Movie Review: The Book Thief


December 26, 2013

THE BOOK THIEF has stolen my heart. To describe the film in a word, it's quite simply, MAGNIFICENT.

Adapted from the 2005 best-selling novel of the same name by Markus Zusak (a book that remained on The New York times best-seller list for almost seven years), THE BOOK THIEF is the story of Liesel, a young German girl shipped off to live with foster parents just prior to the onset of WWII. Taken away from her mother due to the changing political and ethnic cleansing being implemented as Hitler rises to power, Liesel and her younger brother will have a better life in the small town of Stuttgart with two loving parents. But on the way to their new home, Liesel's brother dies and is buried in the snow alongside the train tracks. In an inexplicable and surprising move, as if a final link to her little brother, Liesel "steals" a book that falls from the pocket of one of the men present at the funeral, The Gravedigger's Handbook.

Arriving at her new home on "Himmel Street" (Himmel is "heaven" in English), Liesel is met with a loving papa and grumbling mama, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Rosa is more concerned and disgruntled with only one child being delivered in their care as it means less money for her. (Monetary stipends were paid out based on the number of children in the family). But Hans! It's easy to see that Liesel is immediately the apple of his eye. As Liesel tries to fit in with her new family and adjust to school, she finds it difficult. Called "dummkopf" because she cannot read and write, Hans takes it upon himself to teach her to read. And of course, what shall they start with as her first book? The Gravedigger's Handbook. Turning it into a game, Liesel proves an apt and insatiable student and thanks to basement walls that become a chalk-covered dictionary, the friendship of her adoring classmate and neighbor Rudy, and a Jewish refugee named Max who is being hidden from the Nazis in the Hubermann cellar, Liesel's world blossoms and grows; especially when Max encourages her to look beyond just the words to find the hidden truth and beauty of life.

With the country torn apart by war, books burned at the mandate of Der Fuhrer, and life turned upside down for all, as time passes, Liesel finds salvation and joy for herself and others thanks to the power of words and the private library of the Burgermeister's wife, a library that gives new meaning to "the book thief."

Much as words fill one's life and inspire, THE BOOK THIEF fills the soul. An incredibly powerful and personal moviegoing experience, especially for anyone that loves books and words, the story moves you to inexplicable levels of emotion; one minute you soar as Liesel is able to read her first words in The Gravedigger's Handbook, the next, you ache as she is ridiculed in class because she can only sign her name with XXX. The wide-eyed joy and wonderment, and pain, that Sophie Nelisse conveys just with her eyes is spellbinding. Nelisse soars with emotion, spreading her wings wide as if carrying the audience with her. With just a look, she draws you into Liesel's heart, and the heart of THE BOOK THIEF. Her eyes truly are the windows to the soul. Nelisse's aura is that of an old soul but brimming with youthful exuberance and enthusiasm for life. As Liesel, Nelisse casts a spell of enchantment that rises above the darkness of the times, elevating thematic elements of hope into that of inspiration. She is an emotional powerhouse.

The Oscar campaign needs to start now not only for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director, but also for Best Supporting Actor for Geoffrey Rush and quite honestly, I would be touting Nelisse as a Best Actress nominee. Rush is magnetic. He is grounding, he is kind, he is funny, he is caring, he is loving. He gives the film it's warmth and old world charm. The chemistry between Rush and Nelisse fills the heart and brings tears to the eye both in joy and sadness. Between the two, tissues are a mandatory viewing item. Telling as the gifted actor that Rush is, with just the minutest changes in his physical stature and movement, we see and feel his body age with time and the ravages of war, while the glint in his eye and soft smile never fade. He fuels the film with an unconditional love of Hans for Liesel. It is a gift to watch this performance.

Emily Watson adds a touch of comedic fodder with her thundercloud rumblings and again, a testament to her abilities, we see a complete emotional shift that is heartwarming and welcoming. And Watson nails the German wife of that era perfectly as Rush does the husband. The women grumble and order everyone about and the men say "yes" and go about doing whatever they were going to do anyway, but they do it with a childish glint of "getting away with something". Beautifully captured.

Ben Schnetzer delivers an intensity in Max that screams survival, and again, as with Rush and young Nico Liersch, it is the chemistry with Nelisse that soars. And let's talk about Nico Liersch. He is beyond adorable. As Rudy, he is the perfect foil for adventure and puppy love for Liesel. These two made me think of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn! A tacit loving standout performance comes from Barbara Auer as the Burgermeister's wife, Frau Ilsa Hermann. Completely unfamiliar with Auer before seeing her here, she has won me over as an actor whose work to look for. The wistful poignancy and sadness she gives to Ilsa when telling Liesel about her son and his love of books - it leaves you breathless as she speaks barely above a whisper with a faraway longing in her eyes. A very precious and dear scene and performance.

Together, screenwriter Michael Petroni and director Brian Percival streamline and/or eliminate some peripheral characters and subplots without compromising the book's essence. Staying true to the book, the film is narrated by Death, who serves as our introduction to not only Liesel in 1938, but other characters in her world, as well as aiding with the passage of time in this microcosmic look at a dark time in world history. Key is that under Percival's direction and Perconi's outstanding script, the heart takes flight and dares to dream, but it also cringes with the horror of the times as we watch madness and madmen turn the world upside down while a little girl stands strong and dares to hope, learn and grow despite all odds. The tonal contrast is distinct with Liesel and her growing vocabulary and education of life serving as life-giving connective tissue of the film. Celebrating the strength of tacit nuance, while the story may be called THE BOOK THIEF, much of the film's strength comes from reading between the lines. Never does Percival push for manufactured melodrama, but instead allows the truth of history to serve as a restrained background, focusing on raw emotion arising from the spirit and resilience of the human condition.

Retaining the narrative by Death, who describes the "soul" of each person whom he watches and takes is haunting and effective. As Death, Roger Allam's voice lulls you into a false sense of comfort, like a lullaby, tacitly reminding us that Death does come softly and quietly.

The exemplary filming locations in Berlin, Saxony and the Babelsberg Studio add immersive gravitas that transport one to the very cobblestone streets on which Liesel walks and Rudy kicks his soccer ball. To see "Heaven Street" brought to life by production designer Simon Elliott and then lensed so beautifully (yes, even greys of a smoke filled rainy sky can be beautiful) by cinematographer Florian Ballhaus is like looking at my own old family photographs of places like Bremen, Stuttgart, Munich, Dusseldorf, Pottsdam and Goslar both pre-war and post-war. The imagery that Ballhaus captures through his widescreen play of light and shadow furthers the emotion of THE BOOK THIEF, capturing the beauty that blooms amongst the ruin as neighbors and friends work together to endure, survive and even thrive. Interesting is that this is the first time since early in Ballhaus' career that the Baden-Baden native has ventured into lensing something that is part of his own heritage.

So detailed and meticulous in design and authenticity with Elliot's production design, just looking at Liesel's world becomes an almost tactile sensory experience. Within the Hubermann home, there is great warmth generated through the design of smaller intimate rooms, lower ceilings, use of warm toned woods like a honey-pine and, fittingly since Hans is a house painter, painted items, door frames, etc. The dish towels hanging over the sink made my heart stop. A popular homespun pattern of the day that dated back to the 1880's, I own towels in that very pattern which were woven by my grandmother and great-grandmother. The little coffee grinder on the wall, the hardware on cabinets, well worn wood table top, even the blackboard chalk - those little details are what make reading between the lines so important and allow Liesel, Rudy, Hans, Max and Rosa to be front and center.

A wonderful contrast to "Heaven Street" is the home of the Burgermeister. Steeped in rich dark woods from the German mountains, with perfectly apportioned decor reflecting affuence and wealth, the effect is telling and rich. The library, with the tall high windows and ceilings, brightly colored Tiffany lamps and richly textured leather bound books, makes its own metaphoric statement of the importance of words, books, and how they are treated with reverence. Nowhere else do we see such lightness and light, sunny, colorful. It's as if the books themselves give life to the room. The exterior of the Burgermeister's home has an almost ethereal feel to it with small blossoms on tall strong trees, and in winter, blanketed in a soft white snowfall. Ballhaus' Dutch lensing and upwards camera tilt with Liesel's visits to this home add much to the POV and emotional metaphor.

The drama of the town square book burning walks the fine line of emotion, evoking a hatred and disdain for the destruction of not only the books, but the spirit and intellect of the people, while filling us with hope at Liesel's questioning eyes and then brave act of actually stealing a burning book. Visually, and emotionally, the scene is flawless perfection.

Stepping away from his decades of work with Steven Spielberg, John Williams' score is lush and sweeping. Notable is the sound design which finds the delicate balance between score, bombing, sirens and dialogue. Meticulous again with attention to detail, we hear the footsteps on cobblestones, we hear the creak of the door hinge, we hear the soccer ball bounce on the stone - and then in the snow. Kudos to Glenn Freemantle and his team on the sound design.

THE BOOK THIEF steals the heart and fill the soul. Required reading. Required movie-going. Required Oscar consideration.

Directed by Brian Percival

Written by Michael Petroni based on the novel by Markus Zusak

Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nelisse, Ben Schnetzer, Nico Liersch


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