Add this to the ever growing list of movies based on popular books that I’ve never read. “The Book Thief” was a popular novel released in 2006 by Australian author Markus Zusak. At least that’s what I’m told. I obviously had not read it or even heard of it until the new film adaptation hit theaters. I have to say the trailer instantly grabbed me. I’m naturally drawn to movies about World War 2, the Holocaust, or the people affected by them. So even with the film’s small amount of press and lukewarm reviews I was still anxious to see it.
Let’s not beat around the bush. I loved “The Book Thief”. Even further, I’m really surprised at some of the criticisms that have been thrown its way. Some I simply don’t agree with while others feel terribly unjust. It’s true that the movie doesn’t delve deep into the horrors of its setting. And it’s also true that it has its share of melodrama. But I never felt this film needed to be more graphic or detailed and melodrama in itself isn’t a bad thing. For me “The Book Thief” was a sweet, tender, and moving story. Yes those adjectives tend to be overused, but for me they fit this movie perfectly.
Oddly enough Death is the narrator. ‘He’ sets up the story by introducing us to a young girl named Liesel (Sophie Nélisse). She and her younger brother are being taken by their mother to meet their new foster parents. But when her brother dies in route, Liesel is left alone in this new and difficult environment. Her new parents, the cold, strict Rosa (Emily Watson) and the gentle, compassionate Hans (Geoffrey Rush), live in a small German town during a tumultuous time. Naziism is gaining strength and World War 2 is nearing.
Director Brian Percival takes us along as Liesel tries to adapt to and survive in her new world. There are a few people she meets who helps her along the way. Her new next-door neighbor, a young boy named Rudy (Nico Liersch), is instantly attracted to her and the two become great friends. She also encounters a Jewish man named Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), who Hans and Rosa put into hiding. But perhaps her greatest source of comfort is found in her newly discovered love for books. Through books she grows closer to her new father, she learns the ways of the new world, and she learns a way to express herself that she had never known before. Throughout the film many things in Liesel’s life changes. Her love for books isn’t one of them.
“The Book Thief” moves slow and deliberate but I never had a problem with it. I found myself glued to the story and the characters particularly young Liesel. Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse is asked to carry much of the load and she is certainly up to the task. The 13-year old gives a mesmerizing performance. She captures the childlike innocence and playfulness while never falling under the weight of the heavier emotional scenes. It was also amazing to see the way she handled a German accent. She really blew me away. Then there is the brilliance of Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush. Both are perfectly cast and hit every note just right. In fact Rush deserves some serious Oscar consideration for this performance.
But this is also a beautiful movie made so by Florian Ballhaus’ fine cinematography, some wonderful costume and set designs, and a lovely score by John Williams. There are several camera shots or visual moments that are still etched in my mind. The film is striking as it visualizes several uncomfortable events including a nighttime book burning, a home-by-home search for Jews, and people scrambling for bomb shelters as air raid sirens eerily scream in the background. And it’s made even more effective by the fact that it’s all seen through young Liesel’s eyes.
I love it when a film grabs me and pulls me into its world. That’s exactly what happened with “The Book Thief”. For two hours I was a resident on that small town German street. I cared about the characters, laughed with them, and was pierced by the tragedies they endured. It may be too dry for some people, too tame for others, and perhaps it is just a tad too long. I still had an incredible experience. A stirring story, some beautiful direction, some of the year’s best performances, and a near perfect ending all contribute to this being one of my favorite films of 2013.