Nazism and Jewish oppression can be a tricky topic to deal with in a film. While you don’t want to go so far as to offend people, you have an obligation to tell the truth. It’s especially crucial that you keep to the truth when you’re adapting a critically acclaimed novel that many hold near and dear to their hearts because of the realistic and brutal depictions of Nazism and Hitler and the little girl who stole and read books to let herself and others know that they would be alright.
Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse) was a young girl headed to Germany with her family. When her baby brother dies on the train-ride, only Liesel was left to be adopted by new parents. Her mother left her in the care of Hans & Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush & Emily Watson), so as to give Liesel some chance for survival. Not knowing why she was being adopted, Liesel was reluctant to speak and held tightly to a gravedigger’s book that she had picked up in her travels. The only problem, was that Liesel didn’t know how to read.
Hans was gracious and taught Liesel to read and write, while Rosa ruled with an iron fist. As Liesel grew, her reading and writing grew, but the number of available books decreased. Between spending time at home and spending time with her best friend Rudy (Nico Liersch), Liesel stole books from book-burnings and a form a Buergmeister. One day, everything changes when Max (Ben Schnetzer) shows up at their door seeking refuge. It’s through Max that Liesel learns to grow and develops her distaste for Hitler and the Nazi party. From then on, it’s her family against the Nazi’s in an effort to keep Max hidden and to stay alive. Liesel learns a lot from the friends and family around her, but she also teaches great lessons to those around her too.
Never having read The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, I was at a slight disadvantage when I went to see this film. All I knew going into it was that the novel was narrated by Death and that a little girl stole books to read. I also knew that my mother and many friends who read the novel cried their eyes out when reading this book. With its heavy themes and saddening story, I was more interested to see how “taboo” topics would be handled and just how sad this story was.
I always appreciate great casting and this film is full of it. Nelisse and Liersch outshine an amazing cast and find their way into your hearts and minds. As two kids who can see all the evil around them, the two share some truly wondrous moments that will stay with you long after the movie ends. Their chemistry is superb and you can’t help but smile when they appear onscreen. Rush excels as Liesel’s more than supportive new father. Whether he’s playing accordion to calm families in a bomb shelter or he’s teaching Liesel to read, the charm and goodwill he exudes will melt your heart. Watson also turns in a great performance as the stern, but caring new mother to Liesel.
Schnetzer offers up a very curious performance of the Jewish refuge who finds himself under the stairs. He has many things to say about Hitler and offers Liesel lots of writing and reading advice. As he grew sick, he relied on Liesel to describe the outside world to him. The reactions that Schnetzer has to the dialog are amazing and he is incredibly convincing. His friendship with Liesel is heartwarming (for a change) and the two work very well together. They get one of the films messages across in a great way and you feel happy for a while.
While I haven’t read the novel, I can tell that there is a lot to this unique story. The film felt like it covered the basics, but I couldn’t help but feel like it was missing something. Everything bad that happens only comes towards the end and there isn’t much of a precursor to what will inevitably happen. The story doesn’t drag, but it doesn’t exactly go quickly either. All the lead up to the end makes you step back and wonder why everything took so long to set up. Max leaves at one point in the film and then he’s just gone. So much more time should have been spent exploring his character and the character of Rudy. The two interact with Liesel the most and the potential that their characters have is cut far too short.
I wasn’t sure how they would incorporate Death, but they give him some narration in the film. Voiced by Roger Allam, Death adds some humor and insight into an otherwise heartbreaking story. However, he only has about a dozen lines that are separated between the beginning, middle, and end. His commentary is much-needed, but it never comes, making the story all the more questionable. There has to be more to this acclaimed story that must not have been transferred over from book to film.
In the end, the cast will make this film worth your while. The performances from Nelisse and Liersch will make you smile and even tear up. They’re some of the cutest kids in the business and they’ve got great futures ahead of them. Rush will make you feel great and you’ll wish that you could go up and hug him. The actual book thieving isn’t on full display in this film and Death finds himself lost in the pages, but there’s still more than enough to keep you invested in this film. All I ask is that you bring some tissues with you, because like me, you may or may not tear up a bit.
The Book Thief Trailer