In a better world, filmmakers would have to sign a pledge promising not to make warmhearted films about the Holocaust, particularly ones in which children have prominent parts. If Roberto Benigni’s sentimental “Life is Beautiful” of 15 years ago didn’t make the case, “The Book Thief,” opening in Washington on Friday, certainly does.
Based on the best-selling novel by Markus Zusak, the film is a fairy tale with Nazis, in which grown-ups kick children into the street, Hitler is the Big Bad Wolf and Jews are ornaments that ordinary Germans use to display their kinder or darker natures.
Geoffrey Rush is the accordion-playing Good German Hans Hubermann, and Emily Watson his shrew-not-a-shrew wife, Rosa. In their Nazified town, Hans, a house painter, can’t make a living because he won’t join the Party. He’s reduced to odd jobs removing Jewish names from the signs of stores after their owners have been shipped to concentration camps. (It’s emblematic of the movie’s skewed reality that you don’t know if you should feel bad for the hapless Hans or the unseen Jews.) Rosa tries to make ends meet as a washer woman. Her biggest client is the burgermeister, the chief Nazi in town.
Into their grim, wintry world comes Liesel, a blue-eyed girl with blond curls and apple cheeks whom Hans and Rosa have taken in as a foster child. Her arrival is accompanied by much griping from Rosa and before the first night falls, it doesn’t seem far-fetched that the hausfrau will use Liesel as the main ingredients in the week’s stew.
Henpecked Hans becomes the girl’s protector and, discovering that she doesn’t know how to read, he begins to teach her, using a grave-diggers manual she picked off the ground at her brother’s funeral at the start of the movie. In this way, she becomes the book thief of the film’s title.
If there is any enchantment in this story, it is the alchemy produced by Liesel and the books she continues to “borrow” whenever she can. But nothing can erase the air of barely acknowledged genocide that hangs over this story. It’s as if “The Book Thief” has stolen the soul of the Shoah and is trying to keep it out of sight. No one really wants to tell Liesel what’s going on in the real world outside the frame, except perhaps the audience.
Played by Canadian Sophie Nélisse, Liesel manages to impress something of herself on everyone she comes in contact with. On her first day at her Hitlered-up school, she gives a welcome thrashing to the class bully, who is destined to become a thug and a snitch for the Reich. In doing so, she wins the admiration and friendship of her tow-headed next door neighbor, Rudy.
And through her newfound love of books — itself suspect in her book-burning town — she draws close to the burgermeister’s wife, who is grieving for her only child.
Then there is Max (Ben Schnetzer). He’s the Jew whom the Hubermanns hide through much of the war. This makes them selfless, of course, but so is Max. As the chaos of war draws near to the town, he can no longer bear the danger he is putting the family in. So he leaves to meet whatever fate awaits him.
Fairy tales are stories of the not real, that’s what makes them safe. Although they are filled with unsettling characters and events, their settings allow children to process the disquieting and ugly aspects of real life.
Liesel is not Gretel or Little Red Riding Hood. Although she is a made-up girl, the Shoah was real. And it is a cheap trick to ground her growing realization about the world on the backs of millions and millions of real life victims of genocide.
The Holocaust is simply too fresh (still) and its symbols too potent to wrap a story of a little blond German girl around it. We know what she doesn’t know about her world, but the result is not irony. It’s impatience.
So when Liesel and Rudy, free from overhearing ears, complain to each other about Hitler, they seem like two kids grousing that that the Fuhrer took away their iPods. And when they shout “I hate Hitler” at the top of their lungs, it seems less a cathartic declaration of freedom than a cheeky act by children of privilege.
Director Brian Percival shot “The Book Thief” in warm colors of nostalgia. Even Liesel’s street, after it is bombed to pieces by the unnamed Allies, takes on a sentimental wholesomeness. The dead, when they die, seem more to be sleeping, a confusion belonging to young childhood that fairy tales often mine.
As I was leaving a screening of “The Book Thief,” I heard someone behind me say to his companion that the film had reminded him of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” I knew what he meant. The war. The Jews. The hiding. Only in this case, Anne had the luxury of being a blond-haired, apple-cheeked German girl who survived the war.
Geoffrey Rush and company on ‘The Book Thief’
“We never set out to make a Holocaust movie,” says Brian Percival, “The Book Thief’s” director. “It was first and foremost about the human spirit and overcoming the worst.”
Young people who see the film can “find out more for themselves” about the Holocaust with “two clicks on Google,” he says in a phone interview with WJW, during a press stop in Washington with others involved in the film.
Young moviegoers are likely to be unfamiliar with that period in history. Thirteen-year-old Sophie Nélisse, who plays Liesel, says she took her best friend to see “The Book Thief.” “She didn’t understand what was going on.”
Nélisse herself learned most of what she knows about the Shoah while making the film. She says the Holocaust will be taught in her Montreal class in another year or two. Films like “Schindler’s List” and “Life is Beautiful” were part of her education.
In 100 years, Holocaust survivors “won’t be here, so movies are a great way to show it — so people remember them,” she says.
Like the novel, the film is narrated by Death, who is “philosophical,” “wry and satiric,” says Geoffrey Rush, who plays Liesel’s foster father, Hans. Death is captivated by “this grief-stricken motherless illiterate 10-year-old” and follows her on her journey.
The film does have a “Grimm’s fairy tale quality,” at least at its start, Rush says. Through Liesel’s eyes Hans appears as “the happy woodcutter” and Emily Watson’s Rosa as “the wicked stepmother.” But then they reveal “more layered, more interesting surprises,” he says.
Rush, whose film roles include eccentric characters such as Captain Barbossa in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, and who not long ago played Lady Bracknell in “The Importance of Being Earnest” on stage, says the quiet Hans offered him something new.
“The role has a great fascination for me — the temperature and tempo of his fascinating inner life. It was a challenge to me to find something more interior and more nuanced.”
Percival agrees. “It’s been different for Geoffrey to play someone real and natural.”
For Australian novelist Markus Zusak, the fame attained by “The Book Thief,” first published in the United States in 2006, was perhaps more than he counted on.
“I thought it would be my least successful book,” he says. He’s wrestled with the aftermath, wondering, “Am I profiting off of one of the great crimes of history?”
Still, as the book and now the film remind us, “We still have to have joy in our lives and give our kids a great childhood,” he says. “And to never forget.”
— David Holzel