The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel Meminger; a little girl growing up with her adoptive parents in the fictitious south-western German town of Molching. Liesel hates Hitler because she believes he took her communist mother away. Liesel loves; her adoptive father, the jewish boy Max they are hiding in their basement, and her friend Rudy who spends the whole film oscillating between love for Liesel and wanting to belong in the Hitler Youth. That and books, Liesel has a lot of time for books.
The film is book-ended (ha!) by narration from a third party and the whole film has a sort-of unreal, ethereal feel. Shrouded in cloud, kept distant by time. The town of Molching has fairytale architecture despite the goings-on being decidedly more nightmare. The Book Thief has come under criticism for being too soft on the Nazi regime and the realities of war; Abele calls it 'a convenient backdrop for a wishful narrative rather than the springboard for an honest one.' I think the problem here is partly stylistic; in reflection of a book which I've heard is highly descriptive, the film's vignette style might not be to everyone's taste. Similarly there is limited reference to the suffering of the Jews on a daily basis. But, I would argue it very much does engage with the real problems facing teenagers and young people during the Second World War. Liesel and Rudi join the Hitler Youth but still feel conflicted. There is a great moment where Rudi paints himself to look like Jesse Owens, his favourite, black, athlete. The pain of his father in trying to explain why this is not an OK thing to do in public in Nazi Germany was realistic and credits the German people with more grace than perhaps other films have done.
Abele also claims that The Book Thief will leave audiences unmoved. I don't think that's fair, it is highly emotive. During a sequence portraying Kristallnacht in all its barbaric cruelty; Liesel and Rudi are part of a children's choir singing the Deutschlandlied. The contrast of childhood innocence and the reign of terror is stark and really effective at portraying the level of brainwashing imposed on young people in Germany.
Credit is definitely due to the actors, in their teens, who play Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) and Rudi (Nico Liersch). Neither of them speak English as a first language, coming from French Canada and Germany respectively, and neither have been cast as major roles in films before. The beauty of picking novices is that there is no fakery. Nélisse and Liersch show genuine emotion, it doesn't look staged when Liesel cries or laughs. Their acting is alive and believable, such a rarity in child-actors. Honourable mentions must also go to Geoffrey Rush, him off of the King's Speech, for playing his now almost type-cast quasi-magician, kind natured, adoptive father. And similarly Emily Watson playing Liesel's severe-yet-soft adopted mother. Final mention must go to John Williams who wrote the score for the film, the first time he's written for anyone but Spielburg in nearly a decade! The music is haunting yet magical and reminiscent of some of his other soundtracks, particularly Schindlers List, Harry Potter and E.T. I bought it when I got home from the cinema in the hope that my life will seem more magical to Williams' soundtrack.
Written by an Australian (Petroni) and directed by the director of Downton Abbey (Percival), I can see why The Book Thief has come under criticism for being distant from the subject matter but this film is pure escapism to a simpler world. Its a coming of age movie, through a fairytale lens. Definitely worth watching when it comes out in UK cinemas on 27th February.