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The Book Thief
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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.

Highly recommended.
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This 2013 film was based on the 2005 novel of the same name by Markus Zusak. Liesel is a young girl who is taken in by a foster family in Germany. Her adoptive father teaches her to read, and when the family hides a fleeing Jew named Max, Liesel takes to borrowing/stealing books that she reads to help keep his hopes and spirit alive.

There are some particularly fine performances from the actors who play Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) and her adoptive father (Geoffrey Rush), and their characterization is very good. I also appreciated how the film shows the effect of the war on ordinary German civilians, some of whom were caught up in the patriotism, but others who selflessly worked against the regime to protect life. This offers a fresh perspective on a subject (World War 2) which often sees the same ground covered in films, but fortunately that is not the case here. The film is rated PG-13, but mostly due to the violence that forms the background to the story and is more implied than shown; there's no real blood or gore. Without needing to resorting to graphic violence, the film shows the very real effect of war on lives like Liesel's. It also has a very positive message about self-sacrifice and love for the neighbour.

While there are many good aspects to the film, it still felt mediocre and disappointing. The personification of Death as narrator was jarring and confusing, and his message about the perplexity of human life was unclear; it's an empty message that offers no real hope, despite attempting to tug at heart-strings. Also unclear was the concept of how words have the power of life, and the title "Book Thief" only played a minor role in the film. From what I have learned subsequently, the book that the plot is based on emphasizes this much more strongly, and many people who have come from the book and watched the film found it a very unsatisfying adaptation. There's also several instances of blasphemy that are more typical of a modern audience rather than pre-war Germany.

Overall, perhaps this is a case of: Read the book, don't watch the movie. - GODLY GADFLY (April 2017)
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on April 14, 2014
People often wonder how people-of-conscience in Germany could have allowed the Nazis to gather so much power and perpetrate the atrocities of the Holocaust. After World War II, many decried all Germans without differentiation. This touching drama, offers insight. Excellent acting and writing bring alive average people living under and reacting to a fascist regime. (Spoiler alert) We see Germany through the eyes of a young girl, Liesl, and the couple who takes her in to get extra rations when her mother, running from the roundups of Communists, can no longer care for her. When a young Jewish man, Max, runs to them for help, the husband takes him in, bound by honor to a promise to Max's father. Subsisting in the basement over next couple of years, Max sees the spark of intelligence and curiosity in Liesl who thirsts for words. He encourages her to read and to write; she inspires him to live when he becomes deathly ill.

The characters feel real and balanced, making tiny rebellions and survival-based compromises to live in frightening times. There is no villain, other than the disembodied Hitler, just people reacting for good or ill to a militarized society. Although the story is filled with tragedy from the very beginning, this is not a story about the horrors of the camps. It is about the effect of loss and oppression on everyday people. More importantly, it is about how the human spirit can miraculously survive overwhelming odds. It is a book about curiosity and creativity and how words can transform a prison and capture the emotions and colors of life. It about the spark of goodness that can be found in unexpected places.

I recommend this highly, despite the fact that I do not like tragedies.

For those concerned about such things, there is no gore or sex. There is minimal swearing, which might not even be considered to be by some. There is death, war, and implied inhumanity to man, which are so much more offensive to me.
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on December 13, 2016
Though this movie creates some heartbreak, it is a beautiful movie, based on the wonderful book. The cast was perfectly chosen and they were all amazing. Sometimes I feel like people might think I am morbid because I think movie with outcomes such as this can be beautiful, but I really am not morbid. The story is beautiful, the things that can be learned are beautiful, and the writing is more than beautiful. I am picky about the writing of these kinds of stories, but I was very impressed and pleased and they created this movie with the feelings you get from the vivid imagery in the book. I have never cried more in a book/movie than I do in this, and I cry hard every single time, but it is still, by far, my favorite.
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on June 15, 2014
The lessons of the Third Reich and the Holocaust cannot be overstated. Almost seventy years since the end of World War II witnesses to the atrocities of the Germans are dwindling to a few. The makers of "The Book Thief" have an interesting take on what occurred at that time. Seen through the eyes of a young girl, Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), the film begins prior to the invasion of Poland and ends when hostilities between the superpowers ends. Liesel begins the film as a fragile and frightened illiterate young girl taken from a mother with Communist sympathies to a young woman wizened to the horrors humanity is capable of but assured of her own moral compass. The setting of the film is the picaresque village Liesel goes to live with her adoptive parents, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson), and it serves as a microcosm of the cancer that infected the Fatherland. Liesel sees with eyes agape everything from a book burning to commemorate Der Fuhrer's birthday to Jews being marched though her town to their ultimate fate in the concentration camps. Nelisse giving a sterling performance anchors the film quite nicely. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent with a special shout out to young Nico Liersch who plays Liesel's friend, Rudy, a boy who emulates the African-American track star Jesse Owens. The beauty of the film is it works on an adult level but should be accessible to older adolescents and teenagers. This film serves as a primer to a time in our history we cannot and should not forget.
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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.
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on May 18, 2014
The Book Thief
“One small fact: you are going to die. Despite every effort, no one lives forever. Sorry to be such a spoiler. My advice is when the time comes, don't panic. It doesn't seem to help.” Wisdom according to Death.

Film can be many things. It can document an event, it can imagine a far away world, it can tell a story with an alternate ending, it can be a visual symphony and in the case of “The Book Thief” it can be allegorical poetry. And with a John Williams score it can be sublime allegorical poetry.

In every sense of the word Brian Percival directs this production not as a WW2 period piece although the period of Hitler’s Germany is everywhere. We are used to such pieces being told from the point of view of victim, heroes, escapees or the Allied liberation. We are not used to sympathizing with Nazis and here we are forced to. But we are never often offered the point of view of Death as a character but if Death is a protagonist this is the film he was meant to star in. Inded, Percival gives us Death as both narrator and subject of this ode to life.

Meet Liesl. Her new adoptive parents Hans and Rosa. Hans has a musical soul and Rosa is cloaked in thunder. We meet Rudy and Franz, classmates of Liesl in her new school. Rudy would have been her prom date in several years but Franz was just a schoolyard bully. And we meet Ilsa, wife of the Burgermeister and caretaker of her dead son’s library where books can be conviently stolen by Liesl, our book stealer. And then there’s Max. The sun of a Jew who saved Hans’ life in WW1 by sacrificing his own. They are hiding Max in their basement. Max nearly dies but lives and leaves sacrificing his own safety so Liesl and her new family can live.

And because every symphonic allegorical poem, even of the sublime type, needs a climax Death does not hold back even as Death nonchalantly describes their last evening together:
“No one intended to destroy a street named after Heaven that evening. It was a misread on a map. No sirens that evening. First were Rudy’s brothers. I wrapped their simple dreams. Then I kissed his mother. And stole the meanness from Franz Deutcher’s heart. Rosa I caught mid snore……and I felt her regrets for not sharing more of her very big heart. As for Hans his soul was lighter than a child’s …..and I heard his final thought…..Liesl.”

Death continues, “Rudy- his soul just rolled into my arms.”
As the rescue effort is underway we learn that Liesl lives and so does Max. And again Death speaks: “Humans. I see their ugliness and their beauty and I wonder how the same can be both. All I know is that I’m haunted by humans.”

This film has entirely satisfying ending and is hauntingly beautiful.
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on April 19, 2014
One of the most acclaimed (and rightly so) books of the last decade, a book that has found its place in the pantheon of classic literature, has been made into a good movie, even given the inevitable changes of storyline in some places. The tenderness and gentleness of the foster father, the shrillness and yet ultimately, careful love of the foster mother, Max, the man in the cellar, and the young boy -- the true friend, all are here for our young female protagonist.

The cast, well chosen, the work beautifully done. The insight into life in Germany during the rise of the second World War, and the common people who were caught up in it, yet some who still tried to maintain their humanity and care for the suddenly ostracized and ease the daily lives of their neighbors are well portrayed. This is a story and a film that cause us to question the mind of Man and to examine the misguided decisions of people who are in positions to affect the lives of their fellows -- and of those whose small gifts to their fellows are the stuff of glory.
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on April 5, 2018
We thought this was a great movie overall. Love historical drama and this echoed Anne Frank. Can only imagine what it would have been like to have lived in Germany during WWII enduring an evil government and living in a doomed country. The role of Death is a great twist and his dialog is intriguing. There was no need to show the dead near the end--it was not gratuitous or anything (far from it as it seemed fake), it just took away from the powerful dialog Death had. It was almost like the producer didn't think the audience would understand what happened unless he showed some bodies. There were so many good scenes though! (Christmas in the basement and Night in the bomb shelter being ones that stood out for me).
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on March 4, 2017
I was hesitant about watching this movie because the book summary suggested a bit of a slow moving plot - a girl who steals books and shares their stories.

But I think Ben Schentzer is a fabulous actor and he is in so few movies, I figured I would give it a shot.

This movie was a knockout - and I hope the young girl won an award because she just nailed her role.

It COULD be classified as slow moving to those who do not like movies that speak to them; this movie was deep and emotional. It is one of the few I have seen recently that makes you think and feel. and so much of that is due to the superb casting and phenomenal acting.
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