By Don Simpson | March 18, 2014
Director: Brian Percival
Writers: Markus Zusak (Novel), Michael Petroni (Adaptation)
Starring: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Nico Liersch, Barbara Auer, Rainer Bock, Heike Makatsch, Julian Lehmann
In November 1938, the Nazis commenced state-sanctioned mass violence against Jews throughout Germany and Austria. Referred to as the Kristallnacht period, Jewish businesses and synagogues were destroyed, approximately 30,000 German Jews were sent to concentration camps. Unfortunately for Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), this is the brutal and ugly world that defines her childhood.
Liesel’s mother (Heike Makatsch) is not a Jew, but she is a communist; so, she must put her children up for adoption before she faces her fate with the Nazis. While traveling by train to the small working class town in which their new foster parents — Rosa (Emily Watson) and Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) — reside, Liesel’s younger brother (Julian Lehmann) dies; but with the death of her brother comes Liesel’s fateful introduction to the world of books.
Probably too young to grasp the true meaning of the Hitler youth uniform that she must wear, Liesel’s eyes are opened to the grim reality around her when she is forced to participate in a book burning ceremony. Though she is illiterate, Liesel senses the tremendous power of literature. Luckily, Hans is willing and able to teach Liesel how to read.
It is not long before Liesel is invited into the private library of Ilsa Hermann (Barbara Auer), the wife of a prominent Nazi. Completely ambivalent to the hypocrisy of a Nazi household with such an illustrious library, Liesel spends many magical afternoons escaping into the fictional worlds that literature offers to her — that is, until Mr. Hermann (Rainer Bock) finds out. Left with no other way to quench her addiction to literature, Liesel begins to steal books from the Hermann’s library.
All the while, Hans agrees to shelter a sickly Jewish refugee, Max (Ben Schnetzer), whose father saved Hans’ life during World War I. By hiding a Jew in their house, Hans has not only put their lives at risk, but their economic hardships are exacerbated by having another mouth to feed. Liesel keeps Max’s spirits up by reading the books that she has stolen from the Hermann’s library.
No matter what is happening in the world around her, Liesel always finds an escape through books. This is precisely why the Nazis felt the need to control the availability of books, especially to the German working class. The Nazis did not want their workers and soldiers to be distracted by fiction, nor did they want the poor’s eyes to be opened to philosophy, politics or spirituality. They “holocaust on books” was essentially a coordinated effort to control the thoughts and opinions of the German populace.
Despite the interesting subject matter and outstanding performances — especially by Sophie Nélisse — Brian Percival’s The Book Thief seems to find ways to drain the heart and soul from Markus Zusak’s source novel. Percival’s biggest failure is his inability to capture the transcendental powers that books have on Liesel. We are never given the opportunity to grasp why books are so meaningful to her, nor to we have the chance to escape with her; instead, Percival traps us in the monocultural monotony of Germany circa 1938, a dour and dreadful world without magic or creativity.