“The Book Thief” Makes For an Enjoyable Trip
To the Theater
2013 has seen endless variations on the coming-of-age film. From the rural adventures of Mud to the teen angst of The Spectacular Now to the “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” themes of The Way, Way Back, movie audiences have been treated this year to a survey of what it means to grow up in modern America. The Book Thief, a new film based on the best-selling novel by Markus Zusak, switches gears and takes us to Nazi Germany for a look at the lives of young adults living in the ever-expanding shadow of Der Fuhrer.
At the opening of the film, Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) is placed in the care of two foster parents, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson), when her little brother dies and her mother is unable to provide for her. Behind on her academics and unable to read, Liesel immerses herself in reading lessons with Hans. With intellectual property under the control of the Nazi Party and public book-burnings a common occurrence, Liesel begins to “borrow” books from the home of the local Buergmeister to further her education and escape the fears and turmoil of World War II in its pages.
Along the way, Liesel befriends Rudy (Nico Liersch), a schoolboy and local track star who is the picture of the perfect Aryan yet doesn’t know what that means for his future. As an army is being drafted and Nazi rule tightens, Max (Ben Schnetzer), the Jewish son of Hans’ close friend, comes to live in Liesel’s home. Hiding in the basement, Max listens to Liesel read to him from her stolen books as they wait for the war to end.
Although that brief plot summary alternately generates mental images of sappy Hallmark films or brutal movies about the persecution of Jews, The Book Thief is neither. For the majority of its running time, the film avoids crossing the line into sentimentality and melodrama and instead focuses on the lives of its small cast of characters. It’s a breath of fresh air to find a film set during the Holocaust, and not have that tragedy take center stage. The Holocaust and Nazi oppression are not the points of the film. They are simply the backdrop against which Liesel, Rudy and Max are living out their youth.
Films like The Book Thief have a tendency toward broad characterizations and stereotypes. We usually find a cast populated by noble Jews, evil Nazis, back-stabbing sympathizing neighbors and school bullies. Instead, The Book Thief gives us the wife of the local Buergmeister who reaches across class lines and social strata to befriend Liesel because she is still mourning the death of her own son. And then there’s Rudy, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed teenaged track star who doesn’t understand the Nazi Party’s interest in him as a soldier or piece of propaganda. He simply likes to run. The humanity of these smaller characters enrich the film and increase the believability of what we are seeing.
The performances are solid. Geoffrey Rush is his usual charming self, but we’ve seen him play versions of this character before. Emily Watson is especially good as a stern foster mother who must keep a home running in the economically-challenging time of war. However, the stand-out performance of the film belongs to Sophie Nelisse as Liesel. A coming-of-age film is only as good as its young cast, and the audience becomes invested in the adventures of this adolescent book thief thanks to the work of the young Canadian actress.
Is The Book Thief a great film? No. But every film can’t be the best movie you’ve ever seen. Audiences spend the majority of their time seeing movies that range from “okay” to “really good”. There are some truly bad movies out there right now (like Spike Lee’s remake of Oldboy and Vince Vaughan’s Delivery Man), and there are some excellent movies out there right now (like 12 Years a Slave and Gravity), but the majority of the choices at the local multiplex this time of year are simply “good”. The Book Thief is better than average which makes it worth your time.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.