Film David Stratton: The Book Thief worthy but safe
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.
Sophie Nelisse, above with Ben Schnetzer and left with Geoffrey Rush, in