Based on the novel by Markus Zusak, “The Book Thief” follows the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl growing up with adoptive parents during the tumultuous events of the Second World War – parents who harbour a secret that threaten them all.
I read “The Book Thief” last year and I will admit that my problems with the pacing of the story affected my enjoyment of the book as a whole. Due to the film’s running time of just over two hours, I found this adaptation an easier proposition to handle.
As with the novel, although the time period and location provide the framework, it’s the characters who drive the storyline.
Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson perfectly compliment each other in the roles of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, Liesel’s adoptive parents. Rush invests warmth, reassurance and humanity in the role of Hans which is balanced by Watson’s steely yet compassionate performance in the role of Rosa. They sell the situation that they are under threat from the war that is inflicted upon them – both from the Allied bombing raids and the “Enemy Within” of the Nazi ideology which is more of a threat to the family, considering the fact that they are providing protection to the character of Max Vandenburg.
Max, portrayed by Ben Schnetzer, is slightly different to his literary counterpart in so much that not only is he not a fist-fighter, but he seems a younger and sensitive portrayal than the Max of the book. There are other differences, but I don’t want to reveal them in case people have not read the book or seen the film.
Nico Liersch embodies the role of Rudy Steiner, Liesel’s best friend and, for want of a better phrase, “the boy next door” perfectly. He captures Rudy’s playfulness, mischief and devotion to Liesel on the right side of being a cheeky young boy without straying into romantic sentimentality.
Considering that “The Book Thief” is pretty much known as “the story narrated by Death”, it was important to get the right voice for this role and Roger Allam, of “Cabin Pressure” and “Endeavour” fame, gives a vocally pitch perfect performance in the role… especially as the character isn’t seen, except as a shadow towards the end of the film. Death isn’t a “bad guy”, he’s just the embodiment of a fact of life who doesn’t take sides and Allam’s warm vocal performance portrays him as such.
But the star of the film, especially in such a fantastic cast, has to belong to Sophie Nélisse in the role of Liesel. As with the other characters in the film, Sophie’s performance as Liesel leaps from the written word, embodying all the sides of the character – the bond of an adopted family with Hans, Rosa and Max, the friendship and first love with Rudy and the impact and horror of the Nazi ideology – whether it be about books that are burned, the prospect of Max being sent to a concentration camp or the fact that her beloved Papa or Rudy can be conscripted into service. What’s more remarkable is that for a thirteen year old, she really manages to sell a seven year time period for Liesel, from 1938 to 1945, as the character moves from childhood to the first steps of adulthood.
The script by Michael Petroni, alongside Percival’s direction, gives life to Zusak’s original novel and paints a tale of the Second World War from a rarely seen point of view, certainly in the UK, of the German citizen rather than from the view of the Allied citizen or from the level of the soldier or their leadership and paints a sympathetic portrayal of a culture living within a dictatorship. That said, there are emotionally chilling scenes which have the power to shock – in particular, a scene featuring a choir of “Hitler Youth” extolling the virtues of Nazism whilst soldiers participate in the “Kristallnacht” atrocity or the scene where the bully Franz Deutscher forces Liesel and Rudy into participating in a book burning as a form of pledging allegiance.
The set design is breathtakingly beautiful and it’s difficult to believe that the buildings were a film set.
The music by John Williams acts as another character for the film adding additional weight behind all of the film.
“The Book Thief” is a solidly presented film that tells a story that will continue to resonate, no matter the time period.