Capturing ‘The Book Thief’
Ashley Jo Will
Released in limited theaters Nov. 8, 2013 and then expanding to more theaters as time went on, “The Book Thief” did not arrive in Rock Springs until January 2014. Instead of watching the Super Bowl, I attended a screening of “The Book Thief” along with several librarians and book club members, a very fitting film for avid readers. “The Book Thief” has been nominated for one Oscar this year, best achievement in music written for motion pictures with its original score by John Williams. Based on a young adult novel with the same title, written by Markus Zusak, “The Book Thief” takes place during the reign of Adolf Hitler and tells the story of a young girl who discovers solace in books.
Death is the narrator of “The Book Thief” as he opens and closes the film. This ghastly presence tells the audience in a matter-of-fact way, “One small fact: you are going to die. Despite every effort, no one lives forever. My advice is when the time comes, don’t panic. It doesn’t seem to help.” This blunt truth sounds harsh but nobody knows more about the statement’s veracity better than Death itself. The audience cannot expect a happy ending with Death narrating the opening scene but Death notes each person’s last thoughts and these final impressions are important.
In the beginning of the film, Death is somehow captivated by a young girl named Liesel. Death overstays his presence near her and Liesel’s young brother dies. Liesel has been riding a train with her brother and mother. The train stops for a quick burial and Liesel picks up a book dropped near his grave. She keeps the book in remembrance of her brother’s funeral despite her inability to read. Liesel’s mother had been traveling with her children in order to protect them the best way she knew how. With Hitler in power, her family was in danger because she was a Communist. Liesel is delivered to a pair of foster parents where she is instructed to call them mama and papa. Rosa, Liesel’s new mother, is a stern woman who appears to have no patience and no time for fun. Hans, Liesel’s new father, is more sensitive to the young girl’s needs and does his best to make Liesel feel at home.
Liesel attracts the attention of a neighbor boy named Rudy. The lemon-haired boy insists on walking with Liesel to school. When the teacher tells Liesel to introduce herself by writing her name on the chalkboard, the classroom as well as the audience learns that young Liesel doesn’t know how to read or write when she simply signs her name with X’s. This realization makes Liesel an easy target to be teased by her classmates. Later Hans finds Liesel sleeping with the book she stole from her brother’s funeral. Hans sees the title and is surprised Liesel would have this particular book until he understands that the young girl cannot read. Using Liesel’s book, Hans teaches the young girl how to read. Hans also creates a special dictionary for Liesel on the walls of the basement. Liesel forms an attachment to books and feels personally affected when she witnesses a Nazi Party book burning. The young girl’s eyes have been opened up by learning to read and now many books are being destroyed in front of her.
Liesel saves one of the books after many have gone home after the Nazi demonstration. She also finds books at the mayor’s home. Rosa does laundry for the well-off family and Liesel is given the task to deliver the laundry and receive payment. The mayor’s wife shows Liesel her library and allows her to read while she visits. This setup doesn’t last long but Liesel continues to take books to read. Rudy notices Liesel taking a book and labels her as a book thief despite Liesel’s assistance that she is merely borrowing them.
A family friend, who is in great distress, appears at the door of Hans and Rosa. Max is Jewish and had the choice to leave his mother and save himself. When Max arrives, he is weak and is placed on an extra bed in Liesel’s room. Liesel is intrigued by the mysterious young man and quickly befriends him. They have a common connection; Liesel and Max have both been separated from their mothers because of Hitler. When Max becomes very ill, Liesel reads nonstop to him hoping that keeping Max alert will help the young man. Liesel also grows into quite the storyteller herself and Max enjoys hearing what his young friend has to say. Danger looms when the authorities begin checking basements. Suddenly it is no longer safe for Max or Liesel’s family if he stays. Air raids also begin and Liesel’s entire neighborhood is not safe. Liesel eases fears during an air raid siren by telling a story. With the power of words, Liesel is able to sooth the minds and hearts of the people around her in a bomb shelter.
The ending of “The Book Thief” is bittersweet. While not entirely happy, it is not entirely sad either. The acting in this historical fiction film is well done and will make you feel as if you are in Nazi-occupied territory as you become immersed in the story. The tale of the book thief is beautiful but also very sad so be sure to have tissues handy while watching this film. If you are interested, you will be able to watch “The Book Thief” soon if you did not catch it in the movie theater because it will be available on video March 11, 2014. Multiple copies of the book it is based on can be found at every main branch of the Sweetwater County Library System – Rock Springs Library, White Mountain Library and Sweetwater County Library in Green River – to check out and learn even more details from the story. I definitely want to add the original novel to the stack of books I’m currently reading at home.