This review contains spoilers:
It’s been about four years since I read The Book Thief. My memory of it is very hazy other than the fact that I loved it, and couldn’t believe it was considered a book for young adults while reading it. Going into the advance screening I saw Wednesday evening made the whole experience feel kind of fresh, and surprising as a result.
The Book Thief is about the power of words. While we have an introductory narration by The Grim Reaper, the majority of the film is seen through the eyes of the young German girl Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse). It’s the late 1930’s, and Hitler is on the rise to power. Liesel’s mother is traveling across the country with her two children to give them up for adoption. Liesel’s younger brother does not survive the trip.
Liesel watches on as her brother is buried on the side of the train tracks in the middle of nowhere. After the body is buried, one of the grave diggers does not realize that he has dropped a book. Liesel, unable to read at this time, snatches the book up and puts it in her pocket. Even though she does not know what any of it says, it is a connection that she has with her deceased younger brother, and she clings to it with all her life.
Upon arriving at her new home, an elderly couple, Hans Huberman (Geoffrey Rush), and his wife Rosa (Emily Watson). Hans is a gentle, accordion-playing man, who immediately greets Liesel as “Your Majesty” with a smile on his face. Rosa is a more traditional, stereotypical “Old Country” woman, very stern and proper, definitely wearing the pants in the family (some might say an early feminist).
When tucking Liesel into bed one evening, Hans notices her clinging to this book. He asks her if she can read, which she admits to him she cannot. Hans can read, but not very well, and bonds with Liesel over the two of them improving their reading skills together.
Rosa has a tougher time bonding with Liesel. She does laundry for the richer families in the neighborhood, and puts Liesel in charge of delivering the clean clothes and collecting money on them. It’s not as compassionate a bond as Liesel has with Hans, but it is a bond with her new “Mamma.”
Liesel’s world gets more intense as Germany gets closer to World War II. Public book burnings put on by the Nazi army make her love of books grow more. Things get even more intense when a man named Max shows up at the family’s front door in the middle of the night. Max is the son of a man that saved Hans life during World War I, and Hans vowed to help his family in any way possible in the future. Being Jewish, Max is seeking refuge at the Huberman house, which they give him without hesitation.
Liesel bonds immediately with Max, as she knows that her true mother had been running from the German Government for being a Communist, and both have had their family stripped from them. Being forced to never leave the basement, Max further teaches her the importance of words as he asks her to describe what it is like outdoors, where he has not been since going into hiding at the Huberman residence. He encourages her to make the words her own, and eventually start writing.
Something that disturbed me about the beginning of the movie was that it was shot so bright. It almost had a Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory feel to it, which was so out of place since I was familiar with the source material. However, as the movie progresses, the lighting gets gradually gets darker as we are led into war time, and by the end, I thought the cinematography was actually gorgeous.
Taking place in Germany during World War II, awful things happen as the movie progresses. Without completely spoiling everything, all I will say is there is much pain and loss throughout the film. What we’re left with at the end is a very touching story that should bring a tear to anyone’s eye who has a soul.
The Book Thief shows a group of people in a small German town trying to live normal lives as the Nazis take control of the country and pursue war upon the world. It’s a perspective I’d never really thought of before. Some characters fall in line with Hitler and the Nazi agenda without hesitation, but there are plenty who disagree with these awful ideals. It actually gave me chills when characters read about how Germany is winning the war in the newspapers, and they know it’s a bad thing. I thought this perspective made the story all the more powerful.
I can’t think of a single movie that has ever been better than the book it was based on. The Book Thief is no exception. That being said, I still really enjoyed the movie, and as it went on, the book definitely came back to me, and reminded me why I loved this story so much when I originally read it. For being such a young girl, Sophie Nelisse gives quite a powerful performance as Liesel. Geoffrey Rush brings the character of Hans to life quite well also.
The movie is out in limited release right now, and I’m not sure how wide of a release it will get. When I looked online, I see that it is only showing in a single art theater in my area of Indianapolis starting Thanksgiving weekend (Keystone for anyone interested). If the movie is playing near you, I recommend seeing it. Prepare yourself for a serious ride though. The Book Thief tells a chilling, yet beautiful story that takes place during one of the darkest times in the world’s history.