Film Review: THE BOOK THIEF

Published On November 15, 2013 | By John Hanshaw | FILM REVIEWS

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THE BOOK THIEF

Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nelisse, Ben Schnetzer, Nico Liersch, Roger Allam, Barbara Auer, Oliver Stokowski
Screenplay by Michael Petroni
Produced by Karen Rosenfelt and Ken Blancato
Directed by Brian Percival
Director of Photography: Florian Ballhaus
Production Design by Simon Elliott
Edited by John Wilson
Music by John Williams

The prestige, or quality, film season is in high gear, as another film that qualifies as one of the best of the year, the moving, beautifully crafted, emotional and deeply intelligent “The Book Thief,” based on the hugely-popular book of the same name, opens today, Friday, Nov. 15.  “The Book Thief” is a great, insightful and provocative instantly-classic film, full of important messages, themes and life lessons, and an overall insightful and thoughtful film about the horrors of war; the terrors of religious and racial hatred and ignorance; the everlasting importance of family, friendship, relationships and love; and the educational, cultural, social and spiritual wonders of books, words and the written word in any form.  Released close on the heels of the equally emotional, thoughtful and intelligent “About Time” and “12 Years a Slave,” and the well-reviewed “All is Lost” and “Nebraska,” finally, after the summer of doom, moviegoers have several quality films to see in the theaters—and more are on the way as the holiday season approaches.

The novel “The Book Thief,” written by Australian author Markus Zusak, was released in Australia in 2005 and the rest of the world in 2006—and the novel became an instant sensation and phenomenon.  The book sold 8 million copies, was on The New York Times bestseller list for nearly seven years—you read that right—and was translated into more than 30 languages.  The book also won more than a dozen literary awards.

So director Brian Percival, who dazzled the world himself with his work on “Downtown Abbey, screenwriter Michael Petroni (“The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” but don’t hold that against him now), and producers Karen Rosenfelt and Ken Blancato—like thousands of other filmmakers before them faced with turning a wildly-popular internationally successful book into a film that would succeed on its filmic merits and be respectful to the book and its legion of fans—faced a quite formidable task in making “The Book Thief.”   However, all such concerns can be put aside, as this group of talented, dedicated filmmakers, apparently working closely with Zusak, or at least Zusak’s over-riding vision, intent and messages, have indeed crafted an excellent film that immediately stands as a film highly-recommended for all ages (despite some unsettling, but non-graphic, Nazi Germany war violence) and all times.  “The Book Thief” stands proudly as a quality film that teaches numerous lessons that never grow old or tired or clichéd.

There simply can never be enough films—or books or television shows or songs or newspaper and magazine articles–about religious, racial and demographic hatred, bigotry, ignorance and intolerance or the horrors of war and nationalistic violence.  That has been proven quite well in recent years, as several of the better films of the past couple of years have shown—including, but not limited to, “The Blind Side,” “Lincoln,” “42,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “12 Years a Slave” and now “The Book Thief.”  And there can never be enough films about the everlasting importance of family, friends, relationships and love, as “About Time” and “The Book Thief” so clearly, and beautifully, demonstrate.  These themes and messages and lessons—when written, directed, produced and acted in a highly-intelligent manner and in a unique, original presentation–can appear to be teaching something new, although those themes and lessons are universal and ageless and are actually as well-worn and familiar as time itself.

There also cannot be enough films about religious and racial intolerance considering the times we are living in right now—in 2013.  With the scary, psycho recent rise, and subsequent downfall, of racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, anti-minority, anti-gay fanatical far-right “tea party” Republicans who have expressed redneck, cracker hateful speech and thoughts in public and in private, and with constant reports in recent years about the increase of dangerously psycho, militaristic and ignorant white-supremacist hate groups—here in the United States and elsewhere—bigotry and prejudice remain today as relevant, important issues to deal with in all open, and hidden, corners of society.

“The Book Thief” tells the touching story of the beautiful, thoughtful and instantly lovable Liesel (brilliantly played by the young Sophie Nelisse, who will steal your heart from the start), a girl of about 11 or 12 living in the increasingly fascist, violent, ignorant, dehumanizing and dangerous Nazi Germany of the late 1930s and early 1940s.  She is sent to live with foster parents, unable to read, traumatized at first by the recent death of her younger brother, and naturally and normally wary, somewhat frightened and scared of her new surroundings, her new school—and her new foster parents, brilliantly, expertly and intricately played by the wonderfully talented Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson.  Rush’s sympathetic, childlike and instantly-likable and lovable Hans Hubermann is a man who understands the complex layers of life and people—and children—and he takes an instant liking to Liesel, who deep down is an equally likeable and lovable, smart, clever and resourceful girl.  Watson’s detailed, intricate and multi-layered portrayal of the even more complex foster mother, Rosa Hubermann, is one of those performances that filmgoers—and especially actors and directors–will think about, ponder, evaluate and analyze for ages.  Watson’s emotional range, her varying moods, her difficult but still-loving relationship with Hans and Liesel and her overall troubled station in a difficult life in a difficult time, is portrayed so impressively and intelligently, her performance is just simply an instant lesson in the difficulties and complexities of portraying a character that is not black or white or gray or easily definable.  The character is difficult, and Watson buries herself so deeply inside Rosa, it’s a performance to remember when the awards season kicks in—her performance is just that excellent.

Of course, Geoffrey Rush, one of the classic actors of our time and a man who shines in such a tender and warm-hearted manner  in every performance, you just want to hug him (well, maybe not his slimy, gooey, ghastly ghost pirate in the “Pirates” films), is so loveable in this film, filmgoers will wish that they were being sent to stay with Hans Hubermann, a painter by trade, in his down-home, comfortable and inviting little home in his little German town.  He tells jokes, he has an easygoing manner, he smiles more than he frowns, he gives you little knowing winks, he performs little magic tricks, he finds the bright side in things, he plays the accordion—he’s just purely lovable. Rosa, however, although she clearly loves Hans, has an up-and-down relationship with her husband, is strict, plays strictly by the rules and rules her home in an initially rigid, somewhat cold manner when Liesel first arrives. But first impressions can be difficult for most people.  One of the many joys of this film is watching Rosa’s developing love and affection for Liesel as time goes by—and watching Rosa’s deepening appreciation for the many wonders that reside in the heart of her husband. Watching Rosa change from the rigid taskmaster of the early scenes to the warmhearted, caring and understanding true mother and wife of the latter scenes—and watching Watson tackle and succeed in this difficult portrayal—is just touching on every level.

But that’s just Rosa. The film is, of course, all about Liesel and her life-altering, life-learning development and transformation.

Hans sees early that Liesel is a booklover, a word-lover, a reader and student of ideas and thoughts and words. He immediately makes it a mission to not only get Liesel to read, but to understand the importance of books and words and expressing oneself through the written word. In the basement of their small house, Hans creates a beautiful dictionary of words on the basement walls, having Liesel write down new words that she learns on the walls with bright white chalk. It is a beautiful visual, one of many that act as a potent symbol of the film’s many messages. As they explore the world of books and words, their relationship as father and daughter deepens. And, horrifically, terrifyingly and brutally, the violent, ugly world of Nazi Germany explodes around this burgeoning family—and part of that fascist world is the burning of books, in public.  These acts of book-burning are obviously stark contrasts to Liesel’s growing love of books and reading.  There is also growing suppression of any free expression that goes against the Nazi party line and the militaristic government line—and that is yet another stark contrast to the world of ideas and free expressions written in the many books that Liesel starts to read.  And, of course, the rounding-up, killing, beating and murdering of Jews, homosexuals, Christians, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others by the psycho Nazis also increases—yet another dark contrast to Liesel’s otherwise bright little world.

The contrast between Liesel’s growing love of books and love of her family, as well as the growing platonic love between she and Max, a Jewish man that the Hubermanns edgily and dangerously hide in their house and Liesel’s growing love (more puppy crush, pre-teen love) of an equally lovable schoolboy who befriends her from the first day that she arrives in town, Rudy (Nico Liersch), and the growing violence and war around all of them is expertly chronicled and handled by Zusak, Petroni and Percival.  All writers and the director must be given credit for their handling of the difficult contrasts and layers of this inventive war-time story.  They are able to present a story that, in less expert hands, could have been clichéd or overly familiar, but instead is, as noted, inventive, original and unique.

One tantalizing technique used in “The Book Thief” that is one of many filmic aspects that makes the film original is a unique narrative device that will not be revealed here—but you will experience this device early in the film. The importance, relevance and meaning of the respective device will become clearer and clearer as the film progresses. Again, this narrative device is just one of many filmic aspects that contribute to the film’s originality.

One aspect of the movie that obviously contributes to the film’s overall quality is the simple brilliance of Sophie Nelisse’s performance as Liesel.  Filmgoers may expect expert, master-class performances like the ones delivered her by Rush and Watson and other veteran supporting actors in the film, but to experience the breakthrough, exhilarating performance of a child actor in a deep film who is expertly expressing myriad deep thoughts, emotions and thoughts, is just a revelation. The same kudos go out to Liersch, whose timid, touching portrayal of Nico—who cannot hide his love of Liesel but remains respectful and kind to this intriguing girl—expresses a similar range of emotions that impresses from the start.  And Ben Schnetzer, the young, college-age actor who is also somewhat of a newcomer to big-budget films, plays the frightened, confused Max—who must spend much of the film hiding in the upstairs or basement of the small Hubermann house, sickly and just wanting to be out in the world—and he also shines in a moving portrait of a troubled young man, awakened to new hope by the lovable girl who takes a sisterly affection toward him. To see a trio of young actors just shining in intelligently-written, deeply-moving, period character portrayals in “The Book Thief” is just a constant joy throughout the film.  Credit must be given to Percival for directing these actors in such moving, complex performances.

As Liesel developers her bond with Hans and Rita and Max and Nico, she also develops her growing bond with books, reading and words.  Max teaches her how to express herself beyond just simple, easy words. Hans and Rita help her with her reading and education.  And Nico helps Liesel obtain the books she devours—how Liesel obtains the books that prompt Nico to dub her “the book thief” won’t be revealed here.  But how Liesel obtains her books is interesting and enjoyable.

But as is the case in life, often, the deepening dark sides of life’s many conflicting realities soon cover the comfortable little world of Liesel’s street and town like so many dark clouds.  The Nazi oppression, hatred and violence and the increasingly dangerous war and bombings increase in violence and intensity.  Soon, everyone’s life is turned upsidedown, and how Liesel and her friends and family deal with this horribly changing world is another revelation of the film, for the various townspeople react in heroic, dignified, heartfelt ways, and they learn to rely on each other and love each other.   Various scenes showing how Liesel, Hans, Rita, Max, Nico and other townspeople deal with bombing raids, Nazi violence and other indignities are beautifully portrayed, showing the inherent goodness and heroism that people can muster amid the very worst of violence and hatred.

Indeed, as Zusak has stated himself, this is one of the many themes of the book and film of “The Book Thief.”

“It was a time of extreme danger and evil and I was inspired by the acts of kindness during these very dark times,” Zusak says in interviews with the studio that produced the film.  “That’s what ‘The Book Thief’ is about:  finding beauty in even the ugliest of circumstances.  One of the central themes of the story is that Hitler is destroying people with his words, and Liesel is stealing back the words, and she’s writing her own story with them.”

Liesel’s story is a tale of courage, strength, endurance, hope–and love. As the story unfolds, we see Liesel struggle and persevere through literally the very worst of times.  One can only be encouraged, fortified, heartened and emboldened by her toughness, bravery and endurance.

“The German people were being told what to feel, what to think, and what to read,” says Rosenfelt, the producer. “In spite of these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Liesel, by learning to read, is empowered to be creative, think on her own, and not parrot the ideas of others.”

Such smart, intelligent, insightful words.  It’s little wonder that writers and filmmakers who can express such intelligent thoughts have produced such a smart, intelligent and insightful film.  A film that teaches everyone important life lessons for the ages.

“Never forget” is an adage used to remind people to never forget the horrors, and the subsequent lessons, of the Holocaust, which resulted in the murder of 6 million innocent Jews and millions of other innocent people.  And “The Book Thief” helps us all to never forget, and one cannot give any greater praise to a film than that extraordinary accomplishment.  Everyone should see “The Book Thief”–so everyone will never forget.

 

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