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A strangely lyrical young girl's coming of age tale, set in Nazi Germany and narrated by Death
on December 14, 2013
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.