All too often a movie turns out to be less than what the trailers lead you to expect, but every now and then there's a movie that surprises you by being more. The Book Thief is one of those movies. Directed by Brian Percival (Downton Abbey, North & South) from a screenplay by Michael Petroni (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) adapted from the novel of the same name by Marcus Zusak, The Book Thief does not lend itself to easy categorization. On the surface, you'd think from the trailers that it's an Anne Frank sort of film, a young girl's POV about life under the Nazis and about a family hiding a young Jewish man in their house. But it's more than that, a lot more.
You know you're in for something different when the film begins with the narrated line "Here's a small fact: you're going to die." You know you're in for something really different when you realize that the narrator is Death. And it is Death who introduces us to Liesel (marvelously played by Sophie Nélisse) a young German girl riding on a train with her very ill younger brother, being taken to a place she does not know to live with people she's never met. Her brother does not make it, dying before they reach their destination, resulting in the train stopping for an impromptu burial service. As they are departing the grave, Sophie notices a book that fell out of the makeshift shroud her brother had been buried in and on an impulse she steals it, wanting to have something to remember him by. Her first stolen book, but as it turns out, far from her last.
When Liesel reaches her destination, she is taken to meet the couple who are to become her foster parents, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Hubermann. Hans, who makes his living as a house painter and sometime accordionist, is genial and welcoming. Rosa, who takes in laundry for some of the town's more prosperous citizens, is stern and no nonsense. Witnessing Liesel's arrival is a neighbor boy, Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch) whose curiosity about her quickly evolves into a hopelessly sweet crush, prompting him to ask to walk her to school on her first day. Things however get off to a rocky start when the teacher directs Liesel to write her name on the blackboard and, after awkward hesitation, she can only write a couple of X's, revealing that she can neither read nor write. The other children taunt her, particularly one boy, a bully named Franz (Levin Liam) who follows her into the schoolyard, daring her to read a single word. Liesel finally retaliates by attacking Franz and beating him up in front of the other kids, which earns her definite points in Rudy's estimation.
When he hears of the incident, Hans gently sits down with Liesel and informs her that he's not such a good reader himself and suggests that perhaps they can learn to read together, which prompts Liesel to bring out the book she took from her brother's grave, saying this is what she wants to learn to read, and so the book thief learns to read from the first book she stole. To help her, Hans turns the basement into a kind of makeshift schoolroom, painting the letters of the alphabet on various walls and columns and giving Liesel chalk to write each new word she learns under the letter it starts with.
The cast are excellent, particularly Sophie Nélisse (Monsieur Lazhar) as Liesel, a young girl coming of age under circumstances few children should ever have to experience but all too many did. Veteran actor Geoffrey Rush (The King's Speech, Shakespeare in Love) is perfect as Hans Hubermann, the amiably gentle man who becomes Liesel's adoptive father, as is Emily Watson (Anna Karenina, Angela's Ashes) as Rosa, Hans' brusque, hard-nosed wife who becomes Liesel's adoptive mother and who later surprises Liesel by showing that you truly cannot judge a book by its cover. Nico Liersch does an excellent job as Rudy, the boy who becomes Liesel's best friend and who has a sweet but seemingly hopeless crush on her, forever begging her for a kiss. Ben Schnetzer (Happy Town) is quietly effective as Max, the young Jewish man who prompts Liesel's initial forays into story-telling by having her describe to him what goes on in the world outside the Hubermann basement, the world where he does not dare venture. And Roger Allam (V for Vendetta, Inkheart) is outstanding as the unseen but ever felt narrating Death, adding a subtle dimension to events as viewed from his unique perspective.
I have not read the book, but from what I gather the film had to reduce the number of characters somewhat in order to give more focus to the main characters in the more limited amount of time available to a film version. But from what other reviewers who have read the book have said, this does not seem to get in the way in their enjoyment of the film.
In addition to all of the things that make The Book Thief work is John Williams' sweetly haunting score that enhances the lyrical quality of the film, giving it the feel of almost being a fairy tale in spite of the stressful time and circumstances, which is in a way fitting when you think about the nature of many fairy tales that deal with the darker elements of childhood. I personally think this score is the best work Williams has done in years and may end up getting a nod at Oscar time.
Those who love Markus Zusak's The Book Thief as I do will know that it is an incredibly complex novel - the way the main characters intersect each other's lives and the themes that are developed throughout the novel are deep and layered and would make for a daunting on-screen translation. Yet director Brian Percival manages to make the movie accessible to viewers whilst staying true to the source material. This may not be a blow-by-blow, faithful to each and every word adaptation, but to me at least, it is a true adaptation in portraying the essence of the story. I love the book but I also loved the movie, for similar and different reasons.
The story of The Book Thief begins with the narrator, Death (Roger Allam), providing a sort of overview/introduction. Fortunately, the narrator's voice is not dominant throughout the story as it would (to me) have been a rather distracting voice, but the narrator's presence is felt nevertheless. The protagonist in this film is Liesel (Sophie Nelisse in a ground-breaking performance), a young teenager who comes to live with her foster parents, Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his wife, the acid- tongued Rosa (Emily Watson). The setting at the beginning of the story is Germany in 1938 and the story goes on till the end of WW II. Liesel's mother is a Communist and has been packed off somewhere, presumably a camp, for this is after all Nazi Germany.
The story focuses on Liesel's relationship with her foster parents, her best friend, Rudy (Nico Liersch), and her life-defining friendship with Max (Ben Schnetzer), the young Jewish man hiding in her parents' basement. At the beginning of the story Liesl is unable to read but this slowly changes as first her foster father Hans and later Max help her see beyond the words to the very notions underlying those words. Soon Liesel is reading voraciously and also developing a keen sense of what it means to live in such troubled times, and who by the end of the story, has come to truly understand the power of words and what defines moral courage.
The themes in the book are manifold and I felt these themes were beautifully portrayed in the film. The ideas of friendship, paternal and maternal love, loyalty, and courage, not to mention of course, Death, are credibly-woven together in such a way that these themes flow throughout the film as a whole instead of distinct parts. The cast, especially Nelisse as Liesel, delivers a finely-nuanced performance, every emotion captured by those beautiful, wide, expressive eyes, and Rush as her foster father Hans portrays the very symbol of paternal love and moral courage (especially in the scene where he stands up to a Gestapo officer in defense of a friend).
The film is rated PG-13, but I watched this with my husband and 9-year-old (who has read The Diary of Anne Frank and is somewhat familiar with the history of the Holocaust), and she was absolutely captivated by this film. There are no scenes of extreme or prolonged violence - some scenes of kids fighting, Nazis dragging people off, Nazis burning books, children chanting pro-Nazi slogans (which is disturbing to me but of course given the context of the film, it cannot be helped), Nazis and collaborators destroying Jewish property during Kristallnacht, but nothing like the scenes one sees in movies like Schindler's List. It made for an interesting family discussion after we finished viewing it.
The film's ultimate message is positive and there are certainly many interesting issues that come up for discussion - moral courage being one that I felt was significant. Do we stand by and watch atrocities and injustice perpetrated without voicing against it, and if we do, are we prepared for the repercussions? These and more are satisfactorily addressed in this film, and I count this as one of the more memorable films of 2013.
on November 16, 2013
Note: I saw an advanced screening of The Book Thief.
The Book Thief is a book that has stuck with me for so many years, there is just something so powerful and raw about Zusak's novel. The Book Thief has to be one of the trickiest books to adapt because it's far from a simple story. The novel is nearly 600 pages and it's main narrator is Death himself commenting on the events of World War II. How could Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) direct such a movie without doing the novel injustice?
The Book Thief is true to it's source material, even though it doesn't maintain all of the major plot events in the novel. The filmmakers rarely utilized Death's narration, so the few times they did use it, it felt a bit awkward and out of place. I didn't get quite the chills from hearing his narration like I did when I had read the book. Despite the unevenness of the narration, The Book Thief really captures the essence of Liesel's story. All of the characters were truly perfectly cast, the dialogue is well done and the film truly captures all of the emotion from Zusak's novel.
Sophie Nelisse is essentially a newcomer to Hollywood and this is her first major role in a movie. I really hope Nelisse wins an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance because it's absolutely unbelieveable. Nelisse's performance is absolutely unbelievable and it's clear to me that Nelisse is an extremely talented actress. Even though Nelisse shares screentime with veterans like Watson and Rush, Nelisse truly steals the show and easily makes viewers fall in love with Liesel.
Both Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson did wonders in The Book Thief, they truly translated the characters from the book into their performances in a flawless manner. Rush and Watson became Rosa and Hans as if it was natural to them, like these parts were made for them.
Rush and Nelisse are a duo that demands the viewers' attention and they truly make this a poignant movie. Their performances carry the film and bring The Book Thief to the next level. If neither Rush nor Nelisse receive Academy Award nominations for their performances, I'll truly be disappointed because their performances are something brilliant. I don't want to discredit Nico Liersch (Rudy) and Ben Schnetzer (Max) because their performances were also unbelieveable. I was just completely caught off guard by Rush, Nelisse, and Watson's extremely memorable acting.
I'm not an extremely emotional movie viewer by any standard, I rarely am moved by movies. The Book Thief really captured me emotionally despite the fact that I knew what would happen next because I had read the book. Despite my knowledge of the plot, the actors fooled me into thinking that maybe it would end differently, maybe my heart wouldn't be stomped on. I was wrong, by the end of The Book Thief I was driven to tears by the movie's incredibly heartbreaking conclusion. I can't remember the last time I had cried this much during a movie, my head ached from crying so much over Zusak's characters.
The Book Thief may not live up to Zusak's novel, but it is one of the best movies I have seen in years. The Book Thief provides an incredible, unique perspective of World War II from a whole new angle. This is the type of movie that will truly stay with viewers long after the credits roll, absolutely unforgettable. I truly hope that The Book Thief will find an audience because it's an extremely well-done film that deserves widespread acclaim. The Book Thief is an absolute must-see and I hope it will continue to strike a chord with audiences everywhere.
on January 18, 2014
I wanted to like this film so very much. I'm a literature teacher at an international high school, and I have been teaching The Book Thief to my English II students for two years. So much of the magic and power of the book is in the way it is told. The narrator, Death, sees the world in colors--it's a method of distraction from the horrors of unnecessary deaths of thousands of war victims. Death is haunted by the senselessness all around him. However, when he continues to run into Liesel, he falls in love with the beauty that is also present in humans. This is the dichotomy of Death's experience--how can so much good and so much evil come from the same source? What is powerful enough to survive the devastation of evil?
I know that book to film transfers are rarely satisfactory, but I was really looking forward to seeing the artistic nature of the book interpreted visually in film...sadly, the color imagery did not transfer to the silver screen. I was also looking forward to seeing the dynamic character development of the very human characters...plus in the book, Liesel is quite a daring, spunky little girl with very human traits. She doesn't always do things for the right reasons, but she always follows her heart.
I suppose people who have not read the book might enjoy the film. But unfortunately the film only takes the framework of about 1/3 of the story, changing details for no apparent reason, leaves out key characters, and fails to develop the complex elements of any of the characters, including the narrator. As a result, the film lacks so much of the magic that made the book so special.
on December 8, 2013
No need to describe the movie as others have already done that thoroughly. However, I do want to give this film the five stars it deserves. It is so rare to find a well made movie that is clean and yet has some substance to it. Nowadays if you want a clean movie all you got is Disney, but their movies simply repeat the same silly formulas. The Book Thief is clean, but has a point to it. I wish they made more movies like this! I haven't read the book, but this is one of the best movies I've seen so maybe I should go ahead and read the book too.
on December 28, 2013
Director Brian Percival brilliantly presents a film centered in a child's heart, fully complimented by John Williams' achingly beautiful score. This is quite an achievement. Percival has had to render devastating themes and moments, and yet an exquisite sweetness pervades the movie, more so on second and subsequent viewings, as the adults in a foster girl's life care for the innocence of her spirit. Critics took this to be a cheapening of the backdrop time period. But that misses the very point of its setting: beauty endures amidst the ashes. "We were just being people"--how powerfully vulnerable this movie is. Percival's handling has not just made the story's intense suffering bearable; he has kept it meaningful.
This is a movie rich in faces, in unspoken visual connections between characters suited to the guardedness of the time. Anyone who is touched by the rich expressiveness of children's faces will delight in Sophie Nelisse as Leisl. Equally inspiring is the connection that Hans Hubermann shares with his foster daughter--Geoffrey Rush's childlike playfulness trancends what otherwise could have been a morose role. Hans' is an ordinary life, well-lived in desperate times. The tone of the relationship between Hans and Leisl carries over to all her subsequent relationships. By gently eliciting her trust at her moment of devastation, Hans gifts Leisl with the ability to discover humanity throughout her world. I found this aspect of the story very inspiring. This personal gifting opens the door to the other giftings the bereft girl will receive in the written word, which, of course, is the "title theme" of the story. The intensely personal dimension of words... written and read...as well as unspoken and repressed... undergirds the entire movie.
Which leads me to Emily Watson's complex and deeply satisfying performance as Leisl's foster mother. I've seen criticism of the book based on the profane name Watson's character uses for Leisl (untranslated in the movie), but it is an authentic emblem of her character... the heart that disguises itself with harshness. So many of the characterizations in this movie could have fallen flat, but Rush, Watson, and the entire crew bring an authenticity to the story that silences the people talking in the back row of the theater. This movie simply overwhelms you in a way that expands your own humanity. Instead of just chastening our spirits with what humanity can be in its awfulness, the narrator guides us into the intriguing and hauntingly inspiring possibilities of the human spirit. And that makes a movie well worth seeing again and again.
Speaking of "again and again", read Jon Broxton's view of the "Book Thief" soundtrack and then get the CD. His insights into the film and score are worth reading.
Director Brian Percival brings Markus Zusak's novel to the big screen in a delicate and artful way. The film is seen from the eyes of young Liesel (Sophie Neilsse in big blue-eyed performance) although "Death" (Roger Allam) is the occasional narrator. That fact alone suggests that there will be an ominous tone to the story. That and the setting is 1938 Nazi Germany.
In a beautiful opening shot we see a speeding train negotiating the winter snowy countryside. "Death" is guiding us to Liesel, her brother and her mother. But on this day he is coming for the little boy. After a hastily dug grave is dug alongside the tracks, a small book drops from the grave digger's pocket. Liesel quickly scoops it up. We learn later that Liesel's mother (Heike Makatsch) was taking the children to live with foster parents (and strangers) in a small village near Munich. The mother is a Communist sympathizer and is therefore protecting her children by giving them away.
Hans Hubermann (Jeffrey Rush) and his wife Rosa (Emily Watson) are the childless couple that adopt the young girl, essentially to collect a stipend from the government. Both are self-employed. Hans, a painter and Rosa does laundry. Hans quickly warms up to the girl, grumpy Rosa not so much at first. She's upset in that she was expecting 2 children. Hans's retorts something to the effect that it's not Liesel's fault her brother died.
Liesel catches the eye of another 12 year old, a boy named Rudy (Nico Liersch) who lives next door. At school on her first day, we learn Liesel is illiterate. Rudy and Liesel become best friends and defend each other throughout the movie, both verbally and physically. With the Nazi purge underway, the Hubermann's reluctantly take in a young man of about 19 or 20. He's Max Vandenburg, the son of a Jewish soldier who saved Hans's life in World War I. Hans had promised him as he died, he would look after his son if and when the time came. It did and he did.
Hans, recognizing Liesel's reading shortcomings teaches her and she quickly learns. Her hunger to read is so profound, she "borrows" books from the burgermeister's wife. Max creates a dictionary of sorts on the walls of the basement. She adds new words in chalk as she learns them. Max, being hidden in the basement, becomes a great friend and inspiration of Liesel's, teaching her how to describe in detail what she sees. These are some great scenes.
I've seen some criticisms of the film that it doesn't graphically depict the horrors of the Nazi's. I would argue that it is indeed shown, but that every movie about this period doesn't have to be "Schindler's List." And not every German agreed with Hitler. I would agree that the "Death" narration gives the film a sense of fantasy and perhaps a less serious tone. But "Death" does show up in full catch-up mode in the film's final act. I found it to be a poignant, touching ending that at first will have you pushing away a tear but ultimately is one of profound joy.
When a few years pass and Liesel reunites with Max, we're are left to guess what happens to him, but I've written my own ending which is what I expect the writers wanted. This is an excellent film, perhaps a bit slow at times and a little long. But it is beautifully shot, well directed and includes some superior acting from Watson, Rush and young Sophie Nelisse. You'll be hearing more from her. John Williams provides a gorgeous score. Highly recommended.
The Blu ray transfer comes with a 1080p resolution and a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. It is just about as good as it gets. There is a wide range of dimensions in the film that going from the opening snowy scene to the drab and dingy Hubermann basement. It comes across perfectly with excellent contrast and detail. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is equally excellent. Like the video, the audio components range from relative quiet village streets to massive bombing attacks by the Allies. It is all properly rendered throughout the soundfield as is the excellent Williams score. Subtitles are numerous including English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Arabic, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Estonian, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Turkish, Ukrainian. Extras include: Deleted Scenes (1080p; 6:34) and A Hidden Truth: Bringing The Book Thief to Life (1080p; 31:05) and a trailer.
I agree with reviewers who consider this film one of the best film they ever saw. The acting is excellent; in fact, I think Geoffrey Rush should win an academy award. People who do not like to see the horrors of the holocaust can still view this film. It does not depict what occurred in the concentration camps but what happened to a single family and the families around them. Its message is love; humans need to care for one another, save them if at all possible, as is done several times in this film.
"The Book Thief" (2013 release; 132 min.) is the film adaptation of the beloved novel by Markus Zusak. As the movie opens, Death (in a voice over) cautions the audience "one small fact: you are going to die", and with that we are filled with a pending doom and gloom about what is to happen. The stage is Nazi-Germany, February 1938, and we are introduced to Liesel, a young girl (9 or 10 yrs. old) who has just lost her younger brother to (unspecified) sickness as they are being transported to their new foster family. Liesel's foster mom Rosa is as tough a cookie as her foster dad Hans is as sweet a man you'll ever meet (he calls Liesel "your majesty" to make her feel welcome). Liesel befriends Rudi, a boy on her street, and soon they become best friends. Foster dad Hans teaches Liesel to read, which opens a new world for Liesel and she eagerly snaps up the opportunity to explore new books. Then Kristallnacht ("night of the broker glass") takes place and Max, a Jewish young man whose dad once saved Hans' life, takes refuge in the home of Hans, Rosa and Liesel. At this point we are about 40 min. into the movie. Will Liesel ever see her real mom again? Will Max survive the years of hiding? What becomes of Liesel and Rudi? To tell you more would ruin your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: first, this is a very careful/faithful adaptation of the novel, as directed by pretty much unknown UK director Brian Percival. If there is one complaint that I may have about the movie, it is that pretty much every scene feels very much staged (which of course they are), almost like we're watching a theatre production and not a movie. Second, the acting performances are top-notch, with Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as the loving foster parents, but the real revelation is the young Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse, in the role of Liesel. Nélisse had previously appeared in last year's excellent (and Oscar-nominated) Canadian film "Monsieur Lazhar". In this movie she radiates such presence on the big screen that she almost blows everyone else away. Third, the movie features an excellent soundtrack, by none other than the legendary John Williams, in one of his rare non-Steven Spielberg movie efforts (I couldn't help but think that in fact "The Book Thief" feels like it could've been made by Spielberg). Last, be sure to bring a Kleenex tissue with you, as chances are that you will need it.
I had seen the trailer of this a few times in recent weeks and was looking forward to seeing this. The movie opened this weekend at my local art-house theatre here in Cincinnati. When I went to see it last night (a weekday night), I was pleasantly surprised how well attended it was. If you loved the novel, you will certainly love this movie adaptation. Even if you didn't read the novel, and are in the mood for something that is not quite your standard Hollywood fare, I suggest you seek out "The Book Thief", be it in the theatre or on DVD/Bly-ray. You won't be disappointed.
on March 2, 2015
I liked this movie quite a lot. Movies can rarely, if ever, 'get' the whole book; and while this movie is no exception, it does a pretty good job of picking which to leave in. WWII movies are usually a mix of devastating and uplifting. This is no exception, although the movie is quite a bit less devastating than the book---- it is pretty uplifting, ultimately. Some reviewers found 'death's narration annoying. I didn't. style choice, I imagine.