The Book Thief

Directed by Brian Percival, 2013

Film Review The Book Thief
This image released by 20th Century Fox shows Ben Schnetzer, left, and Sophie Nélisse in a scene from “The Book Thief,” about a girl who loves books. (AP Photo/20th Century Fox, Jules Heath) ORG XMIT: NYET714

When Markus Zusak’s bestselling book was adapted into a film in 2013, eyebrows were raised. It remained to be contended whether Brian Percival’s direction really deserved the Academy and whether the powerful cast had actually even managed to portray the realities of Germany through the Hitler years. Yet, as Hans Huberman (Geoffrey Rush) winks at a terrified girl cowering in the corner of a car, it becomes impossible not to fall in love with the restrained story-telling that becomes a microcosm of life in a country waging war against itself.

The opening shots of the film zoom in through a breathtaking panorama of white clouds into the whiteness of train smoke and fallen snow in which a little boy, a child of communist parents, is buried. The sister, Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), ‘borrows’ the gravedigger’s fallen book marking the beginning of her career in book-stealing which opens up into a new life with the non-offending, pure German couple on Himmel street. As Death voices over, one does get ‘interested’.

The new family consists of an accordion playing painter and a ‘saukerl’ spewing, thunder-cloaked woman called Rosa (Emily Watson). The best friend to-be (Rudy Steiner played by Oliver Stokowski) plays street football and lives dreams of being a runner as great and dark as Jesse Owens – never mind the increasing tumult surrounding racial politics involved in window-smashing in the entire neighbourhood. His wishes, like those of the other children, are innocent and dangerous in an increasingly xenophobic state spurred by the machinations of greatness. Thus surrounded, the new-comer enters school, dreaming of returning to her mother, beating up notorious bullies and racing for life in the mean.

The film weaves a wonderful tale of conciliation through loss and replacement. Thus Liesel’s illiteracy is reversed by Hans’ gift of a painted dictionary, and the loss of the brother by the arrival of the secret with a red book and long coat. Since fairy godmothers could hardly exist in warring Germany, the Burgermaster’s wife, becomes a clandestine if misunderstood protector, opening her library window even on the chilliest of days, to let the elf sneak in. Each is united by the knowledge of suffering at the hands of a common enemy who is sometimes mocked in childish whispers.

In an expert juxtaposition, the film posits frightening facts of Nazi persecution against the limited perspective of games or choir performances. A football match fires up the street when Nazi officers try to round up basements hiding Jews. Both Liesel and her papa stake their lives for the latter, time and again, conferring a dignity that established Jews as human. The film shines through at moments like these: when human beings reach across to others, irrespective of the side of the boundary they found themselves in. So, Liesel brings the weather to Max, holed up in his cellar, building a snowman, playing Christmas by the glow of candles and Rudy jumps into a freezing river to rescue for Liesel, the gift from a rival. The message is sent across when Max roams the streets alone, enjoying his free walk under a star-lit, shell-dropping sky.

It is indeed possible to criticize the intactness of the corpses of Rosa and Hans at the end of the film as unrealistic. Exploding bombs (even when they look like video game graphics) would leave bruises, at least. One however forgives Rudy’s dramatic swoon and the slightly contrived air of the book-fire scene when the film escapes from an easy surrender into melodrama into a subtle exploration of the triumphs humanity over the precipice of destruction, loss and betrayal. Nice, indeed, has nothing to do with Death. But life, as the film depicts in breath taking shots, is transfixing. The Book Thief is a wonderful wishful story relaying the multifaceted wonder of life, an act of reclamation and memory.

– Pritha Mukherjee

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