The Book Thief Evokes WWII Germany

Wednesday Matinee

By Jane Boursaw

Destination: Germany

Movie: The Book Thief

I haven’t read Markus Zusak’s book upon which The Book Thief is based, but now I want to. I love this movie. It’s one of those rare films you can call a “quality film” and actually mean it.

And not only is the PG-13 rating on target, but it’s a good film for teens to see — to learn more about World War II from the perspective of a German kid, and also learn about a time when books were burned in big heaps in the village square. It’s the sort of thing that seems almost unthinkable to American kids, but there it was.

The Book Thief was filmed in various locations in Germany, including Berlin; Görlitz, Saxony; and Studio Babelsberg, Potsdam, Brandenburg. Much thought was put into every single detail, from the train station to the authentic wardrobes, cars and homes. And the film itself seems to have been washed in a vintage patina that brings that era and location alive.

The Book Thief

Like the book, the film is narrated by Death (Roger Allam), who explains that he rarely cares about the stories of the living, with the exception of young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse). In 1938, Liesel is riding on a train with her frightened mother (Heike Makatsch), who’s rumored to be a Communist, and her sick little brother (Julian Lehmann), who dies before they reach their destination.

During an impromptu funeral in a desolate graveyard along the way, Liesel steals The Gravedigger’s Handbook as a memento. And thus begins her noble life of crime. She’s soon delivered to her childless foster parents, a gentle painter named Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and his curmudgeonly wife Rosa (Emily Watson).

Hans discovers Liesel’s book and teaches her how to read, using not only the book, but the walls of the basement, where she writes word after word. Liesel befriends her neighbor, a tow-headed boy named Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch) who runs fast, idolizes Olympic idol Jesse Owens, and fends off schoolyard bullies.

The Book Thief

When Hans and Rosa agree to hide a young Jewish man, Max (Ben Schnetzer), in their basement, Liesel forms a friendship with him, reads to him when he’s sick, and helps her adoptive parents hide him when the Nazis come around. As the war progresses, Max — who teaches Liesel to resist hate, even as the regimen closes in — realizes that he’s putting all of them in danger.

The Book Thief

The Book Thief is at turns heartbreaking and joyful, and acting vets Rush and Watson are wonderful as a bickering married couple who clearly love each other. Nelisse is spot-on as the feisty, optimistic Liesel, who manages to overcome the worst circumstances a young child could endure. Her heart remains open, even as the people she loves disappear from her life.

The Book Thief is a story of hope, loss, perseverance, literacy and love, both for the people in our lives and the books on our shelves.

5 thoughts on “The Book Thief Evokes WWII Germany

  1. The book is perhaps the best I’ve ever read. Unique and brilliantly written, every word carefully chosen. Zusak’s use of metaphor, in almost every paragraph, makes me enormously envious. Even the book’s design cleverly enhances the message. So there’s the story, and then there’s the storytelling. In this case, the storytelling is too good for a movie. I can appreciate great acting, but I’ll never see this film.

    1. Interesting plug for the book, Nancy. My friend Rosemary Carstens, who reviews books, art, movies and travel at Feast, says she read the book and saw the movie and liked both, although they were quite different–as movies and books must always be.
      You’ve certainly made me even more determined to read the book–but I’ll see the movie as well.

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