Wartime fairytale yields magic

book-thief-image-1

The Book Thief  ★★★ (2013, Directed by Brian Percival)

A beautiful, fairy tale infused horror story of war.

Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Ben Schnetzer and Sophie Nelisse.

Written by Michael Petroni

An historical, war drama. 2hr 11mins. PG, but does contain violence.

When it comes to movies about WWII, none are more bleak or more affecting than those about children. 

From the brutality of Empire of the Sun to the horrors of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, war is rarely more pointless or cruel than when seen through naive and innocent eyes.

The Book Thief, the latest tale of children forced to endure adults’ battles, is less brutal than a film about the cruelty of war could be.

But it merely means its message of hope and perseverance threaded through is more palatable for younger viewers.

Narrated by a jaunty, all seeing Death (Roger Allam), the film centres on Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), the daughter of a communist and eponymous tome stealer.

When her little brother dies while the family flees persecution by the Nazis, Liesel steals her first book at his funeral.

However, when she’s handed over to her new adoptive parents, kindly Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and gruff Rosa (Emily Watson), it becomes clear that Liesel cannot read.

The book she stole is a grave diggers handbook.

With infinite patience Hans teaches her to read using the unusual primer, and Liesel discovers a passion for books and an antipathy for book-burning Nazis.

As the pressures of the looming warin Europe grow, Liesel’s new parents hide a young Jew named Max (Ben Schnetzer) in their basement.

He becomes the brother Liesel lost, and further proof to her that Hitler is no better than a school yard bully.

When Max falls ill, Liesel steals books from the local Big Wig to read to him.

In turn he encourages her to find her own words to make sense of the world and her place in it.

Based on the bestselling book of the same name by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief is a complex tale full of allusions and allegories that, for all it’s sweetness, probably had more resonance on the page.

The fairytale conceit of a personified Death who becomes enchanted by Liesel’s indomitable spirit is at odds with the otherwise grounded story of wartime struggles.

Elements of German fairy tales do litter the story though, especially in the nicknames Liesel the budding writer gives friends and family: the boy with lemon coloured hair, the man with the accordion heart, the woman cloaked in thunder.

But, unlike another wartime fairytale, Pan’s Labyrinth, it is words, rather than the images, that give the film its magical lilt.

Having said that, it is beautifully shot at times looking like something out of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, with enough visual lusciousness and looming war ogres to hint at a Brothers Grimm lineage.

Nelisse as the fearless Liesel has a stunning otherworldly quality, too, with her giant lambent eyes and heart shaped face. She gives a charming performance as the ice princess whose heart is thawed by longed for affection.

In a gruesome genre, The Book Thief is a gentle film with just enough depth for children still too tender-hearted to deal with the realities of war, but ready to learn the power of perseverance, boldness and familial love.

 


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