Santa Cruz Good Times

Sunday
May 24th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Words of Wonder

film the-book-thiefReading an antidote to war in beautifully acted 'Book Thief'

You need not have read Markus Zusak's bestselling young adult novel to be drawn to The Book Thief. Bibliophiles, in particular, will find the premise of a child who steals books because she is so addicted to reading just about irresistible. As usual with literary adaptations, there's a lot more going on in Zusak's 500-plus-page novel than ever makes it to the screen. But the essence of Zusak's story about a girl whose love of books helps her to survive devastating times—the rise of the Nazis in a World War II-era German town—retains its power.

Scripted by Michael Petroni (who's had a hand in adapting authors as diverse as Anne Rice and C.S. Lewis for the screen), The Book Thief is directed by Downton Abbey veteran Brian Percival. It's a stately looking film that wisely concentrates on personal dynamics, while the escalating horrors of the war are kept mostly off-screen. And it finally succeeds on an ensemble of absolutely lovely performances led by Geoffrey Rush as the girl's warm-hearted foster father, Emily Watson as his crusty-seeming wife, and beguiling 13-year-old French-Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse in the title role.

The story begins in 1938, with young Liesel (Nélisse) riding in a train with her mother and sickly little brother. But the boy dies and is buried in a snowy graveyard near the tracks. Soon, Liesel has been turned over to the authorities by her mother (an alleged Communist), and is being delivered to her new foster parents, Hans (Rush) and Rosa (Watson) Hubermann, in a town outside of Munich. Rosa fumes that they were expecting two children, and the extra government subsidy that would come with them, but Hans has a care for the frightened girl's feelings and steadily earns her affection with his gentleness and good humor.

Liesel quickly gains a new best friend in smitten next-door neighbor, Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch), and she beats up the class bully in a fury for mocking her when her new schoolmates find out she can't read or write. When Hans, a semi-employed sign painter, discovers a book in Liesel's possession—"The Gravedigger's Handbook," which she found dropped at her brother's graveside—he suggests they read it together; he also creates a "dictionary" in chalk on the walls of the basement to help her learn new words.

As Liesel awakens to the wonder of words, the Nazis come to power with their campaign of moral and intellectual "cleansing." When books are burned in the square, she can't resist smuggling a smoking volume home. Delivering a basket of laundry Rosa has washed to the buergmeister's house, Liesel bonds with the buergmeister's wife (Barbara Auer), who invites her to make use of the family library. Even after the buergmeister stops sending his laundry to Rosa, Liesel starts sneaking into the library to "borrow" books.

But Liesel's petty crimes pale next to the war encroaching steadily into the town: neighbors are conscripted into the army, Jews are dragged out of their homes for an unknown fate, and terrifying air raids disrupt everything. Tensions mount when the Hubermanns shelter Jewish refugee, Max (Ben Schnetzer), in their basement—a young man who also loves words and encourages Liesel to tell her own story.

There is probably more book thievery in the novel than the film; the filmmakers focus more on character relationships. And, like the book, the film is narrated intermittently by Death (voice of Roger Allam), a device that sometimes feels precious and distancing, but also turns up some wry observations. ("When the time comes, don't panic," Death advises us humans. "It doesn't seem to help.") It also keeps the audience on edge throughout, knowing that in any story involving Nazis, Death will play a big part, sooner or later.

That the worst of war's brutality is kept off-screen fits with the viewpoint of children who can't really comprehend what's happening in the larger world. (It seems odd in one scene that bombing victims' bodies are stretched out peacefully intact on the ground after the buildings are reduced to rubble.) But the emotional connection between the characters—especially the moving relationship between humble Hans, struggling to retain his humanity, and his devoted Liesel—gives the film its validity and grace. 


THE BOOK THIEF  ★ ★ ★ (out of four) With Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, and Ben Schnetzer. Written by Michael Petroni. From the novel by Markus Zusak. Directed by Brian Percival. A 20th Century Fox release. Rated PG-13. 131 minutes.

Comments (0)Add Comment

Write comment
smaller | bigger

busy
 

Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share

 

Gate Openers

Up-and-coming artists like Ryan Bingham are a great reason to show up early to the Santa Cruz American Music Festival

 

Gemini Sun, Pentecost, Shavuot—Enlightenment and Gladness

As the sun enters Gemini on Sunday, sign of speaking, communication, thinking, inter-relations, writing and understanding languages, the feast days of Pentecost & Shavuot (Catholic and Jewish festivals) occur. During Pentecost’s 50 days after Easter, tongues of fire appear above the heads of the disciples, providing them with the ability to understand all languages and all feelings hidden in the minds and hearts of humanity. It’s recorded that Pentecost began with a loud noise, which happened in an upper room (signifying the mind). The Christ (World Teacher) told his disciples (after his ascension) when encountering a man at a well carrying a water pot (signs for Age of Aquarius) to follow him to an upper room. There, the Holy Spirit (Ray 3 of Divine Intelligence) would overshadow them, expand their minds, give them courage and enable them to teach throughout the world, speaking all languages and thus able to minister to the true needs of a “seeking” humanity. Pentecost (50 days, pentagram, Ray 5, Venus, concrete and scientific knowledge, the Ray of Aquarius) sounds dramatic, impressive and scary: The loud noise, a thunderous rush of wind and then “tongues of fire” above the heads of each disciple (men and women). Fire has purpose. It purifies, disintegrates, purges, transforms and liberates (frees) us from the past. This was the Holy Spirit (Ray 3, love and wisdom) being received by the disciples, so they would teach in the world and inform humanity of the Messiah (Christ), who initiated the new age (Pisces) and gave humanity the new law (adding to the 10 Commandments of the Aries Age) to Love (Ray 2) one another. Note: Gemini is also Ray 2. Shavuot is the Jewish Festival of Gladness, the First Fruits Festival celebrating the giving of the 10 Commandments to Moses as the Aries Age was initiated. Thus, we have two developmental stages here, Jewish festival of the Old Testament. Pentecost of the New Testament. We have gladness, integrating both.

 

The New Tech Nexus

Community leaders in science and technology unite to form web-based networking program

 

Off Her Meds

Kristin Wiig runs wild—and transcends her sketch comedy roots—as a truly strange character ‘Welcome to Me’
Sign up for Good Times weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments

 

Flats Bistro

Pizza with an artisan twist comes to Aptos Beach

 

What’s your take on Santa Cruz locals?

Santa Cruz locals are really friendly once you know them. I think a lot of them have a hard time leaving, and I would too. Ryan Carle, Santa Cruz, Biologist

 

Soquel Vineyards

If Soquel Vineyards partners Peter and Paul Bargetto and Jon Morgan were walking down the street wearing their winning wine competition medals, you’d hear them coming from a mile away. This year was particularly rewarding for the Bargettos and Morgan—they won two Double Gold Medals and five Gold Medals at January’s San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

 

Enlightened Flavors

Squash & Blossom’s artisanal alternative-flour delights, beet kvass from Cafe Ivéta, and the Santa Cruz Baroque Festival