Cinema borrows from literary works often yet rarely returns the favor. Movies rarely give back. Once in a while though a movie comes along that pays tribute to the power of words and the transformative nature of reading. “The Book Thief” is one such movie.
It’s a very self-contained, emotional story about (mostly) good people in evil times and how one copes with a raging tyranny the individual can do little about. It’s also one of the few American World War II films that takes a German point of view albeit of people who played no role in the Third Reich and who are carefully portrayed as victims of the Nazi Party.
Although the film is narrowly focused in its historical portrayal, its ambitions are epic, tackling subjects ranging from the resiliency of the human spirit to, as I said, a heart-felt tribute to the power of storytelling.
Michael Petroni bases his screenplay on a novel by Australian author Markus Zusak, first published in 2005, which went on to become the kind of international bestseller that attracts Hollywood.
This means a few compromises in the telling of a German-based story. These include the film’s English language and fake accents the cast must adopt to match the accents of its German actors plus the sets that give the film a “backlot” look.
So “The Book Thief” does feel less authentic than a German film might have but when was the last time a German film got decent distribution in North America? You can’t blame Fox for wanting to make a film for an international audience.
The story ranges from pre- to post-war Germany and even briefly New York in recent times. But mostly this is a simple story of a young girl, Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), who is given up by her birth mother to live with foster parents in the German town of Molching, which is completely alien to the sensitive adolescent.
These new parents are the kindly housepainter Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his shrewish wife Rosa (Emily Watson). In 1938, the Depression still rages in Germany so times are hard. You’re given to understand the Hubermanns only took in the girl for a government stipend that comes with her.
Liesel, still in shock over the tragic death of her younger brother while en route to Molching, likes almost nothing about her new home on Himmel Street (a little irony since that means Heaven Street in German).
She only likes her new “papa” because he addresses her as “your majesty.” But she dislikes her new mother and hates her school where she is ridiculed for not being able to read. She even takes a while to warm up to a young neighbor and schoolmate, Rudy (Nico Liersch), who clearly has a crush on her.
For someone illiterate, she came to Himmel Street with an unusual possession: It’s a book and, odder still, it’s “The Gravedigger’s Handbook,” which she impulsively picked up following her brother’s graveside funeral. To help her learn to read, Hans begins to read through this book with her.
Thus the movie establishes the twin themes of Liesel’s life — a passion for reading and a propensity to “borrow” books from others.
Papa then creates a unique dictionary for her made up of words encountered while reading. For he paints columns of these words and their definitions on their home’s basement walls.
Soon enough though that dank basement has another purpose: A Jewish refugee named Max (Ben Schnetzer), whose father once saved Hans’ life, comes to the home in the dead of night and for many months hides from the Nazis there.
He does share Liesel’s passion for books, however, so now she has someone new to talk to about this shared secret. The few books in the home do feel as much a secret as the hidden guest because this is the time of Nazi book burnings, one of which takes place one night in the town square.
Thus the movie continues on through the war, emphasizing these key relationships in the young woman’s life — her foster parents, Rudy, Max and eventually Ilsa (Barbara Auer), the Burgermeister’s wife, who in spite of the mayor encourages her reading habit.
The story comes with narration by Death (voiced by English actor Roger Allam). This is a holdover from the novel. He maintains a sympathetic view of humanity despite this being such a busy time for him with the war and all.
Death begins the story by saying that while he keeps his distance from humans he was unusually touched by Liesel. He follows her story and ends with the notion that “I am haunted by humans.”
As often happens when a movie is adapted from a lengthy literary source, some events and characters never get enough time to develop as they no doubt did in the novel. The situation with the mayor’s wife and the relationship between Liesel and Max feel skimpy. One senses missing elements.
For that matter, the movie reflects a TV sensibility. In keeping with his work on the popular British television series “Downton Abby,” director Brian Percival sticks with what got him to the party — historical fiction with a small screen design.
The look of this film settles for a generic German with a paucity of sets (no doubt due to financial constraints) and a hard focus on a few key characters. Percival has little visual style but he gets the story told with appealing actors at the center.
Nélisse, the young star of the Oscar-nominated Canadian film “Monsieur Lazhar,” demonstrates her ability to command the screen in a role that carries the brunt of the story.
In fact, she seems to absorb the story as it goes along, being its key player and observer. This is her point of view, her memory of those dark days that also gave her the great gift of reading.
Rush lends a rumpled comfort to the role of the housepainter with the constant companion an old accordion he plays in the darkest hours. He is the warm center of the film, radiating a rare optimism in such excruciatingly harsh times.
Watson plays his exact opposite, a nag who gives any affection as grudgingly as she can. You know that she will turn out to harbor a good heart, but Watson does a fine job in disguising this until the last possible moment.
Schnetzer has little to work with since in the movie at least its token Jew has an everyman quality that renders him ill-defined as a human being. He is there to suffer and in residing hidden in the basement becomes a constant reminder of the dangers to Germans who do the right thing.
Liersch, on the other hand, nicely individualizes Liesel’s young neighbor, a cheerful lad seldom without his soccer ball. He brings lightness and comedy into the story, qualities which it so desperately needs.
The novelist says he was inspired by stories told by Australian emigre parents about growing up under the Nazi regime in Germany and Austria. So “The Book Thief” has the quality of stories told and retold; it has a contemporary perspective even as it tells stories from the tragic past.
It is, after all, a narration by Death himself. And the movie is indeed haunted by its humans and their amazing capacity to write, read and tell stories.
Opens: November 8, 2013 (20th Century Fox)
Production companies: Fox 2000 and 20th Century Fox
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nélisse, Ben Schnetzer, Nico Liersch, Barbara Auer, Rainer Bock, Oliver Stokowski, Matthias Matschke, Heike Makatsch
Director: Brian Percival
Screenwriter: Michael Petroni
Based on the novel by: Marcus Zusak
Producers: Karen Rosenfelt, Ken Blancato
Director of photography: Florian Ballhaus
Production designer: Simon Elliott
Music: John Williams
Costume designer: Ana B. Sheppard
Editor: John Wilson
PG-13 rating, 131 minutes