Santa Cruz Good Times

Friday
Aug 29th
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

 

Mercury Enters Libra

It’s the week of Burning Man, the temporary, intentional, alternative, art-filled community on the playas of Nevada. Mercury, messenger of the Sun, enters Libra this week. Libra is the equalizer, a sign of balance and right human relations. Sometimes with Libra, we can be indecisive and confused while learning how to make balanced and right choices. Sometimes to keep the peace we communicate only what others want to hear. Eventually, we learn how to speak from the heart.

 

Final Cut

Cedar Street Video to close after 10 years at downtown location

 

Banter and Spark

Engaging actors, wry script distinguish lightweight rom-com ‘What If’

 

Back to Silicon Beach

With a new wave of startups, the future of Santa Cruz tech looks more promising than ever
Sign up for Good Times weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments

 

Himalayan Kitchen

Chef Purna Regmi on the secrets of Nepalese cooking

 

What’s the nicest thing you’ve done for someone this week?

Germany  |  Beekeeper

 

Best of Santa Cruz County

The 2013 Santa Cruz County Readers' Poll and Critics’ Picks It’s our biggest issue of the year, and in it, your votes—more than 6,500 of them—determined the winners of The Best of Santa Cruz County Readers’ Poll. New to the long list of local restaurants, shops and other notables that captured your interest: Best Beer Selection, Best Locally Owned Business, Best Customer Service and Best Marijuana Dispensary. In the meantime, many readers were ever so chatty online about potential new categories. Some of the suggestions that stood out: Best Teen Program and Best Web Design/Designer. But what about: Dog Park, Church, Hotel, Local Farm, Therapist (I second that!) or Sports Bar—not to be confused with Bra. Our favorite suggestion: Best Act of Kindness—one reader noted Café Gratitude and the free meals it offered to the Santa Cruz Police Department in the aftermath of recent crimes. Perhaps some of these can be woven into next year’s ballot, so stay tuned. In the meantime, enjoy the following pages and take note of our Critics’ Picks, too, beginning on page 91. A big thanks for voting—and for reading—and an even bigger congratulations to all of the winners. Enjoy.  -Greg Archer, EditorBest of Santa Cruz County Readers’ Poll INDEX

 

A Cab To Be Coveted

I first tasted Villa del Monte’s 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon at a Fourth of July party, where the hosts had bought a case of it because they love it and didn’t want to run out. It’s one of those wines that will grab you—in the best way—with its full body and rich fruit characteristics.