The Book Thief (dir. Brian Percival, 2013) – Set in Nazi-occupied Germany, young child Liesel is adopted by a kindly family. There, she must keep two secrets – that she steals books for company, and that her family has been sheltering a Jewish refugee in their basement.
Sincerely translated to screen, The Book Thief stems from important truths in sacrifices and survival during tough times of war.
War steals a great many things. All that loss and ruin find its roots in fear. The Nazis killed, because they feared those who were different. The Nazis burnt books, because they feared the knowledge they could impart. Where there is fear, there is a story of courage to tell. The Book Thief is that of Liesel Meminger, and those around the young child forced to live in the dreadful times of war.
Finding company in books, the illiterate orphan falls in love with bound pages. Her first theft victim is a gravedigger. It is not long before she steals another. Grabbing a book meant to be burnt in the Nazi bonfires, the young child shows rare defiant courage. But defining courage in a much larger way are the actions of her loved ones.
Closest to her are her foster parents, who chooses to hide a young Jewish refugee Max in their basement for years. All these, despite the risk of their own demise and constant terror of being found out. Her best friend Rudy, with an appearance that fit Hitler’s supremacist ideology, resists with his refusal to hate and relentless admiration of Jesse Owens. The wife of a Nazi mayor sees past Liesel’s theft into their mutual respect for books, allowing her into the libraries of her home in secrecy.
Those who display inches of kindness in hard times, are not all brave men. But those who do so selflessly are all rare heroes. Liesel may have been eager to learn from scorched pages, yet those whom she knows has taught her so much more.
Even with its strong message, The Book Thief lacks the gut-wrenching punch it deserves. More mature World War adaptations, such as Life is Beautiful or The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, do better in this respect. What reduces the emotional impact is its disconcerting approach that at times portrays Nazi Germany as a backdrop, rather than context.
Slipped in with grave carelessness was the brilliant literary device (spoilers: of Death’s narration), which serves up as arbitrary book-ends that punctuate the narrative’s grace. The placement feels thoughtless and purely extant to please the book readers. Even its beautiful concluding minutes suffer an equally hasty afterthought with Max’s fate, leaving much of his stories untold and the relationship unwhole.
It has to be said that a movie rarely matches up to a book, for the latter owns the advantage of words. For the most part, The Book Thief does faithfully translate its narrative, if not its design, with moving performances. Sincere deliveries from an all-around great cast, especially that of outstanding child actors Sophie Nélisse and Nico Liersch, ensure a genuine telling of a meaningful tale.
In every character spun out of fiction lies morsels of truth that thread together a powerful tribute to the unforgettable courage of survivors in the toughest of circumstances, and those who dare deviate, sacrificing for the lives of others.
“I am haunted by humans.”
– The Book Thief, Markus Zusak