THE BOOK THIEF. Starring Geoffrey Rush, Emma Watson, Sophie Nelisse, Nico Liersch. Directed by Brian Percival. 131 minutes. Rated PG (mild themes and violence).
The novel, The Book Thief, by Sydney author, Marcus drew sack, has become an international best-seller. Now comes the screen adaptation, and interpretation of stories of German citizens at the outbreak of World War II and during the war. The author has explained that he heard these stories while he was growing up from members of his own family.
For decades, audiences have tended to look at films about this period from the point of view of the Holocaust, the persecution of the Jews, their round-up, the sufferings in the concentration camps, the grim aftermath. While these issues are present in this film, they are not always to the forefront. Rather, this is the story of a young German girl whose parents belong to the Communist Party and who has had to flee with her mother and younger brother from Nazi persecution. On the train, her little brother dies and they have to stop for his burial. Afterwards, the mother cannot support her daughter and the girl, Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) is driven away to Stuttgart to a foster family.
The episodes from 1938 to 1945 are seen through her eyes.
The film is fortunate to have Geoffrey Rush portraying the foster father, Hans, a genial man who is kind to Liesel, helping her with her reading, even to putting a dictionary of new words on the basement wall. The mother, Rosa, is played impressively by Emily Watson, a very stern woman, continually commenting on her husband’s behaviour, critical of the girl, a tough German exterior but something of her heart as revealed by the end of the film.
Ordinary life seems very ordinary in the town, Liesel going to school, though humiliated and bullied about her lack of ability to read. The young boy next door, Rudi, becomes her best friend over the years. We see them in Nazi uniforms at school, singing patriotic songs – though both Liesel and Rudi, considering their experiences, take a hearty dislike to Hitler. Rudi is a strong runner and has great admiration for Jesse Owens, even putting black polish on his face to imitate his idol.
We see a glimpse of Kristallnacht and the smashing of the shop windows and the taking away of the Jews. In fact, the family shelters a young Jewish man whose father had saved Hans’s life in World War I. They undergo great hardships as the young man is sheltered for several years, but there are some light moments, especially when snow comes and they build a snowman in the basement and have a snow fight.
With the title of the book, we appreciate that books are important for Liesel, a book she picked up at the graveside of her brother, collecting a burnt book after a fanatic book-burning in the city square, befriending the wife of the mayor, who still grieves her son’s death in World War I, and gives Liesel access to the many books in the in their library. There is a delight in reading, delight
in words, Liesel describing the weather to Max who is sheltering – and his gift of a book for her to write in.
Despite the sufferings, the people in the city carry on as best they can, with their deprivations, ultimately having to take shelter during the bombardments – where Liesel is able to create a story which draws the attention of the frightened people. These ordinary people are comparatively isolated from the war, though Hans is conscripted, and do not have access to the information about what is going on in the wider Germany.
The film is narrated by Death, humanised as his voice-over (by Roger Allam) describes his attitude towards people, their souls, their experience of death, taking them to the next world. This is especially important at the end of the film and the issue of survivors of the Allied bombardments.
The film has a pervasive sense of humanity, even in the experience of suffering. Death finally says he is ‘haunted by humans’.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out January 9 2014.
Out 20th Century Fox.