Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Book Thief (2013)

Liesel Meminger: There once was a ghost of a boy who liked to live in the shadows, so he wouldn't frighten people. His job was to wait for his sister, who was still alive. She wasn't afraid of the dark, because she knew that's where her brother was. At night, when darkness came to her room, she would tell her brother about the day. She would remind him how the sun felt on his skin, and what the air felt like to breathe, or how snow felt on his tongue. And that reminded her that she was still alive. ~ from The Book Thief (2013)
I finally got around to seeing an excellent film that everyone already seems to have seen, called The Book Thief. Based upon the novel by Australian author Markus Zusak about a little girl growing up in a village in Germany under the Nazis, the film depicts ordinary people standing up to tyranny by defying unjust laws. While it is not a movie for small children, I would highly recommend it as a good history lesson for older children and teens. The story is seen through the eyes of a child in a non-Nazi home. Born of Communists, Liesel becomes loyal to her foster parents, who are hiding a Jewish friend in their cellar. We know, of course, that in many German homes, children were made to report on their parents. 

According to Variety:
 Like its source, the film is narrated by Death (voiced by Roger Allam), who says at the start that he seldom bothers with the living, but took a particular interest in young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse). Liesel is first seen on a train in 1938 with her mother and brother, en route to a destination that her sickly sibling never makes it to. Neither does her mother, who may be headed to prison due to her communist leanings, it’s later rumored. So Liesel arrives alone at the doorstep of her new foster parents, housepainter Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his endlessly henpecking wife, Rosa (Emily Watson).

When it emerges that Liesel is illiterate — inviting immediate ridicule from  school bully Franz (Levin Liam) — kindly Hans makes a game of teaching her to read. The first tome they conquer is one she’d grabbed when it fell from a laborer’s coat at her brother’s funeral: “The Gravedigger’s Handbook.” Later she dares rescue a burning book from a bonfire of “decadent” works at a Nazi rally. This act attracts the lone notice of the local Buergermeister’s wife, Frau Hermann (Barbara Auer), who later clandestinely lets Liesel use her late son’s personal library during her weekly laundry deliveries to that imposing mansion.

In contrast, the Hubermanns barely scrape along on Rosa’s laundering and little else; we eventually deduce that Hans’ perpetual underemployment is due to his refusal to join “the Party.” As time passes and wartime privations grow worse, their domestic situation turns downright dangerous with the arrival of Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), the fugitive son of a Jewish comrade who saved Hans’ life during WWI. Honor-bound to hide the young man from the authorities, they nurse him back to health, and he bonds with the fascinated Liesel. She’s sworn to tell no one of his presence, not even best-friend neighbor Rudy (Nico Liersch), though several times the secret comes fearfully close to exposure.

There are modest setpieces: an air-raid, a worrying house-by-house search by Nazi officials, Max’s second serious illness, and Liesel’s hysterical response when Jewish prisoners are marched through town. But “The Book Thief” spans these wartime years from a microcosmic vantage point, seldom straying far beyond the main characters’ ironically named “Heaven Street.” It’s to the credit of Percival (best known for helming several “Downton Abbey” episodes) and Petroni (“The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” “Possession”) that they refuse to artificially inflate the story’s key points for melodramatic or tear-jerking purposes. By the same token, such intelligent restraint may strike some as too even-tempered and slow-paced, touching our emotions without heightening them in the way that often gets more attention come Oscar time.

Rush generously provides the movie’s primary warmth and humor; Watson is pitch-perfect as a seemingly humorless scold with a well-buried soft side. Hitherto little-noticed New Yorker Schnetzer is a real find, making Max a thoroughly ingratiating figure. (Read more.)
The thought-provoking film has already sparked many important topics of conversation in our family, such as what is the duty of a Christian under an anti-Christian totalitarian government. Unlike The Boy in Striped Pajamas, The Book Thief does not show the horror of the concentration camps. Liesel does not comprehend the full extent of the doom that awaits her family if they are caught hiding Max, but she understands enough to be frightened. The books and her own stories help her and others to deal with fear, whether it is the fear of arrest by the Gestapo or fear of the Allied bombs which drop in the night. The film ultimately celebrates the curiosity and resilience of a child who, in spite of loss and deprivations, is able bring life into a world filled with death, only because she is loved.


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