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Film Review: The Book Thief

24th February 2014
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It’s not often that we’re confronted with a story that is narrated by Death – or one that recreates the horror of Second World War era Berlin from the perspective of the ordinary Germans caught up in it.

Markus Zusak’s coming of age novel The Book Thief, then, was a rare thing upon its publication in 2006. In depicting the Second World War through the eyes of Liesel, the daughter of a communist who finds herself living with adopted parents the Hubermanns and becoming a (somewhat confused) member of the Hitler Youth, it told a story that we assumed we already knew - and turned it on its head.

So, can the highly anticipated film possibly live up to one of the most original books of recent years?  

There are certain images from the novel that stick, even years after reading –Jewish refugee Max hiding under a swastika in the Hubermanns’ basement, Liesel salvaging books in the square after a Nazi book burning, boy-hero Rudy racing like his hero Jesse Owens, star of the 1936 Munich Olympic Games. Thankfully, the direction of Brian Percival gives these scenes prominence, and the striking imagery translates sufficiently from text to screen.

Percival’s direction is also successful in portraying the confused nature of the situation from Leisel’s innocent perspective – why is she signing in praise of the Fuhrur, when he is the reason her mother has gone away and her beloved Max is a prisoner in the basement? Is Germany winning the war, or isn’t it – and if it is, is that a good thing? Why are the books being burnt? From the uncomfortably patriotic singing of Third Reich songs at school to the sudden violence of Kristallnacht, the scene changes often cause jolting moments of unease, and as Leisel is present in almost every scene we can safely assume that this sudden and disturbing change of pace is reflective of the internal struggles that she and those around her find themselves in.  

It is the juxtaposition of innocence with burgeoning horror that quietly reminds us of the inevitable doom that is approaching (in the manner of death, silently from above the clouds) - giving the carefree moments between Liesel and Rudy/Max/her adopted father Hans a level of tension that is present and sustains itself throughout the film.

For a story that is narrated by Death, it is essential that this central character (we can presumably call Death a character in this case) has a voice with gravitas, and this is carried off well by Roger Allam. The film however doesn’t make as much use of Death’s voice as the novel - something which stops it from falling into the realm of the unrealistic/overly melodramatic. The film as a whole relies on visuals more than dialogue, which makes for some striking moments (the aforementioned Kristallnacht being one) and allows for an impressive level of subtly from its young leads (Sophie Nelisse as Liesel and Nico Liersch as Rudy.)

The Book Thief is released in UK cinemas on Wednesday 26th February.




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