Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hour 13 min.
Our Advisories: Violence 4; Language -1; Sex/Nudity –1.
Our star rating(1-5): 4
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand;
do not forget the oppressed.
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
Disregard any of the negative reviews claiming we do not need another Holocaust film or that the story is too maudlin and sentimental. Such Grinches and Scrooges, had they been living in Victorian times probably would have leveled the last criticism against Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. For the un-jaded, including those like myself who love the book about a girl in World War II Germany, director Brian Percival and screenwriter Michael Petroni’s film will be a delight, though still open to criticism for what is left out, as I will point out later.
The first book that the 9 year-old Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) steals is The Grave Digger’s Handbook, which falls out of the pocket of a young man helping dig the grave for her young brother Werner. He had died on the train before her mother could reach the little town of Molching, not far from Munich. Liesel’s father had disappeared courtesy of the Gestapo, and her mother, fearing the same fate because of their communist alleged affiliation, is turning her over to foster parents for safekeeping. (This later proves to be a wise move.)
When the World War I veteran Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his cranky wife Rosa (Emily Watson) greet the social worker bringing Liesel to them, the girl is reluctant to emerge from the car. Hans warms things up by humorously calling her “Your Majesty,” thus luring her sanctuary. It takes a longer time for her to warm up to Rosa, but the good heart beating beneath the woman’s stern exterior is soon apparent to her.
At school Liesel is humiliated by the teacher when it is apparent that the girl cannot read. On the playground neighbor Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch) defends Liesel. He himself is an outsider because he wants both to run and look like the “the fastest man in the world,” the African American runner Jessie Owens, whose victories enraged Hitler at the Berlin Olympics. However, as she proves by beating up a tormentor, she can stand on her own pretty well. The children might continue to regard her as “dummkopf,” but will not dare to call her that to her face.
Hans, discovering the small book Liesel has hidden, takes on the chore of teaching her by means of painting almost foot-high letters of the alphabet around the walls of their cellar. Beneath each letter Liesel prints the new words she is learning, thus creating a giant dictionary. Hans also sits by her bedside many a night when she is wracked with the nightmares induced by the fate of her parents and little brother.
Liesel’s second “stolen” book is retrieved from the bonfire that the townspeople have formed in the village square in honor of Hitler’s birthday. After a speech by the town Burgomaster Hermann (Rainer Bock) in which he recommends that Communists be killed, the assembled townspeople cheer as the huge mound of books are set afire, the Hubermanns joining in reluctantly. Liesel remains as the crowd disperses, and when she sees a smoldering book largely intact, she snatches it up and hides it beneath her coat. Sitting in a parked car awaiting her husband, Ilse (Barbara Aue) sees the furtive act.
On the way home Hans is alarmed when he discovers what his foster daughter has done, but he does not throw the book away, instead, making sure that it is no longer smoldering, he hides it beneath his own coat. (The screenwriter has changed the title of the book, which we will see later, is an inspired and appropriate one.) From this incident and that of the Kristallnacht when goons smash the shop windows and beat up their Jewish owners, Liesel comes to an awareness that Hitler is responsible for her parents’ disappearance, as well as for the intolerance of Jews. Hans sternly warns her never to say anything against Hitler in public, but later, when she and Rudi are alone in the countryside, both of them yell out loudly “I hate Hitler!”
The film’s other central character Max Vanderberg (Ben Schnetzer) is introduced to us as he is parting reluctantly from his mother in another city because of the impending Nazi’s roundup of Jews. He is accepted into the Hubermann household because of a promise that Hans had made with Max’s father during the First World War. The older Vanderberg had taught Hans to play the accordion, and more importantly, had saved his life. Surprisingly, Rosa, rather than objecting to the problems that hiding a Jew will entail, agrees that such a promise must be kept. Thus begins Liesel’s rich friendship with the young man, who also loves books. When he is ill Liesel reads to him from the book she has rescued, the title being H.G. Well’s The Invisible Man, the irony being that Max himself must now remain invisible if he is to survive.
The Mayor’s wife Ilse also emerges more from the background, as it is to her house that Liesel takes the laundry that her mother does each week to supplement the family income. Hans is finding it increasingly difficult to obtain work as a sign painter because of his refusal to join the Nazi party, so her earnings have become important for them to feed what has grown to be four mouths. During all this time Max feels an increasing guilt at becoming such a burden on the family.
Recognizing Liesel as the girl who had taken a book from the bonfire, Ilse invites her visitor to come into the family library. The girl gazes with wide-eyed wonder at the book-lined walls towering above her. Running her fingers gently over the spines, she takes out one of the volumes, and sits down to read. This will be repeated over the weeks, with Ilse revealing that the books had belonged to her son, now dead. Then comes the day when the Burgomaster discovers Liesel in the library and orders her out, never to return. He cuts off her mother’s laundry job as well.
There are too many good scenes that leave us thinking and admiring the film to describe in detail, but here are a few in brief:
-Liesel becoming the eyes of the basement bound Max, describing the sky and sun to him, and his showing her the power of words, saying that now he can see them.
-She importing the outdoors to him during the Christmas season by bringing in buckets of snow so that they can build a snowman, and then engage in a snowball fight. Even Rosa, hearing the playful noise downstairs, comes down and joins in the fun.
-The Christmas scene, in which Max, having white-washed the pages of the book Hans had sent to him with the key to their house, makes it a present for Liesel as he tells her that she must write. The delicious irony of the book is that, as we can see from Max’s brushing over the portrait of Hitler, it was a copy of dictator’s Mein Kampf.
–Hans’ going up to a neighbor who is being arrested for being a Jew and telling the Gestapo agent that he knows this is “a good man,” the result being that the officer demands to know his name. The sad and ironical result of his good-hearted act unfolds: now fearing that his home will be searched and Max found (there had been a narrow escape earlier), he has to send his guest off into the night to an uncertain fate.
-Liesel discovering anew the power of words when she recites aloud in a bomb shelter a book she had memorized. This calms the frightened villagers, arousing an appreciation among them for this remarkable little girl.
Just how destructive and heart breaking the Allied bombing raids are we will see late in the film. Neither the book nor the film dwells on the Allies’ willful policy of bombing civilians in order to destroy German morale. According to a report of its city council, upwards of twenty-five thousand civilians were burnt or suffocated to death during the night-time fire bombing of Dresden early in 1945. (Author Kurt Vonnegut was a POW in that city during the air raid and included an account of it in his novel Slaughter House Five.) Whereas the Allies, including President Roosevelt had condemned the Nazi’s tactics of massive bombing of Polish and Dutch cities at the beginning of the war, by 1944 they had adopted them, “improving” on them by using a mixture of incendiary and high explosive bombs calculated both to destroy, burn, and remove the oxygen from the air so that the victims escaping being blown up could not breathe.
The theme that is developed is that of the power of words, of our need to master them, increasing our ability to affect others. Briefly shown in a negative sense, it is Hitler’s speeches, full of hateful words, that inflame the prejudices of ordinary Germans into hating and destroying their Jewish neighbors. In one scene the Hitler Youth bully rejoices that Germany is going to war with Great Britain, with no thought of the slaughter this will bring on. In the good sense the power of words is seen in Liesel’s enabling Max to “see” the beauty of the day outside from which he has been shut in for several months. He encourages her to become a writer. Words, organized into stories, connect her with Ilse and the fellow villagers seeking shelter from the Allied bombs bursting outside, allowing them to set aside their fears for a few hours.
The narration by Death (Roger Allam) is a bit of an intrusion, more acceptable in the novel. Too bad this could have been dropped, and the book that Max wrote and illustrated for Liesel have been incorporated instead so that we would have more of an appreciation of Max and his talent. Cutting the incidents in which Liesel and Rudi join a gang stealing apples and potatoes from a farmer to sell and to supplement their meager diets is understandable, but dropping Max’s book The Standover Man in which he chronicles his life leaves those not having read the novel a bit poorer as to understanding this remarkable young man who wants to rise above the status of being a helpless victim, (Come to think of it, it was two books. He also left to Liesel his The Word Shaker which, among various writings, included a story in which Liesel uses words for good, and not for evil Like Hitler.)
The film is a warm testimony that though outright rebellion against Hitler was suicidal, there were still some Germans who were not taken in by him. Their acts of resistance were very small, so tiny that they would not register on a political scale, but nonetheless did take place—and in the case of Hans and Rosa’s hiding Max, life-saving. Although written for a young adult audience The Book Thief will inspire all ages. It is one of those films “not to be missed”!
The full review with discussion questions will be included in the January 2014 issue of Visual Parables, scheduled for posting early that month. To subscribe to the publication go to the Store. A year’s subscription will gain you access not just to this issue (which has far more features in it than just film reviews and guides), but also to issues as far back as Summer 2006.