REVIEW: The Book Thief
The Coming of Age book has become fodder for dystopian science fiction and fantasy while some of the toughest Worldbuilding is done right here, on the planet Earth. Things don’t get more dystopian than growing up in Nazi Germany during World War II. As captured by Austrian author Markus Zusak, The Book Thief is a harrowing, sorrowful tale about life during wartime. The 2005 novel is amusingly narrated by Death and tells of his fascination with Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), who comes to his attention when collecting her brother.
The novel has been justly feted over the years and the inevitable film adaptation arrived in November and is now out on disc from 20th Century Home Entertainment. The film is faithful without fully capturing the novel’s tone, aided by some solid performances, excellent production design and a John Williams score that justly earned an Academy Award nomination without imitating his Schindler’s List, which covered much of the same time.
Liesel winds up handed over to Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Hubermann for safekeeping and she has to make new friends and form new attachments in an unfamiliar environment. While Hans quickly grows to like Liesel, Rosa is upset that the brother and the money to care for him has vanished and seems to take it out on the ten year old. When it appears she is illiterate, slowly Hans teaches her to read and books become precious to her. She also becomes the object of fascination to the boy next door, Rudy (Nico Liersch).
Life is further upended when Max Vanderburg (Ben Schnetzer) shows up, obligating Hans to pay a debt stretching back to World War I – in this case, honoring Max’s father for saving Hans’ life. The scenes between Max and Liesel are among the book – and film’s – best.
The rest of her life in the small community is a varied bunch and you can’t help but wince to watch the children inducted into the Hitler Youth. This includes the ritual book burning where she rescues The Invisible Man and keeps it, despite the mayor’s wife, Ilsa Hermann (Barbara Auer), knowing her secret. Her bravery is later rewarded when Liesel is tasked by Rosa to bring the Hermann’s laundry to Ilsa, opening a new chapter for her.
The book is nicely condensed and is serviceable for those who haven’t read the book but once more, the richness of voice in print is absent from the film. While Rush and Watson do nicely, they can’t carry the whole film which is at time disjointed and lacking in the Zusak magic.
Overall, the transfer to disc is fine and worth a look. The extras that accompany the Blu-ray include a handful of mostly superfluous Deleted Scenes (6:34) and an assortment of featurettes on the making of the adaptation, A Hidden Truth: Bringing The Book Thief to Life (31:05). I appreciate that Zusak is well represented here but overall this is a perfunctory set of short pieces.