Film David Strat­ton: The Book Thief wor­thy but safe

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - David Strat­ton

ON the first page of Markus Zusak’s un­usual and emo­tional novel The Book Thief, there is a grim re­minder in the form of a ‘‘ small fact’’: you are go­ing to die. Th­ese are the words of Death, and he claims he will at­tempt to be cheer­ful about the topic. Death speaks reg­u­larly through­out the book in a whim­si­cal, all-see­ing nar­ra­tion that gives what oth­er­wise could have been yet another book about Ger­many dur­ing the Nazi pe­riod a fresh­ness and a dis­tinc­tion.

It’s not so easy to take this ap­proach when mak­ing a big-bud­get film (and films th­ese days cost a great deal of money) but Michael Petroni, who wrote the screen­play, and Brian Per­ci­val, the di­rec­tor, have done their best. Death’s voice — ac­tu­ally the voice of ac­tor Roger Al­lam — ac­com­pa­nies the film’s chill­ing open­ing im­ages: ‘‘ You’re go­ing to die when the time comes.’’ The ad­di­tion of those four words soft­ens the mes­sage just as the film it­self, wor­thy, well acted, mov­ing at times, soft­ens the im­pact of a very im­pres­sive book.

The story be­gins in Jan­uary 1939 — 1938 in the film — and ‘‘ the Book Thief’’, nine-yearold Liesel Meminger, is trav­el­ling by train with her mother and younger brother, Werner. They are head­ing for the small town of Molch­ing, where the chil­dren are to be de­liv­ered to fos­ter par­ents ap­par­ently be­cause their mother is a com­mu­nist and is cer­tain to be harshly treated by the in­creas­ingly in­tol­er­ant and vi­o­lent au­thor­i­ties.

Werner doesn’t make it; he dies on the train and, at his fu­neral on a freez­ing patch of ground close to the rail­way track, Liesel picks up and pock­ets a book, ‘‘ The Gravedig­ger’s Hand­book’’, a text­book pub­lished by the Bay­ern Ceme­tery As­so­ci­a­tion, ac­ci­den­tally dropped by the gravedig­ger. This is the first book Liesel steals, and it won’t be the last. Liesel is beau­ti­fully played by French-Cana­dian ac­tress So­phie Nelisse, the young­ster who also gave a lovely per­for­mance in the Que­bec film Mon­sieur Lazhar.

Liesel’s mother de­liv­ers her to the Hu­ber­manns, sym­pa­thetic Hans (Ge­of­frey Rush) and his grumpy wife, Rosa (Emily Wat­son), and Liesel never sees her again. Hans is a house­painter and gen­eral handy­man, and he puts up with his wife’s nag­ging with­out much in the way of com­plaint. The Hu­ber­manns live on Him­mel (Heaven) Street, but there’s noth­ing very heavenly about life in this small town in Bavaria as a fa­nat­i­cal gov­ern­ment launches a vi­cious blitzkrieg on its neigh­bours. I would have thought that a left-winger like Frau Meminger would have made a point of teach­ing her chil­dren to read and write, but when Liesel ar­rives at the Hu­ber­manns she’s il­lit­er­ate, which is why she stole the book from the gravedig­ger. She wants to learn to read.

Zusak’s novel was a won­der­fully eerie read be­cause of Death’s con­stant nar­ra­tion, some­thing the film in­cludes only oc­ca­sion­ally. Per­haps the book in its pure form was un­filmable — un­less the film­mak­ers took some rad­i­cal steps such as in­clud­ing Death as an on-screen char­ac­ter, as Ingmar Bergman did so mem­o­rably in The Sev­enth Seal (1957).

Even with the su­per­nat­u­ral el­e­ment re­duced to a min­i­mum, though, this is still a pow­er­ful, at times ironic, story. The first book Liesel ‘‘ steals’’ is at a fu­neral tak­ing place in icy con­di­tions, and the sec­ond is at a dif­fer­ent kind of fu­neral, a celebration of the end of Ger­many’s civil lib­er­ties in the sear­ing heat of a bon­fire. Nazis are burn­ing ‘‘ deca­dent’’ books in the main square of Molch­ing, and the lit­tle book thief dar­ingly snatches a copy of HG Wells’s The In­vis­i­ble Man from the flames; this will broaden her knowl­edge of words, will pro­vide a chink of light in the dark world in which she and the Hu­ber­manns live their pre­car­i­ous ex­is­tence. The book will also re­fer, in a way, to a char­ac­ter des­tined to en­ter her life, a young man who is forced to stay ‘‘ in­vis­i­ble’’.

There are other char­ac­ters in Liesel’s life. On her first day at school she’s be­friended by Rudy (Nico Lier­sch), a pleas­ant, nor­mal kid, the son of the Hu­ber­manns’ neigh­bours. She also en­coun­ters the bul­ly­ing Franz (Levin Liam), but Liesel is al­ready used to bul­lies and knows how to deal with them. At home, mean­while, the frosty Rosa grad­u­ally melts and the con­sis­tently kindly Hans helps Liesel with her read­ing. She also en­coun­ters a rather un­ex­pected friend in the lonely wife (Bar­bara Auer) of the town’s bur­gomeis­ter (Rainer Bock); the of­fi­cial’s large house con­tains an im­pres­sive li­brary to which the girl is given lim­ited ac­cess. Th­ese scenes are beau­ti­fully done, as Liesel en­ters a new world with seem­ingly un­lim­ited hori­zons, so dif­fer­ent from the re­stricted and in­creas­ingly fright­en­ing life on Him­mel Street.

The most im­por­tant char­ac­ter to in­flu­ence Liesel’s life proves to be Max Van­den­burg (Ben Sch­net­zer), who is a Jew. His fa­ther had saved Hans’s life dur­ing World War I, and when he ar­rives one night at the home of the Hu­ber­manns des­per­ately seek­ing help he’s given a bed in Liesel’s room. Max is sickly and at times near death, but when he’s well they talk a lot and be­come firm friends.

The Book Thief is the first fea­ture di­rected by Brian Per­ci­val, who pre­vi­ously made episodes of the highly re­garded tele­vi­sion se­ries Down­ton Abbey. His work is best de­scribed as care­ful. He plays down the emo­tional high­lights in favour of a very re­strained, al­most stiff up­per lip, ap­proach. The re­sult is a film that, de­spite the in­her­ent ten­sion and sus­pense built into the nar­ra­tive, feels a bit pro­saic, with the ma­te­rial given that slightly colour­less treat­ment of a BBC tele­vi­sion se­ries of the 1980s. Con­sis­tent with this ap­proach is the fact that Him­mel Street, and the town it­self, never look like any­thing other than stu­dio sets.

This is not in any way to crit­i­cise the act­ing. Nelisse is ex­actly right for the role and con­vinc­ingly ma­tures and ages as the film pro­gresses and the aw­ful war comes home to Ger­many. Rush gives a won­der­fully warm and sym­pa­thetic per­for­mance, while Wat­son con­vinc­ingly por­trays a dis­ap­pointed and crabby woman who sel­dom al­lows the out­side world ac­cess to her in­ner­most thoughts. Im­pres­sive, too, is Auer, who gives a mov­ing per­for­mance as an ob­vi­ously sad and dis­ap­pointed woman the source of whose trou­bles are barely hinted at but who has such an im­pact on the im­pres­sion­able Liesel.

If the film ver­sion of Zusak’s spell­bind­ing novel, in the end, is a dis­ap­point­ment it’s still a noble one. It errs on the side of cau­tion, of safe­ness, while a more rad­i­cal ap­proach might have cap­tured more ac­cu­rately the spirit of the book and its re­minder of a grim pe­riod of re­cent his­tory.

Zusak’s book con­cludes in Aus­tralia, in an apart­ment near Syd­ney Har­bour. The com­pa­ra­ble se­quence in the film ap­pears to be tak­ing place in New York. Who knows why this Aus­tralian ref­er­ence was dropped by the film­mak­ers, but it’s the fi­nal dis­ap­point­ment in a film that, de­spite its many qual­i­ties, fails to live up to its source ma­te­rial.

The Book Thief

So­phie Nelisse, above with Ben Sch­net­zer and left with Ge­of­frey Rush, in

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