The Book Thief Review

This beautifully filmed adaptation of Marcus Zusak’s much-loved novel is deliberately paced but builds to a devastating emotional crescendo.

The Book Thief has become one of those novels that both children and adults speak about in reverent tones (myself included). Published in 2005, it tells the story of Liesel Memimger, a young German girl who is given up for adoption — along with her younger brother, who doesn’t make it to their new home — by her mother to the Hubermans, an older couple who live in the small town of Molching. As Liesel develops a loving relationship with her new family, she also learns to read and write and eventually befriends a Jew named Max whom her foster parents hide in their basement while World War II escalates around them. The film version of The Book Thief, scripted by Michael Petroni (The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader), is faithful to many incidents and much of the structure of Zusak’s novel, while eliminating some characters and tightening up the story to a dgree. Yet at the same time, director Brian Percival (best known for his work on Downton Abbey) keeps the book’s methodical pace and even-keeled tone. The result is a movie that channels the spirit of the novel, which should please devoted fans, yet does not pile on the sentimentality or dramatic fireworks that a film like this could easily fall prey to – until the final scenes, when the relationship we’ve built for two hours with the cast of engaging characters is suddenly and devastatingly shattered. One of the biggest strengths of the film is its stars. Excellent as always, Geoffrey Rush is the movie’s heart as Hans Huberman, the perpetually out-of-work yet cheerful housepainter who provides lonely little Liesel with the love she desperately needs after the death of her brother and the loss of her mother. Emily Watson is his wife Rosa, whose laundry business puts food on the table and who loves Liesel in her own gruff yet not unkind fashion. And then there is Sophie Nélisse, the 13-year-old French-Canadian actress whose Liesel is the story’s sometimes enigmatic center but whose compassion blossoms when she befriends and cares for Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), the young Jew whom Hans is obligated to hide as a longstanding favor to his family (Max’s father saved Hans’ life when they fought together in World War I).  Schnetzer is unconscious for long stretches of the film as Max battles grave illnesses, but is passionate and lively when awake, teaching Liesel about the power of words and expression. Along with Hans, who initially passes literacy to Liesel, and the wife of the local burgomaster who allows the youngster to read books from her deceased son’s library (which Liesel later steals books from as a form of protest, hence the title), Max awakens a storytelling instinct in Liesel that serves her well for the rest of her life and provides a welcome relief from the Nazis’ relentless campaign of book-burning and censorship. It is the shadow of the Nazis that hangs over the entire story and intrudes into Liesel’s world throughout, whether through Hans’ brief conscription late in the war, the recruitment of her best friend Rudy (Nico Liersch) for youth training, or a nerve-wracking search of the Hubermans’ basement by a Gestapo officer as Max lies hidden literally right in front of him. Part of the Hubermans’ financial problems, never directly stated but heavily implied, is that Hans cannot get work because he does not wish to join the Party. The plight of ordinary German citizens who had no love for their Fuhrer or his ideology – and who suffered as a result of his aggression and depravity – is a story we’ve rarely seen on the screen. The Book Thief is almost too mild at times in its deliberate lack of big emotional swings, favoring instead a steady accumulation of details. The middle portion of the movie seems to meander a bit and Max’s two illnesses seem more redundant on screen than on the page, while the occasional narration by an unseen Death (voiced by Roger Allam), taken directly from the book, may also throw off viewers not familiar with the device from the novel. But there’s always some new turn to the story or a bit of business with the effortlessly watchable Rush that keeps the narrative flowing, and it is that gradual feeling of getting to know the Hubermans, their neighbors, and their day-to-day lives on “Heaven” Street (Himmel Street) that makes the movie’s final scenes so overpowering. Even though I read the book and found that to be a powerful emotional experience, I was still overcome with feeling at the way the characters’ lives play out and realized just how much I came to care for them over the course of two hours.  Although the film looks a little small (it was shot mostly on soundstages in Berlin), cinematographer Florian Ballhaus captures some lovely images and light, while the score by living legend John Williams (his first non-Spielberg work since 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) is lyrical, subtle and a shift from the epic fanfares he is known for. Williams thought that the story was special enough for him to come out of semi-retirement, and on that we are in agreement. While it may not be an outright classic, and may not endure for generations as the source material is likely to do, The Book Thief is elegant and earnest without being cloying or overwrought, and its themes will haunt you just as its omniscient narrator is “haunted by humans.” Den of Geek Rating: 4 out of 5 stars Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!


4 out of 5