Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Book Thief

After a healthy dose of family, food and football, I thought what better way to work off my turkey-induced haze than with a great movie and a bucket of popcorn. I came home from Connecticut late Friday night and Saturday morning after a brief round of house cleaning and a visit to the library, I headed off to a matinee screening of The Book Thief, a film adaptation of Markus Zusak's best-selling young adult novel of the same name which stars Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush.

Set in Nazi Germany leading up to and during World War II, we first meet Liesel in 1938 while she's en route with her mother and young brother to the foster parents which will care for the two children. Her sickly brother passes away on the train and never makes it to his destination, so Liesel arrives alone to meet Rosa (Watson) and Hans (Rush) Hubermann. Rosa is a brusque hard woman whom Liesel later describes as constantly rumbling like thunder, while Hans is a sweet and charming man who gently befriends the skittish girl. Sent off to school, Liesel is quickly befriended by Rudy, a sweet boy instantly enamored with his new neighbor, and mocked by the school bully Franz when its revealed in class that she is illiterate. When Hans questions Liesel's ownership of a book that she's holding in bed, "The Gravedigger's Handbook," she confesses that the book wasn't always hers and that she in fact can't read. Kindhearted Hans graciously offers to teach her to read, going so far as to create a blackboard dictionary on his basement walls so that young Liesel can write all the new words read and learned.

As the war draws near, Liesel is adjusting to her new home and parents, when while attending a Nazi rally she witnesses a book burning and at its end, when the streets are seemingly deserted, she rescues a burning book; an act witnessed by Frau Hermann, the Bürgermeister's (equivalent of a mayor) wife, who employs Rosa for laundry service and whom Liesel later befriends during a laundry delivery when the grieving mother lets her read books from the personal library of the son which she lost during World War I. By the war's onset, provisions for the Hubermann family are scarce and the situation becomes even more dire and dangerous when Rosa and Hans begin hiding Max, a Jewish refugee and the son of the war comrade that saved Hans' life during the war and whom he swore help to if it was ever needed. A witness to her parents act of honor, Liesel is sworn to secrecy, even from her best friend Rudy. Enchanted by the newcomer, Liesel befriends Max even caring for him during an illness and stealing books from Frau Hermann's library to read (hence the book thief title) in hopes of reaching him through the healing power of words. Living through the horrors and deprivations of war, Liesel and the Hubermanns bravely face the dangers wrought by a simple act of humanity which will change their lives forever.

I loved this movie; it was equal parts sweet, poignant and heartbreaking. I will readily admit that I was a hot mess by the time I walked out of that theater, and to make matters worse I didn't have even one lousy sheet of Kleenex. The movie doesn't break any new ground in its depiction of the injustices of war and in particular the Holocaust, but it does offer a different viewpoint as the events are seen through the innocent eyes of a child, and in this case, a German child. Another interesting aspect of the movie, which was also part of the novel, is the fact that the tale is narrated by Death; scattered throughout the film, the narrator's insightful words of wisdom on our human frailties strikes a chord of truth and makes the story of this courageous girl and her adoptive family even more compelling.

Not having read the book, I can't speak to how true the film was to the book's narrative and its characters, but to my estimation the film had perfect casting. Geoffrey Rush was kindness and gentleness personified in his portrayal of the honorable Hans Hubermann. He speaks his lines softly, almost meekly, but you are never left in doubt as to the strength of his character's convictions. Emily Watson was brilliant as Rosa, for while she could've easily become a caricature of an evil stepmother or in this case a foster mother, she tempers her harsh words with a small, almost shy smile and in that simple gesture you see that while kind words don't come as easily to her, the love is still there just hiding behind a gruff exterior. While Sophie Nélisse does a wonderful job in her portrayal of Liesel, I thought Nico Liersch as the lovelorn Rudy was the true standout of the child stars.

This film was a truly moving story of life, love and loss, which will both haunt and inspire you. It earnestly and simply reminds us of the fragility of life, the futility of war, and the power of one small act of kindness, and through Liesel and the Hubermanns helps us to also see that there are innocents on both sides of war.