Most children start off their reading careers with books like The Tiger who came to Tea or Dinosaurs love Underpants. The deprivation which young Liesel suffers in nazi Germany in The Book Thief is illustrated by the title of the only book she has to help her learn to read – The Gravedigger’s Handbook. A best-seller on Amazon it would not be – unlike the novel by Markus Zusak on which The Book Thief is based, which was on The New York Times Best Seller List for over a staggering 230 weeks.
Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson are the big names in this Brian Percival directed film, but the star is Sophie Nelisse. She plays Liesel, a girl of nine or ten who is taken from her communist mother in 1938 and handed over to adoptive parents Hans and Rosa (Rush and Watson).
The film focuses on Liesel’s experiences during the war, whether interacting with her new parents or with bullies at school. Nelisse plays Liesel with a vacant innocence that conveys the child’s uncertainty. She is paired well with blond Nico Liersch who portrays local classmate Rudy, a keen athlete who is punished for his admiration of black sprinter Jesse Owens. Despite Liesel seemingly having learned how to win running races from Catherine in Jules et Jim she and Rudy become friends. The contrast between the children’s friendship and the cruelty of nazism should be stark, but the opening images of the film are all steam engines shot from helicopters and snow-laden landscapes. It gives an attractive view of late Thirties Germany as somewhere that looks very pleasant to visit. It came as a shock when the script described Liesel as looking unfed and unwashed. To me she looked like a young girl you might see bouncing home from school today.
The sets are beautifully recreated, to the extent that they seem too perfect. Even when war is declared in 1939 (I don’t think that’s giving too much away – if it is you’ve got a lot of history to read up on) the surroundings remain good-looking. There are instances of relative squalor, but this filmic squalor is not squalor at all. Even the cellars are well-dressed, as are the characters. The clothes may be drab, but though there is talk of poverty and cutting down on meals there is no visual evidence of this. We see a man supposedly so ill and famished he can’t keep down a thin broth, but physically he looks as right as rain and no more malnourished than an F1 driver trying to make the weight.
The thieving of books that the title hints at is only a small part of the film, and to be honest the word Thief is taking things too far. Are you stealing when you rescue a volume from a book-burning bonfire? Liesel’s love of language, learning and books in the midst of her difficulties shows the importance of imagination and how hope can thrive in the darkest situations. Books are her link to other people, through them she makes friends and deepens the bond with her adoptive father.
The film’s delicately muted palette of colours is attractive and the shots are aesthetically pleasing – more so than a story set in the horrors of WWII deserves to be. Kristallnacht is chillingly shown to the strains of a children’s choir but this is a world of brand-new nazi flags and shiny Hitler Youth uniforms. We are in the company of Germans who are trying to survive and have little interest in the broader picture. Hans and Rosa’s difficult relationship is a bigger part of Liesel’s life than any nazi actions – even when the persecution of Jews comes close to home we are shown everything from a child’s perspective – a fearlessness born of not understanding.
Any film set in nazi Germany will have a natural built in tension at a macro-level, but the plot of The Book Thief does not develop quickly and there are long periods in the middle of the film when not much happens. It might be being child-friendly, but even so the nazi horrors are not horrible enough. There is not enough fear, no sense of the genocidal madness that is taking place – when a group of Jews are paraded down the street it’s just a group of people walking down a street.
The Book Thief is a story with a nazi setting rather than a story about life under the nazis, and to ask it to better emphasize how awful those times were is to try to change the film’s aim. It makes a good introduction to the period, with an attractive cast and a tale about the importance of friends and free thinking. However by avoiding the savagery of WWII it leaves younger viewers needing more information to get a fuller picture of why the free world fought nazi Germany.
As entertainment with a dash of historical education The Book Thief will interest children and maybe get them to open a book again. After all, it’s easier to get hold of books nowadays than when Liesel was a girl.