The Book Thief: A Restoration of Faith in Humanity

We have all seen and read films about the Holocaust: Elie Wiesel’s Night, The Diary of Anne Frank, Schindler’s List, etcetera; however, these films and books as well as others that have been written about the Holocaust are true accounts by victims of the Holocaust or true accounts of Jews who were helped by Germans or other Europeans during War World II.  The Book Thief, however, is a novel by Australian author, Markus Zusak, that uses verisimilitude as it tells the story of a German family who hid a young Jewish man for several years during World War II. The book has been made into a film of high quality directed by Brian Percival. The film is told through a personified death (Roger Allam) that knows all of the characters because at some point in the retelling of this drama, he becomes intimately acquainted with all of them. The protagonist, Liesel ( Sophie Nelisse), is placed in a foster care family when her mother (Heike Makatsch)) is no longer able to care for her.  Her brother dies shortly before she is placed undesirably with this family (Liesel and her new mom are both skeptical of her becoming part of the family).  Upon arrival, Liesel bonds with her new dad (Geoffrey Rush) but she has a strained relationship with her new mother (Emily Watson).  After attending school for the first time at her new school, her inability to read or write is detected.  As a result, her father adroitly teaches her to read.  Liesel has a friend, and a confidant  (Rudy, played by Nico Liersch) who makes her feel comfortable in her new environs.  The backdrop for this film is the impending Holocaust.  The film highlights the difficulty of being Jewish during this time.  As history tells us, the Jews in many European countries were rounded up and taken to concentration camps.  The film, however, does not focus on the concentration camps, but on the personal sacrifice of one family to help a young Jewish man, Max (Ben Schnetzer), escape detection.  Like Anne Frank, this man was hidden in Liesel’s family’s basement over a protracted period. When deciding whether the family would help this man whose father was known by the family, the father says, “We can’t afford not to.”

This commitment proves to be difficult both financially and emotionally, for the family must now engage in surreptitious behavior and Liesel must clandestinely hide this information from her best friend, Rudy.  The family must ration their food to feed their house guest, Max.  Liesel must engage in mendacity and the family must take care of Max during his recurrent illness.  The film underscores the daunting secretive tasks that the family undertakes to safely hide the young man and protect the family. As we see the challenges that befall the family, the film causes an emotive response that makes one despise the vestiges of prejudice regardless of its source.

The title of this film takes its name from Liesel’s desire to read.  She is given books by the wife of her mother’s client.  At that point in the film, the woman’s husband prohibits Liesel from reading the books.  As a result, she stealthily takes books from their library.  Moreover, when books are forbidden to be read and they are burned, she smuggles a book that she desires to read.  During the seclusion of Max, both he and Liesel read books until he is no longer able to read because of his recurring malaise which periodically plagues him for long periods of time.

During the war, the family undergoes great heartache and sorrow and the young man realizes that he must flee as he feels that his detection is imminent.  No one knows  whether he is likely to survive the horrors of the war, but one clings to hope and does not want to despair. The writer of the  screenplay and the director both have an ability for producing an emotional response from the audience.  The film highlights the hatred for others, including blacks.  It also juxtaposes hatred with admiration as the film shows that not everyone hates those who have been deemed outcasts.  In spite of all the sullen moments, the film helps restore our faith in humanity. As the climax happens, one feels raw emotion and wonders whether anything good can be resurrected from such a tragedy.  We get our response from our narrator Death, who is omniscient regarding the life and times of all of the characters.  As the denouement comes, one cannot help but ask, ” Is there a balm in Gilead?” That question is answered.

The greatness of this film lies with its ability to connect with the audience’s humanity.  Most progressive people loathe prejudice directed against segments of society.  Most likely, the audience is sensitive to everyone’s need for both love and acceptance.  As a result, the audience is able to see and feel the destruction of one’s prejudice.  The director helps us see how unacceptable prejudice is to the social fabric of our society.  When Liesel’s friend puts tar on his body because he identifies with the runner, Jessie Owens, he is ridiculed for wanting to be athletically successful like Owens. The film shows how children emulate the ideas of their parents- both good and bad.  Those children who learn hate from their parents, grow to hate those who are not of the same culture as they are.  Likewise, Liesel and her family are empathic toward others.  Their self-sacrificing behavior restores our faith in humanity and helps us realize that good does triumph over evil. Although this film lacks high profile American actors, it is arguably one of the best films of the year and it is worth seeing. The film’s brilliance is in its screenplay and in its direction. Although the acting is of great quality, the story in its conflicts, in its hopes, and in its resolution make for a splendiferous viewing. It helps us walk away with “esperanza” as the music played on the accordion ushers us toward a more halcyonic time.  It is in limited release.

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