Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), an illiterate girl who steals her first book at her young brother’s funeral, is searching for something as she loses her family. The book she snatched, The Gravedigger’s Handbook, anchors Liesel as she is thrust into a foster family in a new town at the cusp of the rise of the Nazis. The film is Liesel’s story, but now and then it is narrated by Death (Roger Allam’s voice), whose prescient remarks provide a philosophical overview.
This film – “The Book Thief” (2013, Germany and US) – is based on the New York Times’ Best Seller “The Book Thief” of Australian writer Markus Zusak. (A friend, Pam, recommended this book to me as I headed on a road trip across America a few years back, and it became one of my favorites.) I was skeptical that a film adaptation could capture the spirit, nuances and heart of this story that recounts the horrors -but also joy, hope and bravery – of that time. We visualize books in our own ways as we read and often I have been disappointed in films based on books which I have loved (for example, “Gorky Park.”)
This film does not disappoint. First, I’ll mention the casting. Young actors Sophie Nélisse and Nico Liersch, who plays Liesel’s best friend Rudy, wonderfully portray the innocent yet wise, vulnerable yet tough young people coming-of-age in terrible times. Geoffrey Rush is the foster father Hans, and to me he is perfectly cast. His eyes reflect his heart and mind, showing kindness, fear and anger. Emily Watson as his wife Rosa embodies the stern character with a heart of gold, also a bit of a stereotype but true to the character in the book.
The only casting choice that did not reconcile with my image of the character in the novel was Ben Schnetzer as Max. I pictured someone a bit rougher, more of a street-fighter kind of style. But as Liesel and Max spend more time together and she gradually begins to understand what is going on around her, the superb acting of both actors communicates the palpable bond between them.
Set design, costumes and overall production design, on the other hand, have a theatrical flair. The working class life during tough economic times and war as reflected in housing, clothing and the overall look of the people are a bit too “finished,” if you will.
While black-and-white films are not in favor, sad to say, I think that would have been something to consider. Muted tones are used (except for the Nazi banners) and the street scenes appear orchestrated. The book burning rally is very staged, the blood-red Nazi banners balanced, the pile of books a perfectly shaped mound, the surrounding soldiers evenly spaced.
That being said, though, “The Book Thief” is a film seeking an audience. Too much grit or reality about a terribly grim time is a hard sell, especially this time of year.
The book and the film in part are about the average German. Most were not violent or Nazi supporters. How they were affected by the Holocaust, the book burnings, the bombings, and death is shown with insight and compassion. Yes, there were horrible people who became Nazis and collaborated with them. But there were folks who hated what was happening. A number stood up to the Nazis. Others hid their views, fearful of punishment, loss and death.
Whether one has read the book or not, the film is a “must see” in my opinion. I suspect those who love the film may then read the book. I recommend the book even if one does not see the film. The importance of words, books, and hope imbue both.
“The Book Thief” opened nationwide in the U.S. this November and will screen in much of the rest of the world in January 2014. In Portland, one can catch this film at the Fox Tower Stadium 10, the Lloyd Center 10 and the Century 16 Eastport Plaza theater complex. Screenings are also in Milwaukie and Vancouver. Check out the Portland Movie Clock for more details on screening times and locations. For some more images and information about the film, you can check out its website.