Markus Zusak’s unconventional bestselling novel beautifully comes to life in “The Book Thief,” newly released on DVD and now available at your Roanoke County Public Libraries. This tale of human triumph over the insanity and horrors of Nazi Germany has an unexpectedly poetic and dreamlike quality about it largely due to its soft-spoken, well-mannered and thoughtful narration by Death (Roger Allam). Though this direct from the novel conceit is unnecessary in the film adaptatation, it nonetheless adds to the poignant beauty of its characters.
In 1938 Germany, young Liesel Meminger (an astounding Sophie Nelisse) comes to live with her new foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann (an absolutely perfect Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson). Watson’s strong and unyielding household reign as Rosa, a hardworking laundress barely putting food on the table, initially seems to offer a hard life ahead for Liesel. However, her plight is mitigated by the soft, kindly words and fancies of the mostly out of work artist Hans. Rush quietly grabs hold of your heart and brings hope and levity to the gravest of times with as little as a simple wink.
Hans teaches Liesel to read, starting with a carelessly dropped handbook she saved from the coals at her little brother’s burial. Her newfound literacy opens her eyes to a whole new world that later sees her saving a copy of H. G. Wells’ “The Invisible Man” from the smoldering remains of a Nazi book burning and “borrowing” imprisoned literature from the library of the burgomeister’s wife. Reading these books aloud helps her bring aid and comfort to Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jewish man secreted in the basement.
The refreshing aspect of this story is its focus on the hopes, strengths and triumphs of spirit of those struggling to survive the Nazi onslaught rather than on the evil itself. Heartwarming moments such as Liesel poetically describing the weather outside to the sheltered Max, bringing a snowball fight indoors, and telling a story to calm frightened people during an air raid are priceless highlights. Yet images of increasing numbers of swastika flags and sounds such as unexpected knocks or approaching engines remind us of the impending horror. And its quiet, insidious presentation makes it all the more chilling.