MRR Review: "The Book Thief"

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While subjected to the horrors of World War II Germany, young Liesel finds solace by stealing books and sharing them with others. Under the stairs in her home, a Jewish refugee is being sheltered by her adoptive parents.

MRR Review: "The Book Thief"

Rated: PG-13
Length: 131 minutes
Release Date: October 22, 2013
Directed By: Brian Percival
Genre: Drama/War

"The Book Thief" is a film adaptation of Markus Zusak's 2005 best-selling novel centered on a little girl growing up in Nazi Germany. It premiered a little more than two weeks prior to the 75th anniversary of the tragic historical event that became known as the Night of Broken Glass.

It was on the night of Nov. 9, 1938, that Hitler's paramilitary Brown Shirts launched their attacks against Jewish homes and businesses. It is estimated that around 100 Jews were killed that single night, while up to 30,000 were transported to the Nazi regime's new concentration camps, marking the first step toward the genocidal Final Solution. This infamous night is witnessed by nine-year-old Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), an orphan taken in by the Hubermanns, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). Watching over Liesel with detached curiosity is Death (voiced by Roger Allam). During one of his narrations, Death freely acknowledges that over the coming years, "no one will serve the Fuhrer as loyally as me."

Zuzak's novel has been on the "New York Times" Children's Books best-seller list for more than four years. It expounds on the blossoming love affair between an illiterate girl and the literature she learns to read. It also details how Liesel discovers that the subversive quality of books can be an anchor to normalcy in times of tyranny and terror, especially in a nation that burns books. Zuzak was aware during the novel's writing that many children who readThe Book Thiefwould identify with little lost Liesel, because to read the book was to defy the Nazis.

Unlike reading, watching a movie is a passive activity in which the viewer only needs to stay awake to get fed, which means a movie must use something extra to awaken the same feelings as the book that it's based on does. Directed by Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) and scripted by Michael Petroni, the movie is akin to a picture book. Moving at a leisurely pace and marking time to the excellent score by John Williams, the movie presents as a series of anecdotes from Liesel's five years with the Hubermanns.

Rosa, a woman with a truly generous spirit but reluctance to show it, does laundry for the city's officials. Hans is an unemployed house painter who refuses to join the Nazi party and stays at home, playing his beloved accordion and doting on little Liesel. Liesel first appeared on their doorstep holding fast to a copy ofThe Gravedigger's Handbook, a trophy she found near her mother's grave. Hans is going to teach her to read and awaken her imagination through books, helping her become an individuated human.

Caught in the center of the storm, Liesel attempts to lead the life of an ordinary girl in any ordinary country. She adroitly sidesteps the romantic attention of her school chum Rudy (Nico Liersch), resolutely suffers bullying from older kids, and discovers a book trove in the mayor's home, which turns out to be a private library full of literary wonders. When the Hubermanns decide to shelter Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer) in their basement, a Jewish boy whose father saved Hans' life in the Great War, it is the start of Liesel's most interesting relationship and one that further intensifies her love of books.
Unlike books, movies have the advantage of being able to give faces to their characters. Rush and Watson not only provide excellent character personifications, but they also add layers of depth and feeling to Hans and Rosa. However, it's Nélisse, who gave such an impressive portrayal in the Oscar-winner "Monsieur Lazhar," who really makes this movie work. With all the gravitas and willfulness of Elizabeth Taylor in her National Velvet performances, Nélisse believably ages from nine to fourteen, making for a remarkable performance for such a young actress.

Overall, the movie is well crafted and has several outstanding scenes, which are sure to move audiences. Particularly noteworthy is the scene where Hans publicly helps a Jewish man and is subsequently troubled by what harm his impetuous act may cause his family. In another scene, while huddled in an air-raid shelter and amid the sound of falling Allied bombs, Liesel quells her neighbors' fears by telling them a story. This is reminiscent of the scene created by Terence Davies in "The Deep Blue Sea," in which strangers become a small temporary community in the Aldwych underground station during an air raid by singing "Molly Malone."
"The Book Thief" would probably have been better served by a director of Davies's caliber to turn the magical prose from the novel into screen poetry, but this Percival-Petroni adaptation doesn't lack thoughtfulness and quality acting either. The movie's unintended, but ultimately beneficial, asset could be to guide younger audiences back to the book itself, so they get a fuller experience—that of a child's imagination coupled with the richly rewarding world of words.