“The Book Thief” opens with cold serenity. White clouds melt away over a frigid winter white landscape. White smoke, thick and almost luxurious, billows from a train engine snaking its way through the German countryside. It is 1938. A smooth, deep-voiced narrator begins his tale. He takes us into a railcar populated by humble people. He settles on young Liesel, remarking he found her quite interesting. The quiet is shattered by Liesel’s unexpected gasp.
The narrator is Death, perhaps the biggest Thief of all.
Throughout “The Book Thief,” viewers are pulled along through these dueling viewpoints. Skillful, gorgeously-shot cinematography brings working class Germany to life. As bright-eyed, healthy children sing an anthem to Hilter and Nazi ideals, their Jewish neighbors are beaten and slaughtered on Kristallnacht. This juxtaposition is deft and seamless, speaking more than any anti-Nazi speech ever could. Death’s voice and Liesel’s eyes weave the tale as it unfolds onscreen.
Naturally, Death enjoys the coming World War. He takes what we give feed him. Liesel, however, is haunted by a mysterious past, an uncertain future, and a very important secret. Her life seems to be marked by loss, so she fills those voids with words, through reading and, eventually, writing. The power of the individual story teller shines through. Healing, comfort, and inspiration are all in her grasp and nothing, not even the evil of the Nazi regime’s most violent bonfires, can stop it.
The acting in “The Book Thief” is superb and perfectly cast. Geoffrey Rush is Liesel’s adopted papa, Hans. His warmth and wisdom are exactly the steadying influence Liesel craves. Emily Watson plays the outwardly cold Rosa, her new mama. This relationship seems to be doomed from the start, as Liesel deeply misses her real mama. Watson carefully skillfully blossoms into someone Liesel not only respects, but loves with all her heart. But the true revelation of a performance is Sophie Nelisse as Liesel. She was extraordinary, going from frightened, mournful girl to a young woman of strength and sense. I hope to see more of her in the future.
Bring your hankies! There are some terribly sad moments but I never cried. Instead, I was shocked into stillness. I heard a lot of sniffling around me, though, and we all know movie theater napkins are the worst. Despite the sad moments, I never felt manipulated into sadness—or any emotion. This is a mark of great direction and storytelling. The pace, the plot, the character development felt very organic, never contrived.
The most painful moments involve how easily neighbors turned against neighbors in the name of ideology, under a flag, under a single evil man. Could it happen again? You bet. However, “The Book Thief” wasn’t a total sobfest. It’s is also dotted with laugh-out-loud humor, warmth, and reminders that when humans are vulnerable, we are at our strongest. There’s hope.
I recommend “The Book Thief” for very mature older children and teens. It would be a great springboard for discussions on history, humanity, and courage.
The Book Thief opens in theaters on November 8, 2013. It’s rated PG-13. It stars Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, and Sophie Nelisse. It’s directed by Brian Percival.