The Book Thief
Posted November 27, 2013 by Daniel Hodgson in
The Book Thief has its heart in the right place. No one should be persecuted because they look, act, or believe differently, and this film knows that. It’s something even a child can understand. Morality is simple. People, however, are another story.
This story is about a nine-year-old German girl named Liesel. Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) adopt the young girl because her mother was a communist fleeing from the Nazi regime. The other children at school taunt Liesel because she’s illiterate, but Rudy (Nico Liersch), a boy roughly Liesel’s age, takes a liking to her, and the two become fast friends, often running through the little village together after school.
Hans discovers a book among Liesel’s things, a book that is not likely her own. Rather than punishing her for the theft or taking it away, Hans teaches Liesel how to read, and Liesel discovers a voracious appetite for words and learning.
Soon after, the Hubermann’s take in another guest, Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jewish refugee. Hans feels honor-bound to hide him from the Nazis, owing a debt to Max’s father, who had sacrificed his life to save Hans in The Great War.
To the film’s credit, there are a few surprises in The Book Thief. Scenes don’t always go the way you think they will, such as when Ilsa Hermann (Barbara Auer), the local prefect’s wife, catches Liesel recovering a banned book from a bonfire after a rally. The two meet again later when Liesel delivers her laundry to her, and rather than turning the girl in, she welcomes the child into her home to read from her personal library.
There’s more to Rosa as well. “She’s like a thundercloud, always rumbling,” Liesel says of the grouchy matriarch, who is initially hostile to Liesel, and reluctant to shelter Max. But there is a vulnerable side to her that she won’t let anyone see, and she slowly comes to cares for both of them. Rosa was easily my favorite character in the film, the most lifelike.
Death itself (voiced by Roger Allam) is a character in the film, a narrator who observes that humanity has the capacity to be good or evil. The film makes a valid point here, however, the same can be said of the individual. Moreover, someone can be a bit of both—or neither. People aren’t necessarily as altruistic as the Hubermanns, or as malicious and brutal as the Nazi soldiers depicted in the film. They’re simply doing what’s right for themselves, not trying to hurt anyone, but not really helping anyone else either.
That is what The Book Thief rarely depicts. It’s heavily melodramatic, having characters that are either “good” or “bad.” Consequently, many characters don’t come to life as real people, despite strong performances. I do appreciate that the characters are doing the right thing, but what the story has in morality, it lacks in human complexity.
Still, I also appreciated the film’s depiction of the resiliency of the human spirit. Even as the Nazi’s strip away the humanity of many of the German people, the children still find joy and laughter in playing in the streets. During an Allied air raid, Hans plays his accordion while the villagers hide in a shelter. The music lifts everyone’s mood. The Book Thief manages a surprisingly light tone, with several humorous scenes, particularly between Hans and Rosa, while still respecting the gravity of that moment in history. It’s shot beautifully, it’s handsomely produced—it’s a decent film, perfectly innocuous, and most importantly, it has a good heart, but it needs more compelling characters to be more than that.