Sometimes it is an advantage not to read a book before you see the film adaptation. I’m usually disappointed by the screen version.
On this occasion, I hadn’t read The Book Thief, the international best-selling novel by Markus Zusak, before the screening, so was spared the distraction of comparing one with the other.
It was ironic really when, as the title suggests, reading and writing are central themes in this captivating film set in Nazi Germany. The “book thief” in question is an illiterate girl, Liesel Meminger, whose life, like those of other ordinary Germans in 1939, is transformed by the power of words. It is “how” words are used that is important in this film.
The Nazi Party communicate through fear, terror and irrational prejudice, while people like Liesel uses words to fight injustice and even save lives.
The nine-year-old girl is introduced by the unseen narrator “Death” (the voice of Roger Allam). An unusual device, but it works well in the context of a Second World War film, and where the Holocaust is a dark shadow.
As we find out, Death isn’t a typical grim reaper with “sickle or scythe”. He has a compassionate voice; he doesn’t cause people to die but helps them to move to the afterlife. He is interested in courageous people, like Liesel, superbly played by French-Canadian actress Sophie Nelisse.
Death hones in on her from above the clouds as she sits in a train carriage with her mother and her sickly younger brother. They are on their way to meet the children’s foster parents in a village near Munich. It is winter and the boy dies soon after in his mother’s arms.
Director Brian Percival’s bleak opening scene resonates throughout film. Liesel’s best friend Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch) will say later: “I want to grow up before I die.”
Cut to Werner’s funeral by the side of the snow-covered track, and Liesel steals a book dropped by a gravedigger. Her actions mark the start of a new life for her, and a new family.
She never sees her mother again. No reason is given but as a Communist, she was probably sent to a concentration camp.
Her new foster father, Hans Hubermann, the excellent Geoffrey Rush, teaches her to read the stolen book, entitled The Gravedigger’s Handbook. He is He is a kind and caring man, who is mostly unemployed as a decorator because he refuses to join the Nazi party.
His wife Rosa, well portrayed by Emma Watson, is cold and brusque with Liesel, although she later shows a warmer side to her character.
The action mainly focuses on one road in the village, namely Himmel Street, or “Heaven Street”, where the Hubermanns live. The residents like the rest of the nation, are compelled to support Hitler, even if some secretly despise him. Giant blood red flags with big black swastikas hang from every home.
Liesel quickly becomes obsessed with reading and later steals a fire-damaged book from a book burning ceremony, organised by the Nazis. The regime is destroying books, art or anything else about or by Jews and other “undesirable” groups.
It is a pivotal moment for Liesel. She suddenly realises, to her horror, the Nazis were calling for the deaths of Jews and Communists, and she remembers her mother. Like children at that time, Liesel was forced to cope with events beyond her ability to understand.
The now adolescent girl begins to develop her own views about her homeland. She and Rudy, whose hero is black athlete Jesse Owens, grow to hate the Fuhrer and their Hitler Youth uniforms. On one occasion she screams out: “I hate Hitler… Hitler took my mother.”
Liesel’s book stealing symbolises resistance against the Nazi regime. It also brings her into contact with another central character, the mayor’s wife Ilsa Hermann (Barbara Auer). She sees her take the book from the fire and invites her to her home to see the library that once belonged to her late son.
These books would later help to keep a young Jewish man alive. Liesel “borrows” them to read to Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer) when he becomes seriously ill. He has been hiding out in the Hubermanns’ basement for two years, putting the family in grave danger.
In return, Max encourages Liesel to use her imagination. He paints over the pages of a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf and urges her to fill it with her own story – an action that would ultimately save her life.
The film’s emotional climax is quite shocking, particularly if you haven’t read the book. John Williams score only heightens that, but Percival (Downton Abbey) and screenwriter Michael Petroni are careful not to make it sentimental. The film, like the book, is aimed at older children. It is rated 12A. Some critics have argued it has been “Disneyfied” and does not truly reflect the horror of the Nazi regime.
The Book Thief is not directly about the Holocaust, although it does show the Kristallnacht pogrom against German Jews, the full horror of which is not as graphic as in a film aimed at an older audience.
Petroni may gloss over parts of the book, which runs to more than 550 pages (I have since bought a copy). But what this interesting film does capture is fear and uncertainty felt by ordinary Germans during the war, some of whom were not complicit in the Nazi regime. It also shows how the power of words can change lives.
The Book Thief opens in the UK on February 26.