Based on the novel of the same name, The Book Thief is set in Germany in the throes of World War II and tells the story of Liesel, a child who is sent to live with a foster family when her mother is suspected of being a communist. Whilst there, she befriends Max, a Jewish refugee whom the family are hiding in the basement. Relationships are fraught and secrets are hidden everywhere. Liesel must keep a few of her own, even from her best friend Rudy.
I didn’t expect to like this, mainly because I tend to find movies that are set in wars to be a bit too overblown. They often (in my opinion, at least) don’t show the actual horror of war, settling instead for a level of grisly gore that’s nothing short of gratuitous. I’m all for gratuitous gore, of course (Machete is one of my favourite films), but in war movies I just find it a bit… insensitive, perhaps.
Anyway, The Book Thief exceeded all my expectations. The characters are beautifully developed and the cinematography is excellent. It’s the little details that make the movie, too: the Nazi insignias on the children’s uniforms lend an extra level of cruelty to a film that’s already not afraid to show the world as a harsh place.
And this film is cruel, in the most torturous yet authentic way. Liesel has already lost everything: her mother, her little brother, her home, her old friends – and is just beginning to rebuild her life when it looks like that will be torn away from her, too. Every time there is an air raid we feel the desperate fear of the residents of the small town where she lives. They cower in the shelter and Liesel’s adoptive father plays his accordion to keep up their spirits.
Each time a new tragedy occurred my heart sank a little further (and a few more sniffs could be heard around the screening room), until by the end, when the most important aspects of Liesel’s young life are put in danger once again, I was internally begging the director: please spare her this one. PLEASE.
The end of the film was very silent. The credits rolled and we sat suspended for a few moments. On the way out I passed two other reviewers, both tearstained and sniffling. “That film was brutal!” we agreed. Brutal, but excellent.
The Book Thief demonstrates the horrors of war in a way that is simultaneously direct and subtle. The focus on the characters’ relationships and emotions, and away from the actual sustained injuries, make for a movie that will pierce its way into your heart and stick around there for a long time.
The Book Thief comes out in UK cinemas on the 26th of February 2014.