Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Book Thief

We watched the movie The Book Thief on HBO at the weekend. I had a vague memory of reading something about it, or about the book from which it was adapted, but that was some time ago. Harsh words by critics or reviewers had left an impression at the time.

It seems a little out of place to say I enjoyed the movie, bearing in mind its theme. The story held my rapt attention throughout, acting and filming was excellent, as was the score by John Williams. There were a few sheepish grins, a few tears too. Husband says he felt uncomfortable throughout, but thought that, of its kind, it was a good film.

The Book Thief, adapted from Australian author Markus Zusak's award winning novel, aimed at a young adult readership, is set in Germany between 1938 and 1945. Yes, a war film; but a war film with a difference.

The book and film are narrated by "Death", a weird concept, but for me, a follower the Tweets of "God", it worked well - and in much the same tone too!

The story unfolds as seen through the eyes of a young girl of around 6 or 7 years old as the film begins. She is fleeing, with her mother and younger brother, from the Nazis. It is implied that the mother was thought to be a communist or communist sympathiser - possibly from Eastern Germany(?) The young brother dies during the journey, the girl is taken to live with pre-arranged foster parents, the mother is taken prisoner by soldiers.

The girl, Liesel, proves to be illiterate; the kindly foster father teaches her to read and write. She becomes such a keen reader (and later a writer), that her passion for books leads her to risk secretly borrowing from the town's Mayor's home library.

The girl's harder-edged but well-meaning foster mother presents a foil to her husband's warmer approach. There's a blond-haired boy next door; there's a Jewish young man whose father had been the foster father's best friend; and there's the Mayor of the town, and his wife Ilsa, rounding off the main cast, along with the expected dose of brutal Gestapo officers waiting in the wings.

That's all I'll tell of the plot, so as not to spoil it for others. Details are not hard to find online for anyone interested.

Afterwards, I checked some reviews of the film, which was released to cinemas in 2013. "Mixed" is the best that can be said of them. Many reviewers and snooty film critics didn't like the movie at all, and had some pretty derisive things to say about it. Commentary from ordinary film-goers under some reviews does match more closely my own opinion.

Holding The Book Thief against Schindler's List, or against any similar film, a ploy of certain critics, is a ridiculous way to judge this film. I see The Book Thief as a "one off". Different. There's so much in it that isn't about the war at all, but about people, and life, and relationships. Nationality of the characters is secondary, they are just people, people like you and me; and about children such as we all have known.

There was a thread of understanding for me to easily grasp. I realised that as allied aircraft bombed the girl's street in Germany, German aircraft were likely bombing close to my own street in England. The utter futility of it all washed over me again, as it does regularly these days.

For the ordinary people of Germany, France, Italy, and other European countries invaded by the Nazis things were vastly worse than they were for us in Britain, of course. We, at least, did not have to fear visits from the Gestapo. We were not forced, at school, to sing anthems in support of a Nazi regime we neither understood nor could have supported if we had understood.

I intend to read the book. Some who had already read the book, and later saw the movie, considered it a reasonable adaptation. Others felt that the movie missed some underlying tone and messages. What the movie had to lose, in part, was an unusual framing by narration of the personification of Death. There was some of this included in the film, via resonant tones of English actor Roger Allam. From book excerpts I've seen online though, it wasn't quite sufficient to capture the same "feel" and atmosphere.

A snip from the book (and film), this spoken by Death:

“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn't already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race—that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.

None of those things, however, came out of my mouth.

All I was able to do was turn to Liesel Meminger and tell her the only truth I truly know. I said it to the book thief and I say it now to you.

I am haunted by humans.”

~ Markus Zusak, The Book Thief.


mike said...

"I am haunted by humans." Appropriate quote for any creature on the globe and the Earth, itself.

War books-movies, but particularly the WWII genre replete with Nazis, lend an anxious, overwhelming sense of depletion to my emotional being. My father, a WWII veteran, found tremendous satisfaction viewing those movies (and there are many!), so I became burned-out on war movies at a very early age, though I felt that after watching the first one or two of them. "The Sound of Music" induces an anxious melancholy, even and "The Diary of Anne Frank" is an excellent book, but was difficult for me to read.

Twilight said...

mike ~ Yes, indeed!

I think my husband must feel much the way you do too. Although he had watched "Saving Private Ryan" long before I would have anything to do with the movie, and I didn't enjoy it when I eventually watched it.

I'm not a fan of straight-up war movies - the John Wayne-ish type. They have to have some kind of twist or oblique perspective to tempt me.

"From Here to Eternity", "The Victors" - two excellent films the first a very good book too.

Having read through a few pages of quotes from the novel "The Book Thief", I think perhaps the book must go more deeply into the very worst aspects of WW2 than the film did. Surprising, then, that it was written as a young adult novel - also its length - 500+ pages seems a lot for young readers. I shall acquire the book though, I'm curious.

Another quote (and still relevant):

“Death's Diary: 1942 -
It was a year for the ages, like 79, like 1346, to just name a few. Forget the scythe, God damn it, I needed a broom or a mop. And I needed a holiday.
(...) They say that war is death's best friend, but I must offer you a different point of view on that one. To me, war is like the new boss who expects the impossible. He stands over your shoulder repeating one thing, incessantly. 'Get it done, get it done'. So you work harder. You get the job done. The boss however, does not thank you. He asks for more.”

― Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

LB said...

Twilight ~ Thanks for another great movie review.:) Lately I seem to be drawn to movies like this.

"Sarah's Key" is another good (but terribly sad) movie, with an even flow that managed to weave two different stories (and timelines) together, without ever losing my husband's or my attention.

"The Devil's Arithmetic" was worth watching too, much better than I expected.

Growing up with several close friends whose German-born Jewish parents lived through those times, makes it seem much more real to me. I saw how the damage inflicted continued to affect these families and their children long after the war had ended.

In a slightly different but related vein, have you ever seen the documentary "5 Broken Cameras"? It's an amazing film offering viewers a glimpse into the lives and challenges of Palestinians living in the West Bank village of Bil'in, right at the Israeli Wall. I looked to see if you'd already reviewed it but didn't find anything.

However the full awareness comes upon us -if it ever does- once we truly understand what humans are capable of we can never go back to not knowing. History keeps repeating itself.

Twilight said...

LB ~ I haven't seen any of the 3 films you've mentioned. They now are on my 'to see' list. Thank you!

We watched a good old movie just last night on TCM - "The Way We Were", and that, though basically a love story, has an underlying theme related to Jewishness, acceptance, and later, the blacklist and suspected communism among Jewish Americans.

When I saw the film first, many, many years ago, in England, I didn't connect all the dots. I "got" the blacklist part well enough, but in the early part of the story I'd put down differences or antagonisms, as being related to class or wealth rather than ethnicity. Robert Osborne's chat with a Jewish culture expert before the film began enlightened me considerably.

Maybe "The Book Thief" on HBO and "The Way We Were" on TCM fairly close together could be because it was Jewish New Year last week and Yom Kippur coming up (had to check online)?

LB said...

Twilight ~ Thank you! I really appreciate your movie reviews.:) Now that we've rediscovered our local library as a resource, we watch movies all the time.

You could be right about the timing of the movies you just saw. I liked "The Way We Were", my mom loved it - or she loved Robert Redford.:) I was young when I saw it and like you, didn't connect the dots at the time.

Whenever I see a good movie, I think of you - if you haven't already, I'd also *highly* recommend renting the "Top of the Lake" miniseries, *if* you like mysteries that is. It kept us entertained for about a week:

Twilight said...

LB ~ Thanks - good to know1 :-)

We haven't seen "Top of the Lake", I hadn't even heard of it 'til now. Thanks - I shall watch for used DVD prices to subdue a bit and treat us to a set. It's unlikely our video rental store will have it, or not for years, if at all. Sounds good! We've noticed Elizabeth Moss in several series, and at several ages too. She was in "West Wing" as President's late teenage daughter; then in "Mad Men" as an up and coming copywriter and more. We also spotted her, very young, in "Picket Fences"
(1992-1996) - it was one of those
"Yes it is" - "No - can't be"...."It looks like her"....kind of thing.
It was Ms Moss.

LB said...

Interesting about Elizabeth Moss. I'd only seen her in "Mad Men". She does an amazing job in "Top of the Lake".

mike (again) said...

If you can pull yourselves away from the visual and explore Donna Tartt's three books, you'll be richly rewarded, as she's an exquisite author. She won the Pulitzer for fiction, 2014. I saw her on Charlie Rose about a year ago and knew I had to read her work. Sadly, I'm closing-in on the last few pages of "The Secret Society".

mike (again) said...

Whoa..."The Secret Society" is wrong...I meant "The Secret History"!

LB said...

mike ~ Thanks for the recommendation, though for some reason I read very little fiction these days, maybe because as a recovering bookworm, I find it too addicting - whereas with non-fiction I can put the book down and come back to it whenever.:)

I do know what you mean about the sadness associated with coming to the end of a really engaging story, something that for me, pretty much only happens with fiction.

Twilight said...

mike ~ Thanks - will look out for her books.

I'm reading the second of The Forsyte Saga Trilogy by John Galsworthy at present, enjoying his style a lot, but I don't "binge read", can leave it for days and then go back to it. I don't read a lot, as it's a solitary pastime, whereas watching films can be shared and discussed afterwards, at once - which is an added bonus. If discussing a book we've both read, there's always a time lag, and the memory for one or other isn't fresh.