The Book Thief – FILM REVIEW

It is always with great trepidation that I go and see the film adaptation of a book I love. Even though it’s been some years since I read Markus Zusak’s

book, The Book Thief has stayed with me and I worried about how this cross-over classic would cross over to the screen. But fans of the book can rest assured that it is a very faithful adaptation. Perhaps, too faithful.

The Book Thief is a story, narrated by death himself, about a young girl called Liesel who is sent by her communist mother to live with a German husband and wife at the break out of the war. We never see or hear of the mother again, but it’s clear that her fate was that of the hundreds of thousands of communists killed during Hitler’s reign.

Sophie Nelisse who plays Liesel is outstanding in the role. She portrays just the right balance of innocence and insatiable curiosity that makes Liesel breaking into the Burgermeister’s library to ‘borrow’ books utterly believable. Like death himself, I was ‘caught’ by her. Her deep-pool eyes are nothing short of mesmerising and the transition of her age from a near-mute ten-year old to a brave and idealistic sixteen-year old is brilliantly handled.

Sophie Nelisse as Liesel

Sophie Nelisse as Liesel

The supporting performers are equally note perfect. Geoffrey Rush plays Hans Hubermann, Liesel’s warm and patient father and Emily Watson perfectly captures the complexity and hidden depths of his wife Rosa with a complete lack of vanity. Perhaps the shining star is Nico Liersch who plays the lemon-haired, huge-hearted Rudy Steiner. Rudy represents the person we all wish we could be: a brave boy who stands up for what is right even though it is not in his best interests to do so.

This is perhaps the most important message of The Book Thief: the preservation of humanity against all odds. It is also part of what makes The Book Thief so unusual. In it we experience the horrors of World War Two not from the trenches or from the POW camps, but from a street in an average German town called Heaven Street. As many people are swept up with the hypnotic power of the Nazi party, The Book Thief reminds us that not every German was so keen to burn books or smash windows. True, we see the disturbingly familiar story of a Jew – Max Vandenburg, played by Ben Schnetzer – hiding in the basement. But our sympathies lie mostly with those who are hiding him. A powerful scene between Hans and Rosa sees them lying in bed worrying about what should happen if Max dies. ‘The smell,’ Rosa says, ‘would give us away.’ And so we will Max to survive, not purely for himself. But because his death would have terrible consequences for the Hubermann family.

The film is filled with powerful emotional scenes like this one. And yet it all felt a little one-note in pace. Scenes which should have played on my heartstrings left me feeling a little cold, because it lacked any emotional rise or fall. The delights of childhood and the promise of young love were dealt with in a similar tone to the terrors and nightmares of war-torn Germany.

The cinematography, however, is sublime. The film opens with a series of single black smudges – a black train, a black grave, a black car – on a stark white sheet of snow. And finishes with a white figure amid a smoking, black landscape. Intentionally, I am sure, evoking images of ink on a page. Because the film is, above all other things, a love letter to writing.

The importance and power of words is present throughout. From Liesel’s dictionary painted for her by Hans on the walls of the basement, to the Nazi propaganda covering the walls of the streets out side, right down to the ingredient jars on her mother’s kitchen shelves, words are inescapable. And often, I found myself so distracted by the written words that I lost engagement with the story taking place on the screen. (At one point the word “WRITE” is written in large white letters on a wall: I flinched, thinking I shouldn’t be in a cinema, I should be at home writing!)

Everything is so perfectly detailed it’s admirable (apart, perhaps from the fact that everyone speaks in English and yet sings in German). But this slavish attention to detail only served to remind me that I was watching a cinematic adaptation of a book – I found myself constantly comparing the two rather than losing myself in the scenes.

And here in lies the fundamental problem for me with The Book Thief. It lacked the emotional resonance of the book, perhaps because it failed to rework the story for the medium. I sobbed at the book. I remained entirely dry-eyed through the film.

And yet, overall it is a beautifully shot, powerfully acted film that should please fans of the book. Even if it doesn’t quite move them in the same way.

Rating: 3.5/5

Reviewer: Kim Curran

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