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‘The Book Thief’: Film captures sadness, bliss of the novel


Hans Geoffrey Rush

Rosa Emily Watson

Liesel Sophie Nelisse

Max Ben Schnetzer

Fox 2000 Pictures presents a film directed by Brian Percival and written by Michael Petroni, based on the book by Markus Zusak. Running time: 131 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material). Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre, AMC River East and Century 12 in Evanston.

Updated: December 16, 2013 6:06AM

When we think of Nazi Germany, we think of Hitler spewing his mad rants of hatred, and oversized blood-red banners hanging from buildings, and men with swastika armbands committing unspeakable atrocities.

We don’t think so much about the normal German families. The teenage boys and older men who had no choice but to join Hitler’s fighting force. The mothers and sisters and girlfriends, many of whom no doubt secretly hated Hitler and silently cursed him for what he wrought on their homeland.

“The Book Thief” is a wondrous, richly textured, sometimes heartbreakingly effective movie about good Germans, including a remarkable little girl and the couple who took her in and loved her as their own daughter while risking everything to shelter a teenage Jewish boy living in their basement. In a particularly strong year for Best Picture candidates, don’t be surprised if this relatively small, quietly powerful film slips past every other contender and takes home Oscar.

When the Australian author Markus Zusak published “The Book Thief” in 2005, one wouldn’t have expected it to become an internationally acclaimed bestseller particularly popular with tween and teenage readers. Narrated by Death and set in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s, with all the attendant horrors and tragedies you’d expect would transpire in such a setting, this would hardly seem to be the stuff of mainstream popularity and a big-screen adaptation.

But as those who read the book know, this is also a story about the triumph of the human spirit and the almost unbearable joy of living a long life and knowing the true meaning of what it is to love and be loved.

Of course the film has to be a more external story, and you know some fans of Zusak’s wonderful book will have their criticisms, but screenwriter Michael Petroni and director Brian Percival (who has helmed a number of episodes of “Downton Abbey”) have done a marvelous, respectful job of capturing the epic sadness and the moments of pure, soul-soaring bliss in the book.

Young Sophie Nelisse is asked to carry much of the load as the fierce and sweet and protective and loving Liesel, and she’s up to the task. Without the right casting of this role, the movie would have no chance.

After her young brother dies, Liesel is sent to live with the strangers Hans and Rosa Hubermann in the small village of Molching, just outside of Munich. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson deserve Oscar consideration for their lovely, layered performances. We feel as if we’re seeing them through Liesel’s eyes — Hans the supposed layabout with the heart of gold, Rosa with her own deep reserves of humanity hidden beneath her thunder. Watson in particular has so many moments when she just kills with her amazing sense of timing, never overplaying Rosa’s stern, sometimes almost mean ways, and never overselling Rosa’s shining moments.

Unseen but heard in the occasional voice-over, Death hovers about, commenting with no small amount of compassion about the mystery of people, who can be so evil and then so unbearably kind.

Unable to read when she first arrives in town and labeled a “dummkopf” by classmates, Liesel will stop at nothing to learn to read, soon becoming addicted to books to the point where she “borrows” tomes from a certain home library. Liesel’s love of words never wavers. Never.

Most of “The Book Thief” takes place on the one street in that small German town, where shopkeepers are suddenly turned into soldiers, where anyone suspected of being Jewish is hauled off, when young men playing soccer in the streets are recruited.

And where the Hubermanns hide a young Jewish man named Max in their basement for two solid years.

Playing a character confined to a bedroom and then a tiny basement for nearly the entirety of the story, Ben Schnetzer does fine work as Max, who becomes a big brother figure to Liesel and relies on her colorful descriptions of the world outside to keep his sanity.

At times “The Book Thief” plays almost like a fable, as when Hans fashions a dictionary out of the basement walls, or Max and Liesel have a snowball fight indoors, or Liesel spins stories to calm the neighbors huddled in an air raid shelter.

Other times, the genocide Hitler inflicted on his enemies and by association so many basically good German people is brought home in unblinking fashion.

Clocking in at a little more than two hours, “The Book Thief” moves too deliberately at times. Still, this is one of the best movies of the year, featuring one of the most perfect endings of any movie in recent memory.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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