The Book Thief: Lost from the Novel
Director Brian Percival’s adaptation of Markus Zusak’s World War II novel stands alone as a film because of the acting and exceptional set and production design which gives the audience a peek inside the Nazi Germany from the point of views of a foster child, her everyman Papa, and her grumpy Mama. In 1938, while her mother carts her and her younger brother across Germany to deliver them to foster parents, Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), a little girl, gets a crash course in loss, and Death (Roger Allam), who narrates the film, meets her for the first time. Captivated by Liesel, Death takes an unlikely interested in this human child. Meanwhile, Liesel must adjust to her new parents, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Hubermanns, and to a new town, a new school, and a new way of life as war and rationing arrive on their doorstep. Fortunately, Liesel meets Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch), the boy next door, who falls hard for the tough and guarded Liesel.
Because Liesel can’t read, she runs into trouble at school immediately, and Papa Hans comes to the rescue by helping her learn to read in a most charming and unique way which creates a wonderful bond between them. Rush is exceptional in the role and plays the slightly eccentric Papa with his usual panache. Rudy also helps her fit to the difficult social life and social structure of the children in town, and he clearly loves Liesel from the first moment he sees her. Meanwhile, Mama Rosa is cranky and a terrible cook, but the crankiness protects a warm heart that injures easily, and Watson lets the audience know that from the beginning through her exceptional performance. Nelisse, a Canadian, brings an “American Girl” warmth to her performance, and Liersch, a young but seasoned actor, brings the impish, delightful Rudy to life as the epitome of boyhood. As Liesel and Rudy, these two child actors have solid chemistry.
Although times are tough for Liesel, Papa, and Mama because they live on a small stipend for Liesel’s care and Mama’s laundry service, they have love and are mostly happy. However, Liesel’s compulsive desire for books could lead to trouble at the book burning rally and could jeopardize Mama’s relationship with her best customer, local Buergermeister’s wife, Frau Hermann (Barbara Auer). Whenever Liesel drops off the laundry, Frau Hermann encourages Liesel to read the books which had belonged to the Hermanns’ son who died in the First World War. Frau Hermann is a character around town because she has never really moved on from loosing her only child. Rudy runs into trouble of his own because of his hero worship of Jesse Owens, the African-American who won four gold medals at 1936 Berlin Olympics, and because his running ability gets him “invited” to an elite Nazi school he doesn’t want to attend. The final threat to Liesel’s new family arrives when Max (Ben Schnetzer), the son of the man who saved Papa’s life in the First World War, shows up and asks for help. As the war ramps up, life on Heaven’s Gate, their ironically named street, becomes increasingly difficult, and, at the Hubermanns’, the little food they have has to stretch for four people. The greatest threat comes from hiding Max because they could all be shot for hiding a Jew.
Against the backdrop of history, Liesel grows into a young teenager, and the filmmakers capture the era and the world of what Nazi Germany was like for the impoverished who were unwilling to join the party. The Nazi sponsored school programs and events are faithfully recreated giving the audience a child’s-eye view of what school children experienced, and these scenes both shock and mesmerizes thanks to stunningly detailed production design by Simon Elliott and gorgeous cinematography by Florian Ballhaus. John Williams’ subtle score beautifully compliments the film’s look. Where the film lacks is in the direction by Percival, who is better known for his work on Downton Abbey, and the screenplay by Michael Petroni. Because the film feels as through lots of important scenes were shot but not used, Petroni’s screenplay can’t be judged; however, John Wilson, the editor, deserves mentioning because he probably saved the film by extracting a film from too much footage.
For those familiar with the wildly popular book of the same name, the adaptation will mostly satisfy. Although initially faithful to the novel’s opening and at least retaining all the major characters, much was cut from the film version, but not necessarily to the determent of the work as cinema. There is, however, one theme or storyline that runs throughout book that those who have read it will miss. Rudy’s desire for a kiss from Liesel must have ended up on the cutting room floor, and the clear, beautiful images on the page which wrap up this theme become muddled, melodramatic, and overwrought in the film. The Book Thief, a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material, is in English with some subtitled German dialogue, and runs 131 minutes. The Book Thief is in theaters now!
More of Olmsted’s reviews are available at <www.thecinematicskinny.com>
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