Markus Zusak’s novel, The Book Thief, was, for me, one of those well-reviewed, oft-recommended books that you check out at the library and bring home with great anticipation, but then can’t ever quite get into. I tried, several times, to read it, but kept setting it aside to read something else instead. The difficulty for me was the book’s central conceit: it’s narrated by Death. I have no objection to a book with a first-person omniscient narrator, and it seems particularly appropriate for a book set in Germany in the early 1940s. But I felt like I was so busy peering around corners and into windows to follow the story, I couldn’t really get into it. A shame, because the story itself, about this little girl and her journey from illiterate to book-addicted budding writer is really lovely.
The movie still includes Death, providing an occasional voice-over commentary on the action, but his role is very much muted, and the focus much more on little Liesel. This is especially welcome given the lovely child, Sophie Nélisse, they found to play her. Nélisse has an unaffected emotional directness that becomes increasingly heartbreaking as the story unfolds. She’s just superb, and completely capable of carrying the movie.
Brian Percival directed, fresh from directing the third season of Downton Abbey, and The Book Thief movie is much in the same style–unfussy camera work, a focus on fine actors doing great work. I am sometimes a little irritated by movies set in, say, Germany, in which English actors affect a German accent. Germans don’t speak German in German accents; they just speak German. And in this movie, I found the decision to have some of the dialogue in German and some in English somewhat puzzling. But there were times it was quite effective, especially in a scene in Liesel’s school auditorium, where she and the other children, apple-cheeked and innocent, all sing this ghastly Nazi propaganda song.
The film begins on a train, Liesel, her mother and brother on their way to a town, where the two children will be handed over to foster parents. We never do learn why their mother gives them up, but the ravaged face of the fine German actress Heike Makatsch, who plays her, tells us enough; this woman is utterly desolate. Along the way, the brother dies, and is buried by the side of the tracks–Liesel finds an opportunity to steal a book from the grave digger. They arrive in a small German town, and Liesel is handed over to a middle-aged childless couple, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). Hans is kind to Liesel; Rosa furious, because she expected two children, and therefore government payments for two.
Liesel, we learn, has never learned to read. Quite likely, she’s never attended school. But she does own the one book, and Hans, ruefully (and cagily) confessing that he’s a poor reader too, offers to help her with it. Teaches her to read. It turns out to be a manual for gravediggers. But then, when a downtown Nazi rally includes a book burning, Liesel rescues a book from the smoking pile. And now, she has two.
She also makes friends quickly, especially with a blonde kid named Rudi (Nico Liersch), with his omnipresent soccer ball. Rudi clearly has a crush on her, which she affects not to notice, but as the film progresses, we also see his disillusionment with Naziism, and the two of them, united, shout ‘I hate Hitler’ in a (we hope) empty woods.
Liesel ties the film’s two worlds together–the school and the other children in town, especially her friend Rudi, and home, with Hans and Rosa. Hans is a sign painter by profession, a gentle, but not an ambitious man. Rosa, we sense, has to pick up the slack, and does laundry for the village’s one rich (and Nazi) family. Both Rush and Watson are astonishingly good in this film, especially Watson who only gradually reveals an essential kindness and goodness beneath her character’s stern exterior. When a Jewish friend, Max (Ben Schnetzer), desperate, asks for asylum, Hans and Rosa provide it without hesitation, hiding from the Nazis in the basement. And Liesel and Max become close friends as well, and fellow readers. And when Liesel is befriended by a sad-eyed rich Nazi woman who she visits delivering clean laundry, she has a new source for books.
We don’t often see movies about Nazi Germany that show this perspective; decent, ordinary people who detest Hitler, protect Jews, but find themselves powerless to affect much change. At one point, Hans is drafted into the Wehrmacht, and we sense he’s about as ambitious and effective a soldier as he is a sign-painter–it’s actually a relief when he comes home, wounded. And during air raids (and it takes an effort of will to think–those are American and British bombers, I should actually be rooting for them), as Hans and Rosa and Liesel and their fellow villagers huddle together in someone’s basement, it’s Hans who staves off gloom and fear with his accordion. And later, it’s Liesel filling that role, telling stories from the books she’s read.
It’s easy to see this film reductively: Nazis bad/reading good. But I found myself thinking of my father. As a child, living in Norway during the war, he sang in bomb shelters, entertaining the neighbors and keeping everyone’s spirits up. Those were his first public musical performances, in a career that led to opera gigs all over the world. My father served in the US Army post-war, and was stationed in Germany, and he got to know lots of ordinary Germans much like Hans and Rosa. We mustn’t assume that all Germans supported Hitler, or that no Germans sheltered Jews, or that all Germans were anti-Semitic. And it’s a human tragedy whenever a book is burned, and a human triumph whenever one is rescued. The resolute chutzpah of a German child stealing books from Nazis so she can share them with her Jewish friend strikes me as wonderfully hopeful, even amidst the horror and destruction of war. Which the film also gives its full dramatic and tragic power.
This is a lovely little film, a human and humane film about an inhumane time in our world’s sad history. See it if you can.