As a fan of the best-selling novel The Book Thief, it was with trepidation that I tackled the film, now out on Blu-ray and DVD. After all, the book succeeded because of a unique narrator in the form of Death, and there is really no way to re-create that character effectively on screen, as far as I could tell.
It is a pleasant surprise, then, to find that by significantly minimizing the role of Death to an unseen voice (Roger Allam, Sarah & Duck), who only rarely is heard from, the movie can still tell a compelling, emotionally satisfying tale with high quality. As The Book Thief begins, Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse, The Family Parent), age twelve, is being given up by her mother. Before she can make it to her new home, Liesel loses her little brother, and thus begins her dance with Death. Settled into the home of the kind Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech) and his shrewdish wife, Rosa (Emily Watson, War Horse), Liesel begins a tenuous new existence in Germany as World War II erupts around her. At first, the movie seems a little light, as if it has sanitized the horrible, tragic events of the great conflict. But the tale beautifully unfolds, cloaked in near-perfect sets and costumes, one begins to see the perspective represented.
Liesel is not a naive girl, but she is still a girl, and through her eyes, even after losing so much, we see the ‘normal’ life she attempts to carve out for herself. Taught to read by Hans and befriended by loyal classmate Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch), Liesel begins to feel like she has a place again, experiencing the things a young girl should. By the time the Liesel notices war arriving at the Hubermann’s door, it’s surely too late to do anything about it. Even after the Hubermanns take in Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer, Happy Town), a young, Jewish man on the run, things go along more pleasantly than one might expect. But then, Jews are rounded up, and those suspected of being Communists are also despised. Rudy’s efforts to cake himself in mud so he looks more like his idol, Jesse Owens, are firmly rebuked.
This isn’t a safe world, and while the adults do a pretty decent job for a while of protecting the children from the truth, some things are beyond their control. It’s from this point of view that The Book Thief sets itself apart from other works based in this time and place. Liesel may be a member of the nation that causes much havoc in the world, but she and those she comes to care about are not to blame. She has the innocence and adaptability of youth, but can one continue to survive when so much is ripped away? Liesel suffers many losses before the ending credits roll, and her story is not one soon forgotten as it wraps up in a bittersweet finale. There is an almost tangible charm, and for some reason, The Book Thief feels like a completely fresh take, not something I really expected from this work. It’s family-friendly enough, but not at the expense of authenticity. The acting in The Book Thief is excellent. Nelisse is surprisingly good for someone her age, even as she isn’t quite believable in having aged five pivotal years over the course of the plot. Rush is exactly what one would expect, a formidable talent tackling a wonderful role. But the highest praise goes to Watson for walking the tight balance of a woman who comes across as so unlikable from the start, but who is worthy of Hans’ love, and whose public face is a cover for a warm heart and the fears she struggles with.
This release contains a 30-minute “Behind the Scenes” piece that gives a few insights into casting, set development, and the adaptation process, but never gets as in depth as many might like it to, especially when interviewing the child actors, who tend to give perfunctory responses. There are also deleted scenes and a theatrical trailer, as well as a couple of audio commentaries, so while not a stellar amount of extras, there is some benefit to having the disc versus catching it later on television. I do think there are definitely sound reasons to view The Book Thief in high definition. Many of the colors are washed out in this bleak, yet somehow still homey, neighborhood. There are also a number of moments in the dank-ish basement. To experience the color, texture, and details of these sequences, one will want the best available picture quality. The signature John Williams soundtrack is well mixed with the dialogue and effects, so overall, there’s a really good package here for those who go for HD, even though this isn’t a digital- or war-heavy production. The Book Thief is available now.