Urban Cinefile  
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 


When young Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) is sent away to live with adoptive parents Rosa (Emily Watson) and Hans (Geoffrey Rush) in a small German town during the war, she befriends Rudy (Nico Liersch) a boy her own age. Just as she learns to read for the first time, thanks to Hans, a young Jewish man, Max, (Ben Schnetzer), turns up seeking refuge and is hidden in the cellar. Here, Liesel reads to Max, who encourages her to read and also to write. Inevitably, the war disrupts this arrangement - and indeed, Liesel's whole life.

Review by Louise Keller:
There is a pivotal scene in which Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) describes the sun as a silver oyster to Max (Ben Schnetzer), the Jewish refugee hidden in the basement. It has been a long time since he has seen the world outside and the expression on his face when he asks the young girl to describe what she sees outside - if her eyes could speak - tells us he is well satisfied by the description.

Michael Petroni's adaptation of Markus Zusak's potent novel is filled with such descriptive moments in this keenly observed tale about books, words and humanity set on a backdrop of WWII's Nazi Germany. Director Brian Percival has woven a masterful tale about life, made all the more effective by the fact that it is narrated by the supercilious voice of death.

The film begins in February 1938 with a train ride that ends in a death. It is at the gravesite in the dense snow that Liesel intuitively picks up a book that has been left behind - even though she cannot read. The book is the first bond between Liesel and her new adoptive father Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and the establishment of a wall-dictionary in the basement to help her learn new words, is the beginning of Liesel's love affair with words.

Rush brings great compassion to the role of Hans Hubermann, the gentle man with a sense of humanity, who plays an accordion that was not always his. Emily Watson is formidable as Hans' thunderstorm-like wife Rosa, who is all growl, scowl and no bite. The other key characters are Rudy (Nico Liersch, exceptional), the angel-faced blond boy who wants to kiss Liesel and Max the Jew (Schnetzer), who is nursed back to life by food, love and the words from books that Liesel surreptitiously borrows.

Schnetzer underplays Max beautifully and the scene in which Max and Liesel read imaginary letters by Adolf Hitler's mother to her despot son is one of the film's highlights. I also like the scenes when Liesel is offered a book by the Burgemeister's wife Ilsa (Barbara Auer), whose library is a shrine to her dead son. It is from this extensive library that Liesel does most of her 'borrowing'. As Liesel, Nélisse is bewitching, her doe eyes filled with expression, her satin skin luminous in the wintry setting and her delivery outstanding.

Sharing words and stories are the mainstay of the film's themes and Percival's decision for all the actors to assume a guttural German accent works surprisingly well, while smatterings of German language naturally are woven into the dialogue. Great care has been taken with the casting and all the accents are uniform - with the exception of that of the narrator depicting Death, whose tones are appropriately coldly English. Production design is immaculate and John Williams' score supports the emotional tenure without overwhelming it.

Humour is integrated naturally into the drama, offering light relief in the context of a film in which tension and life and death issues play a large role. This is a beautiful story superbly brought to the screen with a heart as warm as the snow is cold.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
For all its splendid veracity to look at, authentically replicating wartime provincial Germany, The Book Thief struggles to find matching authenticity in the story and the characters. English speaking actors playing German characters with German accents may be a commercial necessity, but it's a cinematic curse, and in combination with stilted direction, it's an element that edges the film into weak melodrama and sentimentality.

Emily Watson more or less overcomes this linguistic obstacle as the grumpy adoptive mother (who turns out to have a bigger heart than she lets on) and young Sophie Nélisse delivers a charming, well articulated performance as Liesel; but still this isn't enough to overcome 'nasty Nazi' clichés and clunky (not to mention elongated) storytelling.

Rudy, although an appealing performance by Nico Liersch, is given dialogue more suitable for an older character, and the confected nature of the story drags down the dramatic power of the underlying story. It just goes to show that even successful books (such as this one by Aussie author Markus Zusak), based on oral histories heard around the family home, can suffer loss of power in the adaptation to screen.

Sadly, not even John Williams' score is remarkable.

Email this article

Favourable: 1
Unfavourable: 1
Mixed: 0

(US/Germany, 2013)

CAST: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Heike Makatsch, Julian Lehmann, Ben Schnetzer

NARRATION: Roger Allam

PRODUCER: Ken Blancato, Karen Rosenfelt

DIRECTOR: Brian Percival

SCRIPT: Michael Petroni (novel by Markus Zusak)


EDITOR: John Wilson

MUSIC: John Williams


RUNNING TIME: 131 minutes



© Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2020