THE BOOK THIEF review by Gary Murray – a slice of life in WWII Nazi Germany

THE BOOK THIEF review by Gary Murray – a slice of life in WWII Nazi Germany


It seems that there is an inexhaustible supply of stories concerning World War II. The battle against Fascism, Social Democracy and Nazism touched every corner of the globe. There’s not a person on the planet that was not affected by some aspect of this conflict. The Book Thief is another story of this time, and also happens to be one of the best films of 2013.

Based on the novel by Markus Zusak, the story takes place in Nazi Germany. The protagonist is Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), but the film is narrated by Death. As the tale starts, Liesel watches her brother die on a train. It is the first of many tragedies that happen in her young life. Her mother is a communist and is taken in by the Nazis. On the trip to her new life, Liesel lifts a book from a gravedigger. She is sent to live with Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). They take the child in more for the money than for any connection of love. Liesel does not like her circumstances and keeps hoping and praying for her mother to return to save her.

She also meets a young boy named Rudy (Nico Liersch), who is smitten with Liesel but even more obsessed by the fastest man on Earth, Jesse Owens. This does not go over too well with the Nazis. Rudy takes her to school where she is not accepted. It is discovered that she cannot read or write. Liesel tries to adjust to the world she lives in. When Hans finds the stolen book, Liesel insists that it is hers. The book is a gravediggers manual. Eventually, Hans and Liesel read the book together. It is discovered that Hans actually cannot read that well. In the basement, he sets up a study room for Liesel to learn words.

One night, the new family hides a Jewish man named Max (Ben Schnetzer) from the authorities. It seems that Hans owns this man’s family a debt from the First World War. Liesel and the young man bond more like brother and sister. He helps her read and she steals more books, one from a book burning that happens in the center of town.

The Book Thief does not build in a traditional sense but shows everyday life in the bowels of Nazi Germany. Along the way, we see the inhumanity of man and the hope of individualism. It is more the story of little moments in survival than a three act structure. The ending is exactly what one would think would happen in Nazi Germany with a narration by Death, but is still a shock.

Young Sophie Nelisse delivers one of the most impressive acting feats of 2013. She gives the world a character that is lost in circumstances that she can barely comprehend. It becomes an overwhelming burden. But throughout the performance there are moments of hope. Whenever she finds that someone has a book, she asks “Did you steal it?” in a precocious manner that endears.

What can be said about Geoffrey Rush that has not been said a thousand times? He is one of the best actors on the planet, a much deserved Oscar winner. Here he finds humanity in an inhumane world. His character is a conflicted man, a man who sees right and wrong but is unable to do anything about it. It is a brilliant reading.

Emily Watson has been giving dazzling performances for years but never seems to get noticed during awards season. This film should rectify that injustice. She is tough and moving at the same time. She is the loving task master, pushing young Liesel to be a better person while never letting up the slack on the girl.

Director Brian Percival captures the life of Nazi Germany with painstaking detail. He doesn’t make all the Germans bad guys. They are all people, some good and some bad, but all trying to survive. He gives a slice of life to everyday living in a horrendous situation.

The only part of the film that did not work was the narration. That omnipresent voice is a heavy handed storyteller who is Death. I just do not think this particular aspect works. The film is powerful enough without that voice beating the point into the ground. Less would have been so much more. That aside, the end result is one of the best films of the year, an Oscar contender for sure. It has all the elements of a film that will live in the memories of the audience for years to come. In a world where most films are forgotten entertainment, The Book Thief is a rare gem.

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