A thief in the light
A compelling, but uneven adaptation of the beloved book yields a brightly shining life at its heart.
IT IS a tragedy often repeated throughout history, where certain books are condemned outright without a single page being turned. Worse than mere condemnation are the book burnings in the name of maintaining intellectual or moral purity, like what happened in Nazi Germany (an event recreated in this film); or burnings that are threatened, as recently happened here.
How sad that books – those innocuous-seeming, yet “dangerous” bricks of pulp and cloth, repositories of ideas and insights, philosophies and faith, amazing journeys to wondrous realms – are frequently made scapegoats to validate fear and ignorance, or to advance a perfidious political agenda.
Held in their proper regard, however, books can be gateways, stepping stones to enlightenment, and even lifelines.
For the young protagonist of this grim, but hopeful tale, set in Nazi Germany in the pre-war and war years, books are all that and more.
When we meet young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), she is on her way to be given over to a foster family. Her little brother has just died. A book falls out of the gravedigger’s jacket and she steals it.
Then we learn that she is actually illiterate, yet the allure of books is not lost on her even then. Soon after being “delivered” to her foster family – the Hubermanns, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) – she starts learning to read, bonding with the kindly Hans as he teaches her.
There is so much more to The Book Thief, based on the multiple-award-winning novel by Australian writer Markus Zusak, than simply Liesel’s passage to literacy. For one thing, the tale is narrated by Death (Roger Allam), and it takes place during a particularly busy time for him. Movies narrated by dead people, sure; but it’s not every day the Reaper himself stops to tell a tale.
Which makes you wonder, why Liesel is so special (we’ll soon find out) and at just what point in her life Liesel is going to get her final visit from him (ditto). There is some foreshadowing in the narration, involving various characters – including a young Jewish man named Max (Ben Schnetzer) whom the Hubermanns hide in their basement – but you’ll be surprised more than once at the fate of its characters.
The grim (ahem) finality associated with its narrator aside, The Book Thief is also a story of friendship, compassion, defiance and of ordinary people struggling to survive in terrible times surrounded by hardship, crippling fear and paranoia. Families are torn apart when fathers and sons are conscripted into service; those exposed as Jews in their midst are shown no mercy, and standing up for your neighbour can invite a whole lot of trouble to your doorstep.
And as Liesel makes her way along this minefield of a path, stopping now and then to savour the isolated pockets of joy and beauty that people have a knack for picking out amidst such dire circumstances, her simple journey takes on the air of a much more momentous one.
Some things about The Book Thief keep it from being a wholly satisfying film. The pacing is leisurely and seldom picks up, and the emotional level remains somewhat flat throughout, even when we are supposed to be drawn into Liesel’s discovery of the many wonders between the covers of her books or to recoil from the violence of Kristallnacht.
Yet its characters constantly shine through, despite the occasional sense of detachment you get from Brian Percival’s directing: the mature-beyond-her-years Liesel, who has not forgotten the simple joys of childhood; her best friend Rudy (Nico Liersch), the boy with hair the colour of lemons who idolises (the highly politically incorrect, for those times) Jesse Owens; her compassionate foster father Hans; and even Rosa, the lady “cloaked with thunder” whose bluster hides a big heart.
Nélisse especially is quite the revelation in this film, holding her own alongside a veteran like Rush, capturing the moments where Liesel displays a wisdom that belies her years just as deftly as she does the exuberance of Liesel’s childhood escapades.
In one scene, Hans is lamenting the seeming pointlessness of their struggle, of standing up for one another and offering help and support without thought of what it may cost them: “I’m not sure what it all meant. Everything he (Max) went through. Everything we did.”
“We were just being people. That’s what people do,” replies Liesel, a sign of how the initially withdrawn child with abandonment issues has accepted the realities of life without being beaten down by them.
Whatever issues lovers of the original novel may have with the film adaptation, the latter’s realisation of its central character as a wonderful, luminous being – one that you can indeed appreciate as being worthy of Death’s “interest” – is a triumph.