I always feel somewhat inadequate writing about movies with a massive understanding of their place and time. Perhaps it’s an inferiority complex I carry around with me, questioning my own ability to pass judgement (such as it is) on a subject I am never going to fully appreciate and, if we’re honest, have no right to pass comment on whatsoever. How very dare I sit, critically finger-pointing, at something that I have absolutely no comprehension of? It’s like asking my ten-year-old to judge figure skating at the winter olympics.
Okay, well perhaps that example is a tad extreme, but you get my drift. The Book Thief is a marvellous film, of that there is little argument, but can the likes of us mere coddled first-world mortals that were fortunate enough not to have to live through the proceedings elegantly presented here even hope to retain even the dimmest glimmer of credibility when trying to accurately sum them up?
Well, let’s have a go…
Approaching the all round general unpleasantness of the second world war in film is never an easy task, as it still holds a massive amount of importance to many, and rightly so. You need to be on your game, as events touched millions of people so radically that any apparent sign of disrespect, be it by a lackadaisical approach to storytelling or maybe an ambivalent nonchalance to the feelings of an audience most likely highly invested in its telling, would speak volumes about not only a lack of attention, but also cinema’s duty of care to remember not only those featured, but all of those that go unmentioned.
Unusually, the story we are told here is from a perspective less viewed. This is the story, predominantly, of a young german girl, Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) separated from her mother and tragically from her brother shortly before the onset of war. The reasons for their estrangement are never conclusively revealed, but it is hinted on occasion that her mother was rumbled for being a communist and subsequently disappeared with the shadowy aid of Hitler’s minions. Liesel is adopted by the Hubermans, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). Hans is an unemployed and aging accordion player with an honest heart and a caring soul. Rosa does other people’s laundry to make ends meet, has a sharp tongue and little patience. She makes no secret that adopting Liesel was for financial gain, due to the allowance provided by the government for such care.
And it is here that we spend most of the running time, as Liesel is introduced to education. She learns to read, aided buy the loving Hans, who creates an opportunity for her to create her own dictionary of words on the walls of their basement. Liesel, initially fearing her new surroundings becomes more comfortable, makes friends (and the odd enemy) and integrates herself into this little town with as few ripples as possible.
She strikes up relationships easily as her happiness expands and the audience cannot help but smile as this sweet, radiant child begins to enjoy life for what seems like the first time. And then, without warning, Percival will have our lead dressed in the uniform of what has become a symbol of hatred and fear, singing songs praising the Fuhrer. This comes, of course, out of a childhood innocence and a over-riding sense of impending fear of speaking out, but the innocent vision turned mindless, wanton evil, even defended by ignorance is often a jarring juxtaposition for the audience to deal with. When the war inevitably arrives, then we are afforded the trials that come with a nation under siege. Normally, our English speaking souls would be watching the valiant endeavours of our brave soldiers fighting against the evil Reich, but here, the war is a bit player that does not feature as much as it might. There are air-raids and conscription, not to mention a fair degree of destruction and death, but for a young girl, this is as an accurate representation of her experiences of wartime in her home town as we could feasibly expect to witness.
Director Brian Percival has done a truly admirable job, recreating a mostly happy perspective. Even in times of hardship and strife, normal lives continued to be normal, as much in this little german town as anywhere else in Europe at that time. Percival’s skill here is making the war a subtle, circling monster in the life of a girl that has no real understanding of what earth-shattering events are going on around her.
When this newly formed family unit takes in a young Jewish man because of a promise made in another time, Rosa’s first thought is to turn him in, concerned that food is already scarce and her soup would become even thinner with an extra mouth to feed. Hans is resolute, however, and the young man is nursed back to health as Liesel warms to him, as a sister to an older, unfamiliar visiting brother.
Nelisse’s performance as Liesel is excellent, rounded and complete. She has a modicum of acting chops already, but her skills here belie her tender age, easily giving the likes of Rush and Watson a run for their money. The perfomances throughout are very compelling and one hundred and thirty minutes will fly by, except perhap in those scenes where the story focuses on the young man in the basement, which sometimes, though rarely, felt a little laboured and surplus to requirmements.
A simple, heartfelt tale, adapted from the novel by Markus Zusak, that is brimming with excellent cinematography, directed with due care and performed both skill, subtlety and respect for its subject matter. It may just be fifteen or twenty minutes too long. Overall, however, a very satisfying experience all round.