She finds her love of reading as a way to shut out the horrors of Nazi Germany. She steals them, shares them, and uses their words and thoughts to nurture those around her. In doing so, she creates a magical world that inspires them all.
Based on Markus Zusak’s international best-selling book, “The Book Thief” is about Liesel, an extraordinary and courageous young girl who finds solace in stealing books. Set in 1938, the movie opens with Liesel’s mother taking her daughter and son to live with a foster family in a German working-class neighborhood outside Munich. Unable to care for her children, Liesel’s mother must give them up. However, on the train ride, Liesel’s younger brother dies, and in the snow-covered ground, he is laid to rest. There, at age nine, she steals her first book, “The Gravedigger’s Handbook” and thus begins her love affair with books.
She tries to adapt to her new life with the foster parents Hans and Rosa portrayed by Oscar winners Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. Hans kindly takes her under his wing, gains her trust and when he discovers she’s illiterate, he teaches her how to read. Rosa, the stern one, sees problems with this new addition and questions the decision to take her in. Liesel, played by Sophie Nélisse, at first wants to run away, but then finds a budding friendship with schoolmate Rudy (German youngster Nico Liersch). Over the next six years, the characters are affected by Hitler’s rise to power and the war that follows.
Books are at the center of this film, not so much for their physical presence but for their ability to unleash a freethinking society, one that can make up its own mind. When Hitler came to power, Nazi Germany was obsessed in suppressing dissident viewpoints, ideas contrary to their ideologies and the party line agenda. Public book burnings were one way to control the masses and force them to give up the thoughts, the words, and the stories that gave direction to their lives.
The book burning is one of the strongest scenes in this movie because it’s a turning point in young Liesel’s life. She attends and initially she is caught up in the jubilant celebration. However, her composure slowly changes when she realizes something is shamefully wrong. When pushed to take part in this horrific act, she becomes one of us and we feel her turmoil destroying the very thing she loves. Over the loud speakers, the rantings of German-speaking official combined with the flames of the burning books creates a terrifying scene. It foretells of the tragedies to come and that no one is safe in this warped and misguided world. From this moment on Liesel must live a double life, one seeking truth, the other obeying the Nazi dictates.
In this hostile setting, Liesel steals a book from the bonfire embers hiding it under her coat. The mayor’s wife, a compassionate person who likewise loves books, observes this courageous act.
Shortly after Kristallnacht, (night of broken glass) when Jewish shops are vandalized, Hans, Rosa, and Liesel take in Max (Ben Schnetzer) a young Jewish man on the run, one whose family Hans owns a debt of life for saving his life during WWI. Max is near death and the family nurses him back to health. Liesel reads to him and the words somehow nourish him back to life.
Portions of the film are narrated by Death (English actor Roger Allam) and his clever observations bring lightness to the story, one that could easily become bog down in human misery. Here Death handles ones passing with tenderness and moving compassion, almost feeling sorry for what he has to do.
The performances in this film will receive numerous accolades for they are touching, inspiring and compelling. French-Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse delivers a stellar performance as the spirited and courageous book thief. Previously, she gained considerable notoriety for her spot-on-performance as Alice in “Monsieur Lazhar.” An aspiring Olympic gymnast, her athletic abilities were quite evident in the film as she raced co-star Nico Liersch (Rudy) to a dead heat. What is most impressive about her portrayals is her ability to articulate what is going on inside. Her facial expressions and especially her eyes bring out the essence of the scene. We feel her fears, her vulnerabilities, as well as the strong affection she has for words and the solace they bring her. I remember a study saying that people who read fiction are more empathetic to human conditions celebrating their successes, comforting their losses. Liesel certainly fits that mold admirably, a trait that is certain to bring nominations in the upcoming award season.
The performances by Australian actor Geoffrey Rush and British actress Emily Watson are equally impressive. Rush is an award-winning actor having won an Oscar for “Shine”, plus nominations for three other films. In “The Book Thief”, he brings to the screen a character that is kind, loving, and honorable. Yet he has a lazy streak that angers his wife. He doesn’t help with her laundry business and is not very ambitious about seeking work as a painter. He plays the accordion, sometimes for himself, sometimes to calm the nerves of those in the air raid shelter. He’s a likeable middle-aged man, avoids trouble, yet it finds him when he tries to help others. Above all, he is a loving father whose calling is to protect his daughter Liesel. While flawed, he is lovely flawed. A stupendous performance, to say the least.
Emily Watson, twice nominated for an Oscar, also brings an in-depth portrayal to the screen. She is the pillar of strength in this family and the suppressed emotions churning underneath initially create ambiguity about her character. As the key breadwinner, she provides the necessities of life, and somehow, she makes do with what little money is coming in. With her hair in a bun and her stern demeanor, one might get the impression that she has a cold and calculating heart. Such is not the case, for as the story unfolds, her true nature is revealed and we come to love her. It is an incredible performance with many layers by a truly gifted actor.
Other notable performances come from Nico Liersch (Rudy) as Liesel’s friend. They share dreams; his wanting to be a runner like American athlete Jesse Owen. They also share secrets, one being the hiding of Max, young Jewish man in the family’s basement. In a breakout performance, Ben Schnetzer portrays this refugee badly in need of help, yet he supplied the tools to nurture Liesel’s career as a writer. Liesel gives us a sample during a bombing raid. Sensing the fears of others in the shelter, she starts telling a story. It begins, “There once was a girl, who had a friend that lived in the shadows. She would remind him how the sun felt on his skin and the air felt like to breathe, and that reminded her that she was still alive.”
Brian Percival, of “Downton Abbey”, directed this film and readers of the book will undoubtedly find gaps. It is difficult to adapt a five hundred and fifty-page book into a two-hour movie. Yet this film holds together nicely and one is drawn into the story by the fascinating characters and their ever-growing predicaments. Percival allows the actors to breathe life into their performances while skillfully controlling the tone and pace. Images, beautifully captured by cinematographer Florian Ballhaus, paint a story that pulls us deeper and deeper into these turbulent times. Music by the legendary John Williams complements the story mixing the themes of pending doom with the spirit of hope. Along with writer Michael Petroni, the creative team has produced a deeply moving film, one that makes us care–about what happen back then and what’s happening now.
Tech credits are first-rate, and the production design, wardrobe, and make-up gives us that period you-are-there look. The film was shot at Babelsberg Studio where a small village was constructed for exteriors. Film was reviewed at Fox Studios at a preview screening.
CREDITS: The Book Thief stars Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Ben Schnetzer, Nico Liersch, Sandra Nedeleff, Kirsten Block, and Joachim Paul Assböck. Editing: John Wilson, Production Design: Simon Elliot, Art Direction: Bill Crutcher, Costume Design: Anna B. Shappard, Music: John Willams, Produced by Ken Blancato and Karen Rosenfelt, Written by Michael Petroni (adapted from Markus Zusak’s novel, Cinematography: Florian Ballhaus, Directed by Brian Percival. Limited release: November 8th, 2013, US wide release: Thanksgiving 2013. Foreign release: January/February 2014. Rated: PG-13, 131 Minutes. In English with some subtitles of German dialogue.