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The Book Thief

The Book Thief

What She said:

She

I have never read the book, The Book Thief, but had heard pretty good things about it, so when the movie version made its way to DVD—particularly because we’ve been in a dry spell of memorable rentals—I figured it was worth a shot.

The film tells the story of a young girl sent to live with a foster family in WWII Germany.  The film is narrated by Death himself, who has developed a particular fascination with young Liesel.  During the train ride to the foster home, Liesel’s brother unexpectedly dies.  It’s not really clarified what killed Liesel’s brother, but it’s stated that the children were not in the best of condition so who knows.  Anyway, the brother is buried at the side of the tracks along the way, and after a quick funeral service, Liesel finds a book that was dropped by one of the workers.  She decides to keep it—you later find out that it’s a gravedigger’s manual and nothing that would be of particular interest to a kid.

Let’s fast forward to Liesel’s new life.  She has a patient and fairly loving foster dad, “Papa” (Geoffrey Rush) and a rigid and easily angered foster mom, “Mama” (Emily Watson).  Considering Mama’s ridiculous temper, things are not so bad for Liesel.  An angelically blonde neighbor boy, Rudy, quickly takes a liking to her, so she at least has one friend, even if the school kids are not very nice to her.  Here’s Liesel’s main problem, she cannot read.  Papa realizes this and finds the book that Liesel has taken.  He decides that he will coach Liesel at reading, and she becomes extremely passionate about books.  Throughout the film Liesel steals books from here and there so that she can continue to improve her reading skills.

In the meantime, the drama of war is unfolding around her.  Mama and Papa aka the Hubermanns take in a Jewish man who is on the run, Max.  He’s a friend of the family, and they put him up in the basement, feeding him and doing their best to keep him alive.  It’s not easy, as Max becomes ill several times, but he finds comfort in a budding friendship with Liesel.  As time passes, the war becomes more and more intense.  To ensure the safety of the Hubermanns, Max is forced to once again flee.  Liesel and Rudy must join the Hitler Youth movement, and Papa is punished for his defiance by being conscripted, despite his advanced age.  As Liesel matures, she realizes what’s really going on and grows to have a hatred for Hitler.  I won’t blow the ending, but things don’t work out well for Liesel.  She essentially loses everything she cares out.  We fast forward and get to see that she ends up living a long and happy life, despite what she’s been through.  The end.

I liked the general topic of this film.  I think Liesel is at an impressionable age, and so it’s interesting to see how she reacts to the deteriorating circumstances in Nazi Germany, especially as she becomes more self-aware.  Her character is interesting.  Interesting enough to carry a 131 minute movie?  Not quite.  But somewhat fascinating none-the-less. 

The Book Thief

The film covers some dark themes—death, loss, war, poverty, and family.  But it seems to sugar coat things a little bit.  It feels like this film was made for 14-15 year olds instead of adults.  We don’t see the true toll of the food shortage.  We also don’t get to see a lot of the violence that broke out.  There are hints here and there, but nothing particularly graphic.  It seems that most characters have some goodness to them, and I think we needed a recurring character who was entirely cold and ruthless to really show how this infiltrated the lives of normal and seemingly good people. 

Perhaps this would have worked better as seen through the eyes of Liesel, rather than narrated by Death.  I would expect Death to have depicted something much more shocking.  Even the moments in this film that were meant to be tragic were cleaned up in a way that was somewhat silly.  People get blown up, and yet their bodies look like they’re merely taking a nap—no blood at all.  It’s all just a little bit too sanitized. 

It’s also a hint too long.  It felt like it had several false endings, and things certainly could have been tightened up a little in the plot.  I wouldn’t say the film was tedious, but it started to get very slow during the second half.  In fact, The He fell asleep briefly.

Visually, the film was nicely done.  The cinematography brought a moodiness that fit with the topic and the genre, and I appreciated that.  The special effects were “meh,” but I’d say they were the least of this film’s concerns.  The acting was solid, which is to be expected with the cast we were presented.

Overall, this movie was ok. I had expected a little more, considering the subject matter.  For a better, more gritty representation of the era, try watching Atonement instead.  It manages to be gentle at times, and extremely unsettling at others.  The perfect balance.

Thumbs half up.

The Book Thief

What he said:

He

The year is 1938 and Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) is on a train with her mother and brother. She’s on her way to her new home. Her mother has decided to give up her children for adoption, because she feels someone else can provide a better life for them. While on the way to her new home, her little brother falls ill and passes away. They stop for a speedy and no frills funeral before getting back on the train and proceeding to Liesel’s new home.

Before boarding the train though, Liesel takes a book dropped by one of the men who worked at the cemetery. It fell out of his pocket, she didn’t notice, and he took it.

Liesel eventually arrives to her new home where she meets Rosa (Emily Watson) and Hans (Geoffrey Rush). Rosa immediately points out they were “supposed to get two” in a rather blunt manner – and not taking Liesel’s feling into account. She also orders that Liesel is to refer to them as Mama and Papa. Hans on the other hand is a very kind-hearted and warm person. He makes Liesel feel much more welcome by playing with her and teaching her to read.

It turns out the book Liesel took from the man was a manual on cemetery and funeral procedures. She didn’t know how to read, so she couldn’t possibly know what it was about when she took it, she just wanted a book that she could eventually learn out to read.

Before all of that though, she’s teased by some children at school when it is discovered she learns how to read. A bully named Franz (Levin Liam) is the one who leads the way.

The Book Thief

Liesel has almost no friends at school except for a boy named Rudy (or Wuudy as she says in her little accent).  Rudy (Nico Liersch) is a neighbor who notices her when she arrives and walks with her to school on her first day. This kid knows what he likes too, because he almost immediately challenges her to a foot race, and asks for a kiss if he wins (nice move kid).  The two eventually become very good friends.

All is not well in the world though, because this is during the rise of Hitler. Liesel, Nico, and all of the other school children are forced to join the Hitler Youth. They don’t really seem to know or care what that means, so they just got along with it. But something changes when they are forced to attend a book burning. Liesel – having just started to learn to read – is troubled by idea of wasting perfectly good books. She also starts to notice the hate that is spreading and is not a fan of Mein Fuhrer.

It seems her parents aren’t either, because they take in a Jewish young man named Max (Ben Schnetzer). His father was an old war Buddy of Hans’ and they take him in when he shows up on their doorstep looking for a place to hide. Because of a lot of time on his feet out in the elements and sleeping in the basement – they weren’t insulated back then – Max is often sick. Liesel often spends time talking with and reading to him and the two form a bond.

The war escalates, things get tougher for everyone, and they all have to cope with it.

Aside from it dragging a little in parts, I really enjoyed this movie. It was a little slow in parts, and it was a simple story, but it was also a very human one. It’s an endearing tale about struggle and finding the strength to get through it. The acting was fantastic. I thought they were all excellent, which isn’t always the place with young actors. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson are veterans and I expected them to be good – which they were – but the two young leads were wonderful.

I haven’t mentioned it, but the story also had a unique narrator. The story is told to us by Death (Roger Allam), who is a silent observer of humanity with one job. Death also likes to observe us and Liesel is one of the people who piques his interest. The only complaint I have about this aspect of the story was that I thought they should have done it a little more. If you are going to take this approach, take advantage of it, which I have been told the book does. This is a cute little movie for older children and families.

Rating: Thumbs up.

This movie review was written for your reading pleasure on March 21, 2014.

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