Markus Zusak’s novel, first published in 2005, remained on the best-seller lists for years, which says something about its ability to connect with readers. Whatever personal connection may be made in the source material, Brian Perceval’s film version of The Book Thief doesn’t have it in full-enough measure to cover over an uneasy feeling that we’re rooting for the wrong people.
Oh, it’s precisely-acted by a cast led by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, and features a remarkably piercing turn by young Sophie Nélisse. And the production design, set decoration, and costuming allows one to easily sink into the setting, which is a small village in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Young Liesel (Nélisse) is sent there along with her even younger brother by their mother, but, sadly, the boy dies en route.
That does not please her foster mother, the stern Rosa (Watson), who was counting on the income due from two foster children, not one. But her husband Hans (Rush) is more welcoming to the solemn-looking Liesel; he is a playful, gentle sort with a big, kind heart and a generous spirit. He dotes on the girl, which eases her transition. They bond over her interest in books — she came into possession of one right after her little brother was buried — and he helps her to learn how to read.
The movie revolves around reading, and books, and the power of words, which become even more important when Hans and Rosa take in a Jewish refugee and hide him in their home. At a certain point, he becomes terribly ill, and hovers near death in a coma. Liesel decides to “borrow” books from the village’s burgermeister, who lives in a fine home and has a fine, extensive library, so that she can read them to the sick young man. (The burgermeister’s wife showed Liesel kindness and allowed her to spend time reading books before the burgermeister puts a stop to it.) And there are other sequences reiterating the importance and magic of books.
Yet an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach would not go away. Hans and Rosa are not very sympathetic toward the Nazi cause, but they are too frightened to raise any kind of protest; they have seen what happens to those who express opposition, and they want to live their lives, even if it is an existence that is suspended in fear. Liesel is shown to be too young to take her own stand; initially she joins in the singing of nationalist songs and shares in other conduct expected of Nazi sympathizers, but she doesn’t really seem to know what she is singing or saying.
Hans and Rosa go along to get along, and we’re asked to sympathize with their plight and feel sorry that they’ve been placed in this dangerous position of harboring a “criminal” (by the laws of the land). Certainly they were in a moral quandary, and they conducted themselves in a manner that could be considered brave and courageous.
On the other hand, did they do enough? They may have only paid lip service in support of the Nazi rule, but they did not actively fight against it. They were afraid. They cowered in their house. They did not speak out. They did not want to place their lives in any more danger than they were already in. By their silence, were they collaborators?
Hence, the uneasy feelings persist. Having known a few individuals who stood up for their beliefs and were persecuted by the Nazi government, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that Hans and Rosa represent the vast majority of the German citizenry who stood by and allowed the atrocities to happen.
By its persuasive nature, The Book Thief argues that Hans and Rosa — and, by extension, the German people at large — acted in a manner that deserved sympathy, or, at the very least, empathy and understanding. And this is a pill that is too large for me to swallow, which renders the entire movie a moot point. As always, your mileage may vary.
The film opens today in limited engagement at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas and the Cinemark West Plano.