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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The Book Thief, the movie

Or: Hope and Death spring eternal


The film is never going to be as good as the book. That is just one of the hard facts you have to swallow if you like Literature, or Cinema, or both. There exceptions (The Princess Bride, Master and Commander) but a visual adaptation is usually a ghost of its former self: distilled, translucent, and all of the wit and wisdom of its former self scrubbed away by the transition from one state of being to another.


“And alas, The Book Thief, that dark glittering gem, despair in his best cut suit and violets in his button-hole, has become....happy. Blech.” I thought as the first 10 minutes scrolled past. And it’s true, there are times when the film just seems more about a clean scrubbed neighborhood dealing with poverty, war and a curiously invasive government than a story about struggle for human ingenuity and kindness and our ridiculous capacity to hope to peak up from the snows of one of the hardest and bitterest eras imaginable. I was already to give it up for a well shot (hats off to Ballhaus), cutzie, young-girl-finding-her-new-family story; basically Mansfield Park with Swastika decore. And then I heard our Liesel (Sphie Nelisse) join her voice with her schools cherubic hitler Youth Choir while watching the unbelievable brutality of Kristallnacht, and the Book Thief launches into its stride.


Narrated by Death (Roger Allam) himself, The Book Thief follows tells the life of Liesel Meminger who, in 1938, watches loses her brother die on a train on the way to their new foster home in German village. Shocked by his death and by the prospect of an unknown life, Liesel steals a book off of one of her brothers undertakers thus beginning a life long obsession with “borrowed” words. She is slowly acclimated to a new life in Himmel Street by her gentle and imaginative new “Papa” Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) her strict but no less loving “Mama” Rosa (Emily Watson) and the friendly boy next door Rudy Seiner (Nico Liersch). Liesel grows more accustomed to her new life and her love of language, blissfully unaware of the changes in world, Germany, and the people around her. And then one snowy night a half-starved, half-frozen Jew named Max (Ben Schentzer) knocks on the Hubermann’s door asking for sanctuary. And once more Liesel’s life is thrown into upheaval.


Perhaps the saddest loss in its transition from one form to another is the loss of Death’s bitter humorous, oddly gentle voice, his many asides and foreshadowings that bind Markus Zusak’s novel together. Allam still gives us the best and brightest of Death’s notations with a fine ring of British wistfulness, but we are forced to rely on the mortals to bare the story out. I hope The Book Thief will be held up as one of the crowning points of Geoffrey Rush’s life. His gentleness and playfulness with his new daughter bring the audience into smiles, even when the film gets dark and dirty. His fear, anger, and misery at how far his neighbors and his country have fallen are masked and measured, as they need to be in the mad and scary world Hans finds himself in. Watson deserves no less praise, and is to be lauded both for her expert double takes of disapproval, and her balancing the tide of Frau Hubermann’s gruff manner and gleaming heart of gold. But more than just like ability, or masochistic chemistry, or pure fun and respect for their roles, Watson and Rush should be honored for the very rare trick of finding something new in their characters that was always in the book but never quite articulated. When I return to the Zusak’s words in future years, the Hans and Rosa I conjure may not look like Rush or Watson but they are certainly going to act like them.


The rest of the cast is hardworking but, sadly, not inspirational. Nelisse and Liersch are both run of the mill child actors: they suffer and josh each other well enough but never quite ride the spirit of the script nor seem to show more inner life than they are directed. They are, however, remarkable in being the most handsome child actors you are likely to come across: a matched pair of Dresden China Dolls, the perfect children of this well saturated and brightly lit Nazi world. Schentzer isn’t much better: he also suffers well and looks the very picture of cheerful invalid, struggling to hold on to life while trapped in basement, but he has none of Max’s Pugnacity that allowed him to survive and get a further grip on life. Like Liesel, this Max is brave in the face of tragedy, but his heroism comes as the plot demands, not kindled in his human soul.


It’s not the gem that the book was but I am happy to report that The Book Thief is a very good film. It still has that knife edged humor, that white-knuckle peril, that ridiculous sense of hope which sweeps aside all our own thoughts and worries and holds us tight. It also is just as much a tear jerker as Zusak wrote it, so it would be highly advisable to enter the theater with a tissue. Or six. It’s not the book but it’s visuals soak in a most becoming fashion, its morals jangle with all sorts of oblong and hard edged truths about humanity at its best and worst, and its stories squeezes us with all the warmth and affection of a parent trying to steer us to right by love and kindness.

It’s a ghost of what it was in print, but a very solid, articulate and lovingly haunting ghost at that.

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