“I am haunted by humans.”
For ages now, World War II and the Holocaust have served as powerful inspirations for some of the greatest stories ever told on film. Schindler’s List. Sophie’s Choice. The Pianist. The Thin Red Line. Saving Private Ryan. Here, we have another entry into the holocaust/WWII sub-genre through The Book Thief, and even it doesn’t measure up to the mastery of the previously mentioned pictures, its captivation and its emotional grandeur is more than enough to absorb audiences into its narrative and into its spellbinding story.
Based on the book of the same name by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief follows the story of Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), a young girl abandoned by her parents to foster care who lost her brother on the way to her new home. Her foster parents, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa Hubermann (Emily Watson) at first intimidate her at her arrival, but after Hans spends some time with her at night teaching her how to read, she soon becomes more accepting and even compassionate towards her new family, even though she can never recover from her brother’s death.
The Book Thief is a wonderful picture, blissfully tragic and eerily optimistic at the same time. It weaves from one emotion to another in, from that of heartbreaking tragedy to that of childlike innocence and joy. Just like the 1997 film Life Is Beautiful, the movie has its fair share of smiles, laughs and tears.
Much of this is credited to the inspiration of the original novel, whose freshness of emotion is retained faithfully in this adaptation. The movie is wonderfully filmed, tightly-edited and affectionately made, its shots lingering on long pauses, allowing us to sit still and silently reflect on the tragedies these characters are experiencing. One of the best scenes in this movie is one where Liesel is simply laying on her mattress in her bedroom, stare lingering on the empty bed next to her. No narration is given, no words are said, yet we can still tell from the sadness in her eyes that she’s thinking about and missing her brother.
Many scenes in the movie are like this, where the best language given is one that isn’t spoken. The cast is brilliant with exhibiting this non-verbal language, with Nélisse and Rush having near-flawless chemistry with each other. Rush specifically has the highlight performance. His character is so upbeat, supportive and optimistic that he reminds us of Robin Williams from movie roles including Good Will Hunting and Patch Adams.
The imposing element, however, is the musical score by John Williams. His music is so effective at highlighting dramatic moments that at times the sound of beautiful strings fills us with more emotion than anything we can watch on screen.
It’s only shame is that the movie doesn’t reach the same level of emotional complexion that the book does. Because it tries to cram everything from the book into the movie, and because its trying to do this in a 125-minute runtime, there are moments that are too quick or even rush to feel the emotional gravity of the situation, especially when it comes to the third act.
Regardless, The Book Thief aims to be a emotional historical epic, and it is an emotional epic indeed. It’s a powerful allegory about a young girl trying to find peace in a world full of chaos.