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The Book Thief

Reading the Grave Digger’s Manual

Dec. 9, 2013
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The torch-lit night rally is an exciting diversion in The Book Thief’s small German town on the eve of World War II. There are rousing songs in the village square and oratory from the mayor denouncing the enemies of the people—the plutocrats, the Communists and most of all, the Jews. He condemns the “intellectual dirt,” the bad ideas that had circulated freely in Germany, before setting alight a pile of books heaped at the center of the square. The crowd hurrahs. Even kindly Hans (Geoffrey Rush) feels compelled to raise his arm in a tepid Nazi salute.

The fire sputters out, and among the bitter ashes a book remains intact. Hans’ foster daughter, Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), inches up to the smoldering pile and rescues H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. It’s not the first book she stole. It won’t be her last.

Based on Markus Zusak’s young adult novel, The Book Thief is, on one level, about the joy of reading and the power of language. The protagonist, Liesel, was snatched from her mother by social services and given to the childless Hans and his hard-faced hausfrau, Rosa (Emily Watson). Death is the narrator in the book, and his voice pipes in occasionally during the film. In a mordant touch, Liesel’s first book, snatched after her brother’s funeral service, is a grave digger’s manual. Although of school age, she has never learned to read until Hans takes the time to teach her, using the grave digger’s manual as her primer. Next, it’s The Invisible Man. And then, Liesel sneaks through the window of the mayor’s house, “borrowing” books from the ample shelves of his library.

On another level, The Book Thief is the story of “good Germans” putting their lives at risk to save a young Jew, Max (Ben Schnetzer). The son of Hans’ wartime comrade, Max is hidden in the basement, where he encourages Liesel in the pursuit of words. The Book Thief doesn’t entirely exclude the brutality—there is a short, savage scene of Nazi thuggery and vandalism during Crystal Night—but paints the catastrophe in soft focus. No Schindler’s List, The Book Thief is more like the Holocaust as Walt Disney might have imagined it.

Perhaps the film’s postcard version of the Third Reich, with pretty settings that look as if shot inside a snowy paperweight, is consistent with the child’s perspective of its protagonist. The ostensible storyteller, Death, remains remarkably silent through much of the movie (as if the screenwriter didn’t know what to do with him). Nélisse is utterly charming as Liesel, yet the film’s gravity centers on Rush’s sad-faced Hans, a cautious man guided by unfailing compassion and a sense of decency in the midst of the madness.


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