Review – The Book Thief

the book thief

Here is a small fact: You are going to die.

Well, any movie that starts with that line and goes on to be narrated by Death himself all the way through must at least be worth watching, right?

I got the email inviting me to this screening and sighed. Translated from PR speak into Beth speak, ‘based on the book’ means ‘probably not as good as the book’; ‘set in World War II’ means ‘expect lots of historical inaccuracy and gratuitous violence’ and ‘the story of a little girl’ means ‘saccharine characters you’ll want to punch in the face’.

Well, the only thing this movie punched in the face was my expectations. And it would have punched my heart in the face, too, if I had a heart. And if hearts had faces.

Anyway. The synopsis:

Based on the beloved international bestselling book, The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel, an extraordinary and courageous young girl sent to live with a foster family in World War II Germany. She learns to read with encouragement from her new family and Max, a Jewish refugee whom they are hiding under the stairs. For Liesel and Max, the power of words and imagination become the only escape from the tumultuous events happening around them. The Book Thief is a life-affirming story of survival and of the resilience of the human spirit.

I often find that films set in wars are just too overblown. They spend a lot of time demonstrating people’s horrific injuries – “OMG! ANOTHER LEG BLOWN OFF!” – and not enough time showing how wars actually rip people apart on a deeper level than just the physical. I’m not so interested in skin-and-bone wounds – if I want that, I’ll watch Machete – from a war movie, I want something that’ll show me what it’s actually like to live in constant fear that everything around you will literally be blown to smithereens any minute now.

I also want something that shows the effects of loss on a person, and The Book Thief definitely does that. Bit by bit, Liesel loses pretty much everything she loves in her life – her mother, her brother, her home, her old friends, some of her new friends – until towards the end of the movie I was internally begging the cinema gods behind the screen to please just spare her this next horror.

It is a film with a realistic soundscape. Not too many sobbing violins or foreboding cellos. The odd bit of accordion music from Hans, Liesel’s adoptive father. The firework screeeeeeeech-BOOM of bombs dropping on houses. There are a lot of silences, and they deepen as the film goes on and the audience forgets to breathe.

It is also a film with realistic, well-developed characters. Liesel wants to be strong, wants to do what is right, but ultimately she’s a small girl with a big heart that’s being gradually ripped to shreds along with everyone she loves. Rosa, her adoptive mother, is one of those harsh-on-the-outside, heart-of-gold-on-the-inside characters that have a special section reserved for them in my own secretly-not-as-cold-as-pretended heart. Rudy, Liesel’s best friend, is a lovely little boy who you know just has to survive, because he’s a beautiful character, and they couldn’t kill him off. Could they? Of course not. Max, the Jewish refugee in the basement, is a vibrant man, full of life even when he’s hiding below ground.

The way it’s directed is subtle enough to chill you to the core: seeing children dressed in Nazi uniforms, singing “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”, and then running through streets hung with Nazi flags on their way home from school, demonstrates the way Hitler’s regime took over everything and became just a normal backdrop even for those, like Liesel’s adoptive father, who didn’t agree with what was going on. And the cinematography is fantastic. Beautiful shots of serene landscapes juxtaposed with horrific imagery of war-torn towns, close-ups that dwell for just long enough to allow us to know what the characters are feeling. And one or two of those shots you look at and think this has to be turned into a painting. 

I liked it. Can you tell?

The end of the film was very silent. The credits rolled and we sat suspended for a few moments. On the way out I passed two other reviewers, both tearstained and sniffling. “That film was brutal!” we agreed. Brutal, but excellent.

The Book Thief will pierce its way into your heart and stick around there for a long time. It comes out in UK cinemas on the 26th of February 2014. Go see it.

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