The Book Thief

reviewed by Scotty Barnhart


Steven Zeitchik of  The Los Angeles Times recently identified a common trend among current films: “stranded cinema,” or films about isolated or abandoned characters. In Gravity (2013), for instance, astronauts aimlessly drift through space, unable to return to Earth after debris collides with their ship. In 12 Years a Slave (2013), Solomon Northrop (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery in 1841. In All is Lost (2013), an unnamed man, credited only as Our Man (Robert Redford), is stranded on his yacht in the Indian Ocean after a series of misfortunes. In Captain Phillips, the cargo vessel Maersk Alabama is hijacked by Somali pirates off the horn of Africa. Said Pirates then hold the title character (Tom Hanks) hostage aboard a lifeboat. And lastly, Spike Lee’s forthcoming Oldboy (2013) tells of Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), who’s kidnapped and spends 20 years in solitary confinement.

What does all of this mean? According to 12 Years director Steve McQueen, “there’s a feeling sometimes that we’re helpless… [Stranded] stories like this help us feel like we’re not alone.” According to Hanks, no matter how “relatively safe you feel, there’s always this kind of lingering question that’s out there, which is literally, are we going to be OK? . . . Is our world going to survive? Are we all going to be able to exist . . . in the same brand of security that we’ve been able to have in the past?” (Zeitnik). Are we socially isolated? Are Americans politically stranded from the rest of the world? Are we all spiritually abandoned? Are we so lost that we must individually fend for ourselves?

Two more films that follow this “stranded” trend screened on the same day of the 2013 Savannah Film Festival: How I Live Now (2013) The Book Thief (2013).

The latter, narrated by none other than Death, recounts the life of  Lisel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), the eponymous book thief. As a young girl, she is adopted with her brother by the Hubermann family of Nazi Germany, just before the outbreak of World War II in 1939. On their way to the Hubermann’s, Lisel’s brother dies, and at his funeral, Lisel steals a book sunk just beneath the surface of the snow: The Gravedigger’s Handbook. (And what book better symbolizes Nazism than one about systematic burials?) Her nurturing, adoptive father, Hans (Geoffrey Rush), discovers the book, as well as Lisel’s illiteracy. He soon teaches her to read and write, converting their basement into a makeshift dictionary (by writing on the walls). This basement, though, is soon occupied by a benevolent stranger.

It turns out, the Hubermanns are politically stranded. They, as well as some of their neighbors, are ideologically dissident, in opposition to Nazism. The Hubermanns hide the stranger, Max (Ben Schnetzer), a stranded Jew on the lamb.

Indeed, the second book that Lisel steals is none other than H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, which she steals from a book burning—another act of political revolt. (Lisel, however, just wants to read another book.) This is meaningful change by the filmmakers from Markus Zusak’s original novel since Wells, a Socialist, wrote the novella as an analogy about the “invisible men” of Victorian England, the downtrodden of the streets. Like Max, Wells’ Invisible Man, Griffin, is persecuted as the Other. Max becomes one of the “invisible men” of Nazi Germany. He is the stranded Invisible Man of The Book Thief.  He also adds to the smothering sentimentality of the film, though. He becomes Lisel’s Magic Jew.

The Book Thief has a lot going for it, including heavy doses of irony and great performances, especially from Nélisse, Rush, and Emily Watson (as Rosa, Lisel’s caring, but tough adoptive mother). On the irony, for instance, we see German children, including Lisel, dressed in Hitler Youth uniforms, singing a beautiful, seemingly angelic chorus to the film’s audience. The subtitled lyrics appear and are incredibly unsettling, about the supremacy of Germans and the annihilation of the Communists and Jews. As well, once the war begins, the film creates a great counterpoint as Hans plays his beloved accordion in a shelter while Allied bombs rain down.

Despite these more artistically complex moments, the films is more polished than the soul-crushing boots of storm trooper. It looks great, but is a pretty lyrical portrayal of Nazi Germany during World War II. How would I pitch the film? Shirley Temple’s orphaned in Nazi Germany and she can’t read. This is the Holocaust film one expected from Spielberg, rather than the masterful Schnidler’s List (1993). The Book Thief is a glossy, child’s perspective of the Holocaust. Roberto Benigni’s great tragicomedy La vita è Bella (1997) is more bleak and seemingly realistic. This is the Nazi Germany of The Sound of Music (1965). And personally, I could handle the schlock until one moment, near the end, when a dying character confesses an unrequited love to another. At that point, it just became too much.