Director: Brian Percival Writer: Markus Zusak (novel), Michael Petroni (adaptation) Actors: Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Nico Liersch Rating: PG Runtime: 131 min
Movies relating the horrors of the Nazi Germany have become so common that when a new one makes an appearance, a viewer must wonder what unique element the film provides to the genre. Director Brian Percival’s film The Book Thief, adapted from Markus Zusak’s beloved young adult novel of the same name, offers a markedly gentle depiction of these events. The perspective of a child may not be new, but the intended audience certainly is; here, we have a film that is not only about a young person, but is entirely appropriate for one as well. The result is a film that captures beauty amidst atrocity, and offers a celebration of the written word that will resonate with audiences of all ages.
The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel (Canadian Sophie Nelisse), a young girl sent to live with foster parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) in Nazi Germany. When he realizes that she is unable to read, kind-hearted Hans begins to teach his new wardout of a book that she stole from her brother’s funeral, and Liesel soon begins stealing books wherever and whenever she can. Her life is highly impacted by two new friends: eager and loyal schoolmate Rudy (Nico Liersch), and Jewish man Max (Ben Schnetzer), whom Hans and Rosa selflessly allow to hide in their basement. Through Max, Liesel discovers the power of words and stories, and their friendship eventually causes her to question the ideology of hatred with which she is surrounded.
This film is quite lovely to watch, despite the brutal time that it depicts. The crystalline winter scenery delights, and light musical accompaniment never fails to compliment each scene. A mysterious narrator provides an insightful and oddly comforting voice-over throughout, leaving hints as to his identity as the movie progresses. Unlike the typical Nazi Germany film, The Book Thief is differentiated by its consistently gentle tone. Atrocities are depicted, but never graphically, and the film also spends a lot of time focusing on the kindness of its multitude of warm characters, such as Hans, Rudy, and Max. Indeed, many of these individuals appear to shine from the inside out, as the camera allows them to almost glow with warmth and compassion, and the actors perform their roles with emotion and humanity. The relationships and interactions of the characters draw us, the audience, into the story; as they begin to love one another, it is difficult for the audience not to fall in love as well.
At the same time, however, the film jars with its images of these nice people forced into quiet, fearful complacency. We do not like to see Rosa holding a Nazi flag, or sweet innocents Liesel and Rudy in their Hitler Youth uniforms. As Max teaches Liesel how to craft stories, he opens her young eyes to the world around her, and she begins to see the beautiful elements along with those that she realizes are tragically wrong. Through such imagery and ideas, this film asks a viewer to confront their preconceived notions, as opposed to forcing its ideas upon them. This lighter approach is effective, not only in introducing ideas to a younger crowd, but also in profoundly affecting a mature viewer as well.
Unlike a recent children’s book adaptation that I criticized for its adult approach, The Book Thief is entirely appropriate for its intended audience. The horrors are real and present, but are depicted in a subtle manner that appears carefully restrained, not watered down. The story, and the wonderful characters throughout, cannot help but captivate an audience and create a tangible emotional investment. Through the magic of film, a story about the power of the written word is brought to life, and the result is a movie entirely lovely in its tragedy.