Film Review: The Book Thief

Written by Mallory Delchamp

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It seems that every five years or so a film pertaining to the Holocaust is released and is greeted with promising reviews from critics and viewers alike. For example, Schindler’s List captivated audiences in the early ’90s and The Pianist impressed critics in 2002. That being said, I honestly believe the latest film from British director, Brian Percival, The Book Thief is going to be the holocaust film of the year, if not the next five years. [Editor’s Note: The film is adapted from a 2006 novel by Markus Zusak.] However, unlike The Pianist and Schindler’s List which are both told through the eyes of a Jew and a Nazi officer, The Book Thief tells the story of the uprising of Nazi Germany through the eyes of an unlikely heroine, a ten-year-old girl.

From the moment I first saw the trailer for the film I was immediately intrigued. World War II is a fascinating time period in human history and I have personally always had a strong interest in what was one of the world’s most devastating wars. I had to see The Book Thief, and I am very glad I did. The film is a beautiful tale of life, death, and the human spirit.

Narrated by death himself, (an off screen voice over featuring Roger Allam) this historical drama tells the story of a young girl, named Liesel (played by the stunning young actress, Sophie Nélisse) who flees her communist mother’s fate after being adopted by an elderly German couple (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson). As a young child living in Germany, Liesel soon learns of the Nazi uprising first hand as she witnesses the destruction of Jewish culture. Liesel’s adoptive parents begin sheltering a teenage Jewish boy named Max in their basement and Liesel begins stealing books in order to entertain both her and Max. At first, Liesel cannot read and with the help of Max and her parents she soon learns. She does whatever she can to obtain reading material – even if it resorts to stealing Jewish literature from a Nazi book-burning ceremony.

Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean, The King’s Speech) plays Hans, Liesel’s adoptive father. As with all of his past films, Rush gives an impeccable performance. He plays an elderly German man who does not agree with the Nazi beliefs and has to daily struggle with what be believes to be the right choice. Emily Watson also gives a striking performance as the strict Rosa, Liesel’s adoptive mother. Rosa’s character helps the viewer understand the struggles that German citizens also faced in the early 1940s.

However, the most notable performance of the film is Sophie Nélisse. Like many other child actors, Nélisse conveys an array of adult emotions through her eyes. Like Dakota Fanning in her earlier days, Nélisse may not be a household name just yet, but I strongly believe The Book Thief will catapult her into superstardom.

The Book Thief tells a holocaust-era story through a character who is young and naive and has to grow up at a much faster pace in order to not only protect her adoptive parents, but also a Jewish refugee. One of the most heart-rending moments of the film is when Liesel and her friend Rudy are standing on a pier on a lake and both scream “I hate Hitler” at the top of their lungs. While as simple as this moment may be cinematically speaking, it showcases the anger and frustration that many of the German citizens must have felt throughout the 1930s and 40s. And, unlike previous films such as The Pianist and Schindler’s List, The Book Thief excels at capturing the emotion that many Holocaust films haven’t dared touch.

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