of what Hitler considers, well, perfect. Athletic, smart, blue eyes, and “hair like lemons,” as Liesel puts it. Rudy likes to run, and run he does, while admiring the likes of track star Jesse Owens so much that he blackens his face while pretending to run as Owens did in the Berlin Olympics of ’36. After a reprimand and bathtub scrubbing of the black off the boy’s face, he asks his father why he can’t pretend to be Owens. “Because I said so.” The practice of “shut up and listen” reaches beyond just a boy in a bathtub.
In school, the children are indoctrinated as little Nazis, wearing the swastika on their brown shirts while singing praise to their mother land. A national celebration for “Der Fuhrer’s” birthday doesn’t seem unusual. However, when book burnings are billed as an intellectual cleansing, Liesel and Hans begin to take notice of how the new Germany is affecting the small folk. Following “kristallnacht,” Hans is asked to hide Max, a Jewish boy, in his home. Years ago, Max’s father gave his own life to save Hans in World War I. Now, Hans must repay the favor and hides the boy. Liesel now has a grave secret to keep.
When Liesel and Hans run out of books – or, when too many books have been burned – she creeps into the mayor’s home and “borrows” books from his wife’s library. Thus, the “book thief.” But it’s not about just stealing or borrowing books. It’s about the life they bring, literally and figuratively, as neighbors begin to spy on neighbors, soldiers check basements, and storm troopers parade those with yellow stars through the streets.
Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean, The King’s Speech) will make you wish he was your grandfather. Although his accent drifts from Australian to British to German, it makes no difference because he says more with a wink and a smile than most of us can say with a fully charged laptop. Emily Watson (War Horse, Anna Karenina), who deserves a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, carries Rosa from monster to maven, and no scene illustrates that better than when she visits Liesel in school. As for Sophie Nélisse as Liesel, where to begin? She appeared in two foreign films before this and won the Canadian version of an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2012. I can’t think of another child her age giving such a performance as she does here with such a serious subject. Her gigantic eyes fill with wonder, fear, and hope each time we see her. All we can do now is watch where she goes from here and assume she goes nowhere but up.
One criticism I read about The Book Thief was of the ending, referring to it as “schmaltzy” when we learn of Liesel’s future fate. Let’s keep perspective and remember the original story was categorized as “young adult.” The film needs to be judged similarly. Another criticism was that it only glossed over the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust. I don’t accept that because this story is children in a village far from the prison camps. They didn’t know of the Holocaust, not yet. They didn’t know what Hitler was doing throughout Europe. Is it fair to expect people to take action against something of which they have no knowledge? Director Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) has been criticized for not using this story to show the Holocaust in the way that Schindler’s List handled it. This is not a Holocaust story.
The Book Thief is a story girl who is an outcast in more ways than one and searches, much like the rest of us, for common ground on which to be accepted by those around her. And it can’t be done any better. Teacher gives it an A.