Book Thief (Sue)


Words, War, Death

Main Cast: Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush

Director: Brian Percival

The Book Thief isn’t all about books.  It’s about war, and death, and the power of words.  Adapted from the novel by Markus Zusak, this is a movie that brings WWII to the audience on a different level than that to which we are accustomed – a child’s level.  A German child’s level.

The Book Thief is the story of Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), a young teenager who is brought to a small German village to live with “new” parents after her mother is forced to give her up as Germany heads into war.  Her brother dies on the train to their new home and is buried alongside the tracks. It is here that Liesel steals her first book – The Gravediggers Handbook.  It isn’t an act of rebellion or malice; she simply picks up a dropped object from the ground near her brother’s meager gravesite.  That book serves as a vessel through which she will bond with her new father (Geoffrey Rush) and fuels her desire to learn and grow.

We have a narrator in The Book Thief – Death.  Voiced by Roger Allam, he explains his attachment to young Liesel and follows her life through the war years, as her world is shattered and rebuilt time and again.  The movie does the same, following Liesel as she and her makeshift family (including her acerbic new mother played by Emily Watson) weather the horrors of the war and do what they need to in order to survive.  We don’t see a lot of WWII movies from the perspective of German civilians or of children or with Death chiming in once in a while, making this one special, and in a way, magical.

The Book Thief closely follows the basic narrative of the novel.  There are a few changes and adjustment made for the sake of transferring the written to the visual, but the spirit is very true to the source material.  Of all the decisions made by director Brian Percival, surely the most important (and brilliant) was the casting of Sophie Nelisse.  A newcomer to English language film, she beautifully personifies this shy, traumatized girl and her transformation into a strong, courageous and compassionate young woman.  Her eyes are huge and expressive and she is able to convey an enormous amount of emotion without speaking a word.  Pairing her with Geoffrey Rush as daughter and father was also inspired – the two have a sparkling, amiable chemistry perfectly befitting their characters.  Emily Watson has a rather unforgiving role as Liesel’s surrogate mother, but the filmmakers chose to make her a little warmer with Liesel than in the book, and thus easier to like despite her gruff exterior.  Rounding out the cast are Nico Liersch as Rudy (Liesel’s friend and neighbor) and Ben Schnetzer as Jewish refugee Max.  Both are rock solid.

Credit also needs to be given to the visual effects team, set decorators and cinematographers.  The entire film takes place in a small German village and the combination of cottage-like exteriors and warm, glowing interiors gives the film an almost magical, unreal feeling.  With Death piping up to narrate that feeling becomes even greater.  The book was written for a Young Adult audience and the movie maintains that spirit by taking some of the edges off the more gruesome events using a gauzy, fairy tale filter to tell the story without overwhelming with graphic imagery.  We get the points just fine, but they are tempered by the artistry of those telling the tale.  When the occasional harsh reality does come through, it’s all the more effective for being a change in general tone.

The one thing I missed in The Book Thief was the more frequent narration by Death that pulls the novel together in many places.  It isn’t much of a complaint – more of a comparison – as the filmmakers used visuals to depict much of what Death tells us in the novel.  Overall, the movie is very, very good.  It’s true to its source material, masterfully cast and filmed and fully imparts its thematic messages of the horrors of war on civilians of every nationality.  4 stars out of 5, with a strong recommendation for anyone who has read the book, has an interest in the time period or wants to see some outstanding acting from a terrific cast and some really great visual filmmaking.


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