The New York Times best selling novel, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, makes its way onto the big screen this November, adapting this love story for books into a moving film about German girl, Liesel who finds courage in the fear-stricken world of WWII to steal books. Though set during the war, the film shatters the holocaust movie cliché of gray grief by using a storybook palette that deftly uses the setting of WWII only as a context.
With the custom built set that translates the rich imagery of the novel into the brick and cobblestone world of the small-town street of Himmel Straße or Heaven Street, the fairytale nostalgia provides the right balance of soul-piercing charm and haunting gravity.
Though it glows with the warmth of the period piece magic that it’s director is master at conveying – Brian Percival directed episodes of Downton Abbey – the austerity of living in this time period is not diminished. In fact, by coloring it through the eyes of a quiet, impressionable girl, the realism attains greater heights.
Rather than relying on graphic scenes of starvation and murder to trigger sympathy, the film excavates into the mind of the audience to provoke an equally visceral punch. Still, despite the depth of the subject matter, the comic moments -most courtesy of Geoffrey Rush, who plays Liesel’s Papa – are so abundant and integral they cannot be characterized as relief.
It is these contradictions that make the movie heart-wrenchingly human. This coexistence of extremes is as much a part of the story as it is part of the cinematography. In a Krystallnacht scene in which Nazis break through glass storefronts as they assault their Jewish-owners, the violence is contraposed by the ironically angelic voices of children chanting nationalistic creeds.
Liesel too is the embodiment of contradiction, as she loves books though she struggles to read. Captured perfectly by Sophie Nélisse, she is both child and adult, both eager and afraid.
Sophie explains she also possesses the duality of her character, saying “when I feel bad for someone, I’m kind of gentle” but also says that like Liesel she is “kind of strong-minded”.
Director, Brian Percival sifted through more than 1000 girls to cast her, choosing Sophie, because “for all intents and purposes Sophie is Liesel”, which allowed her to play herself and bring out her most raw performance, he says.
Sophie’s natural performance combined with the dual-natured elements of the film, The Book Thief effectively captures the fragments of hope that come together to create beauty amidst tragedy.
As if observing the coexistence of contradicting emotions in the film, the narrator of Death adeptly observes at the end of the film of the humans he presides over, “I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both”.
If you go:
November 22 in select theaters