“The Book Thief”: A Nickell-odeon Review

December 18, 2013

Based on the book of the same title (the very popular novel for young adults by Markus Zusak), The Book Thief is as endearing a story as seems possible given its setting in Nazi Germany.

The heroine is a girl named Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) whose mother, a communist fugitive, gives her up to foster parents, Rosa (Emily Watson) and Hans Hubermann (the great actor Geoffrey Rush). Liesel’s new mother is at first forbidding, although her heart warms during the tale, but Hans is a most wonderful father from the start. When Liesel arrives at their village home—alone, apprehensive, and understandably withdrawn—Hans’ playful sweeping bow, with the address “your majesty,” wins a smile from his new princess.

When her schoolmates taunt her for her inability to read, Hans teaches her, and creates upon the walls of their basement a beginning “dictionary” where they post select words in chalk. They begin with a book she has brought with her, it having belonged to her brother who died en route. She secretly salvages another from the smoldering heap left from a public Nazi bookburning (a copy of The Invisible Man by socialist H.G. Wells), and soon she becomes a veritable cat burglar, filching volumes from the estate of the unhappy burgermeister whose wife has kept their late son’s marvelous library.

Liesel has a motive that justifies her crimes. Max, a young Jew whose father had saved Hans’ life in the previous war, has sought refuge from the Nazis and is secreted in the family’s basement. When Max becomes seriously ill, Liesel patiently reads to him the stolen words—and the “dictionary” becomes even more poignantly a living book. Meanwhile, Liesel struggles to keep the secret of Max—even from Rudy, a boy of her own age who waits outside her door like a puppy.

Now, reviewer Stephen Holden of the New York Times (Nov. 7, 2013) faults the film, “which observes traumatic historical events through Liesel’s eyes,” and so “looks and tastes like a giant sugarcake whose saccharinity largely camouflages the horrors of war.” However, the operative phrase is “though Liesel’s eyes,” and she does see much.

There is a scene of Kristallnacht (the “night of [broken] glass” in 1938 when Nazi militia launched a concerted attack on Jews), a scene of basements being searched (that is breathtaking, because of Max’s lodgment, and seems an eternity), another scene of Jews being herded through the streets (to their doom, Liesel understands, as she frantically moves through them looking for her now lost friend, only to be brutally thrown back by guards), and still others—disruptive conscriptions, including that of beloved Hans, with horrors of war yet to come, probably greater than Liesel had ever allowed herself to imagine.

I doubt that many viewers needed to see more horror—themselves understanding what lay beyond Liesel’s view. What most filmgoers saw, I’ll wager, was not what reviewer Holden called “a shameless piece of Oscar-seeking Holocaust kitsch.” Indeed, I find his review a shameless piece of grandstanding that reduces the Holocaust to a critical criterion.

The Book Thief is a story of genuine human, humanist, and humanitarian values. It is not a perfect film (the occasional voice-over narration by “Death” is a too-literary contrivance, for example), but there is very much to praise, starting with Sophie Nélisse’s bringing Liesel to life.

Rating: Three and a half wooden nickels (out of four)

Three and a half Nickels