Movie Review: The Book Thief

Movie Review: The Book Thief

Hollywood hits a home run with this touching war-time drama

By Mark HadleyWednesday 8 Jan 2014MoviesReading Time: 3 minutes

Hollywood hits a home run – what was a profound and enthralling book has been turned into an equally meaningful movie for the summer crowds.

Hollywood hits a home run with 'The Book Thief'. 
The Book Thief is based on the New York Times Bestseller by the same name. Markus Zusak’s story concerns Liesel Meminger, a young German girl placed with foster parents during World War Two because her mother is a communist. She comes to live on Himmel (Heaven) Street in the little town of Molching, where she meets her new parents Mama and Papa Huberman. At first the Hubermans seem to be a sad pair to be stuck with – Rosa (Emily Watson) is a stern woman with a razor-sharp tongue and Hans (Geoffrey Rush) is a house painter who struggles to hold down a job. But together they not only teach Liesel how to read and care for herself, but a loving sense of humour that helps her see the better side of life:

Liesel: “What’s an accountant?”

Hans: “Something we’ll never need.”

The Book Thief is a perfectly paced tale with emotional characters who worm their way irresistibly into your heart. However the most interesting individual is no person at all. The story is narrated by Death, given voice by Roger Allam. The Book Thief is in fact the story of Death’s interest in Liesel and the various occasions on which he encounters her. Through Death’s eyes we are introduced to the real heartbreaks of the human race, including the tragedy of young men marching off to war:

“It’s always the same – the excitement. I’ve met so many young men over the years who thought they were running at their enemy when the truth was they were running at me.”

Personally I’m in favour of any book or film that encourages us to take a closer look at death. Not the glamourised sacrifices that are slotted into Hollywood dramas, nor the disturbing titillation that overflows in horror films. I mean real death: the unavoidable cliff that every human being will have to come to terms with sooner or later … hopefully sooner. Hans Huberman struggles to assist those oppressed by the Nazi regime, including a number of Jews. Doing so, he reminds his neighbours that life is not about avoiding death but reaching your last day having lived like a real human being. 

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Of course it’s expected that a fair amount of humanism will work its way into a book that acknowledges the death but has no real sense of what comes next. In the face of the worst tragedies, The Book Thief often misconstrues death as a blessed release. “In the end, there are no words,” Death tells us, “Only peace.” But this is small comfort to those left pondering the grave problem of evil.  If the same fate awaits Hitler as that which awaits Liesel Meminger, then why follow Hans example?

In the book, at least, Death admits that he knows nothing about God or his plans, but both versions encourage their audiences to give some thought to the day they move on from this world:

“His soul sat up. It met me. Those kinds of souls always do – the best ones. The ones who rise up and say ‘I know who you are and I am ready. Not that I want to go, of course, but I will come.’”

The Book Thief will be doing us a favour if it encourages us to consider how we would feel a heartbeat after our demise. If the prospect of dying fills us with dread then it challenges us to ask why? If we cling to the things of this life because we have no assurance of peace in the world to come then it would certainly be better to sort out that concern this side of the grave. And if a Christian is there to tell us about the one man who defeated Death so that no-one need live in fear, then all the better. 

Rating: M
Distributor: Fox

Release Date:January 9