Friday, November 22, 2013

Sobering ‘Book Thief’ is No Fairy Tale

Geoffrey Rush and Sophie Nelisse star in "The Book Thief."
Photo: 20th Century Fox

MOVIE REVIEW

A sleepy little film has made it into theaters with little fanfare but it really should get more attention. 20th Century Fox doesn’t seem to know how to market The Book Thief. The initial trailer made the film look more like a magical fairy tale about Pollyanna in Nazi Germany, but this is a film set during the Holocaust. The initial poster for the film is more or less a beauty shot of the film’s star, Sophie Nelisse. The more recent poster shows Nelisse being comforted by Geoffrey Rush with a pile of books burning in the background. This is a more accurate description of the film.

The Book Thief based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Markus Zusak, feels like a true story as it focuses on very real events with fictional characters. It isn’t a depressing film but it is sobering. Some critics have claimed that they thought that the film was too happy and therefore inappropriate, which makes me wonder if we watched the same film. The story is told from a little girl’s point of view which would be more open-minded and less jaded than if it were told from an adult’s point of view. Also, the adults in the film do not seem jovial or even smile, but just because they were going through hell didn’t mean that they wanted their children to go through it too.

Nelisse, looking like a young Drew Barrymore, is an excellent choice for the role of Liesel. She is just the right balance of preciousness and being fearful. Her relationship with Hans is heart-warming as he clearly only wants the best for his girl. There is no exaggerated acting either. Think Shirley Temple with a few less cubes of sugar.


In The Book Thief, Liesel (Nelisse) and her brother are sent to live with new foster parents, but her brother dies unexpectantly along the way. Liesel arrives at the house of Hans and Rosa (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) who immediately accept her as their daughter. Rosa is a no-nonsense woman accepting the child only for the money that comes with it, while Hans is instead loving and treats Liesel like the treasure she is. When Liesel is afraid and won’t come out of the car despite Rosa’s demands, Hans instead welcomes the child by saying, “Your majesty,” a term of endearment that he will use throughout the film.

Though Liesel cannot read, she “steals” a book she finds during her brother’s funeral. This is discovered by Hans and he offers to help her to read the book. He claims that he isn’t too good at reading himself, so they will have to work at it together. Liesel learns to love to read and write, but books are scarce and in some cases, forbidden.


During her stay, Liesel becomes friends with Rudy (Nico Liersch), a young boy who will do anything for the girl and won’t accept Liesel’s attempts to push him away. Later, the family welcomes a sick, young Jewish man, Max (Ben Scnetzer), into their home and is kept hidden in the basement. He is so ill that they don’t know if he will survive, but Liesel tries to comfort him by reading books to him and describes to him what the sky looks like, since all he can see is the darkness of the basement. Though not a Christmas movie, the film’s best scene is of the family’s little celebration of the holiday in the dark basement.

The film eerily depicts smiling children being devoted to their country with the backdrop showing the evils of Hitler’s influence. Jewish neighbors are beaten in the streets and others are recruited for the war. Through it all, the movie is uplifting but with a bittersweet ending.

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