Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Book Thief [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-II)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars) (1 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (K. Jensen) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (G. Cheshire) review
AVClub (B. Kenigsberg) review

The Book Thief [2013] (directed by Brian Percival, screenplay by Michael Petroni, based on the novel by Markus Zusak) is the story of a German girl named Liesel (played magnificently by Sophie Nélisse) growing-up in the adoptive home of an older, otherwise childless couple Hans and Rosa (played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson), living on Himmel Strasse (Heaven Street) in Nazi-era Stuttgart, Germany.

A fair number of critics (see above) have complained about the "sappiness" of the film, intended for younger / pre-teen audiences.  Yet regular readers here will note that I'm not necessarily against "sap" and often A FAN of it, and no exception here.  Indeed, if the intended audience to The Book Thief, both novel and now film is understood to be grade-school kids (say 4th or 5th graders) then I'd say that it's an excellent age appropriate story.  A fourth grader would probably not understand much of Schindler's List [1993] to say nothing of Sophie's Choice [1982] but would almost certainly understand this story about a little girl, his/her age, growing-up on a quaint little street near the edge of a very average German city like Stuttgart during the Nazi era / World War II.  And the story is woven so nicely that pretty much all the notable (and awful) aspects of growing-up in Nazi Germany are portrayed ... and yet in an age appropriate manner:

The reader/viewer learns that all kinds of people were persecuted under the Nazi regime, including Communists (among them the original parents of Liesel and her brother, who dies early in the story) as well as, of course, Jews, among them Max (played magnificently by Ben Schnetzer) who comes to Hans, Rosa and Liesel's door in Stuttgart in need of help in 1938 in the aftermath of Krystallnacht.  Why did he come to Hans' door?  Because Max' father had saved Hans' life during the First World War (one of the most bitterest memories of many Jewish Holocaust survivors was that many of their German Jewish parents had been proud German patriots prior to the rise of the Nazis and had fought with distinction IN ALL OF EUROPE'S / THE U.S.'s ARMIES during World War I).  Hans therefore takes Max in, and 10-11 year old Liesel is given the very, very adult-beyond-her-years responsibility of NOT TELLING ANYONE, ANYONE AT ALL, that Max was hiding in their house.  IMAGINE BEING A 10 YEAR OLD TASKED WITH THAT KIND OF RESPONSIBILITY (This was absolutely _beautifully_ portrayed in the film).

Then Liesel was portrayed going to school, having school-time/neighborhood friends like Rudy (played again excellently by Nico Liersch), and others from school/the neighborhood like Franz (played by Levin Liam) who she didn't particularly get along with.  This was Nazi Germany, so all the little boys and girls were expected (in reality forced...) to belong to / wear the black uniforms of the Hitler Jugend (boys) / brown uniforms of the Deutscher Madchens Bund (girls), which aside from not really having a choice, all the kids found quite natural (to this day grade school kids in the United States generally enjoy wearing their Catholic school and/or their boy/girl scout uniforms).

Still it was _very nicely_ (and I would say _realistically_) portrayed that the kids did not necessarily understand what these _mandatory_ Nazi indoctrination groups were about:  Rudy, who prided himself being "the fastest kid on the block," is shown pretending quite sincerely to be the African-American sprinter Jesse Owens (!) who was one of the great heroes of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games (Americans to this day take pride that Jesse Owens "showed-up" the Nazi dogma of Aryan racial superiority ... forgetting of course, that when Owens came home, he couldn't even eat at the same lunch counter or go to the same bathroom as "white people" in much/most of the United States....).  Anyway, Rudy gets reported and his father, a low level Nazi party member, is told _in no uncertain terms_ by a local Nazi authority (whose job it would be to look after such neighborhood matters, sort of a Nazi precinct captain) to teach/punish his son that as "a good Aryan boy" he's NOT to pretend that he's someone of a "lower race."   And so it is.  Rudy's father whacks him a few times and tells him basically to "not embarrass the family" in this kind of way again.  (Rudy both understands ... "don't pretend to be Jesse Owens again" ... but also does not ... "I kinda liked him.").  Such is life growing-up in any dictatorship / authoritarian system.  There are arbitrary rules that are to be rigidly observed so as not to put one's family / loved one's in trouble.  Regimes like that of the Nazis (and also the Communists) simply had _more of these rules_ and punished people far more severely when occasionally some "fell out of line."

Among the rules to be observed was to "put out the flag" (the Nazi era flag) on Hitler's birthday, and a great scene is presented with Hans being shown looking about the cellar trying to find where he "put the darned thing" while Rosa nervously reproves him, noting that "all the other neighbors already have their flags up" and "it's going to be noted" if their flag's not up soon.  THIS BRINGS TO MIND A GREAT STORY IN MY OWN FAMILY WHO HAD LIVED IN COMMUNIST ERA CZECHOSLOVAKIA WHERE I REALLY DID HAVE AN UNCLE WHO WAS "REPORTED" IN THE 1980s (!) FOR HONESTLY FORGETTING TO HAVE THE CZECHOSLOVAK / SOVIET FLAGS UP IN FRONT OF HIS HOUSE DURING SOME VISIT OF SOME RANDOM SOVIET OFFICIAL.  His family lived on EXACTLY THE SAME KIND OF STREET as that portrayed in this film ... NO ONE EXCEPT FOR SOME NOSY LOCAL OFFICIAL WOULD HAVE EVER KNOWN THAT MY UNCLE'S FAMILY'S FLAGS WEREN'T UP THAT DAY.  But my uncle had to go to the local police station and APOLOGIZE for making the _honest mistake_.   Having been jailed in his college years by the Communists, and always therefore "somewhat suspect," he _knew very well_ to "have the flags up" on the right days.  Here he had forgotten ... and SOMEBODY (from the neighborhood...) REPORTED HIM.  Again, such is life in a very paranoid / totalitarian system ...

Celebration of Hitler's birthday (as that of any "great leader" with AN ENORMOUS fawning/butt-licking security force behind him) involved more than just "putting up flags" however.  The Communists would have parades.  The Nazis had street gatherings and bonfires.  The requisite firebrand (to the point of screeching) / paranoid speeches were given there by local party leaders and, this is where the "Book" part of the story's title (and even the "Thief" part of it actually) comes from ... said Nazi bonfires offered occasions for local Party officials / communities to "show their loyalty" by burning "subversive books."

Now Liesel, who had been picked-on in school for having originally come from _a lower-class_, Communist sympathizing family (and hence at the beginning of the film ... _unable_ to read) finds the Nazis fetish with burning books "odd."  After all, she had been previously picked-on for not being able to read well, and now those above her own teachers were encouraging the people to burn books.  (Imagine yourself as a 10 year old ... what a crazy contradiction: Which is it?  Do you want us to read or not?)  BEAUTIFULLY AS A TEN YEAR OLD STILL REMEMBERING BEING PICKED-ON FOR NOT BEING ABLE TO READ, THE FILM SHOWS HER COMING OVER THE PILE OF LARGELY BURNED BOOKS AT THE END OF ONE SUCH RALLY and DISCRETELY PUTTING ONE OF THOSE STILL SMOULDERING BOOKS UNDER HER COAT ;-).

And by performing this little act of defiance (though she doesn't even know that she was being defiant) she's "noticed" but here by the wife of the local burgermeister (a member of the old German aristocracy) whose _intellectual_ son apparently had been arrested (and presumably taken off to Dachau where German intellectuals during the Nazi era were often held).  She invites Liesel over to her manor house nearby, surrounded by a lovely garden, shows Liesel her family's lovely library of books and tells her that she "could come over _any time_ to read if she liked."

The rest of the story continues in this very gentle (in the midst of terrible awfulness of dictatorship and war) manner.  And by the end of the story, one honestly sees everything that a 10 year old growing-up in Germany during the war years would have seen, including, yes, tellingly obvious glimpses of the Jewish Holocaust, but also the bomb raids that eventually (something of a SPOILER ALERT) _level_ good old Himmel Strasse by the story's end.

What a gentle, lovely and sad story recalling an truly awful time in human history ... and presented in a manner that even a 10 year old could understand!  EXCELLENT JOB!

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