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The Book Thief

Kurt Jensen
Source: Catholic News Service

Ben Schnetzer and Sophie Nelisse star in a scene from the movie "The Book Thief."
"The Book Thief" (Fox), a film about how the power of reading can transcend the vilest bigotry, is so beautifully crafted and performed, it makes you want to embrace and celebrate it.

But the picture comes with a defect that's too significant to be overlooked.

Director Brian Percival and screenwriter Michael Petroni have squeezed all the nuance and moral ambiguity out of their adaptation of Markus Zusak's much-lauded young-adult novel of 2005. What's left is a well-intentioned, awkwardly sentimental Holocaust story filled with "righteous Gentiles" and sanitized of historical context.

It's still a movie worth seeing, and mature adolescents won't have difficulty with it. In fact, "The Book Thief" could provide the opportunity for worthwhile group discussions, perhaps focusing on key elements missing from the source novel. Just don't take what you're seeing as history.

Sophie Nelisse plays Liesel, adopted by Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Huberman because her communist mother is on the run. Her younger brother has died en route, leaving her a solitary orphan who, at around age 10, cannot read or write.

She somehow understands that books hold power, beginning with the one she pilfers from one of the men who dug her brother's grave. Hans spurs her hunger for reading by constructing a dictionary on a basement wall, and she finds a stalwart friend in classmate Rudy (Nico Liersch).

Because she's such an avid reader, she even grabs a smoldering book when a pile of them are burned in the town square by the bergmeister, Hermann (Rainer Bock). He hopes to placate the Nazi authorities by this show of cultural "purification." But it turns out he has a substantial library of his own, and his wife, Ilsa (Barbara Auer), happily introduces Liesel to this treasury of knowledge.

Liesel's love of literature combined with the compassion of her adoptive parents, who hide their Jewish family friend, Max (Ben Schnetzer), in their basement, somehow combine to make her immune from the corrupting influence of the Hitler Youth. Rudy is such a good kid that he happily darkens himself with dirt to imitate his favorite track star, Jesse Owens.

That's the uplift. Now for the problem.

First, the film is narrated by Death (voice of Roger Allam), who occasionally comments on the purity of someone's soul. Fine, as far as that goes. But in the scene in which Jews are shown being led at gunpoint to a concentration camp, Death, who's been quite chatty up until then, is oddly silent.

Second, the screenplay omits the pro-Nazi grown son of the Hubermans, who could have created some balance to the Disneyfied goings-on. His character shows that hatred and bigotry are always among us, inside our walls—not merely outside.

A spoonful of sugar can't help the Holocaust go down. It's a big flaw in what otherwise should be a quite inspirational movie.

The film contains anti-Semitic dialogue and scenes of wartime bombings. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II—adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

Kurt Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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Rafal Chylinski: 
		<p>Born near Buk in the Poznan region of Poland, Melchior showed early signs of religious devotion; family members nicknamed him "the little monk." After completing his studies at the Jesuit college in Poznan, Melchior joined the cavalry and was promoted to officer rank within three years.</p>
		<p>In 1715, against the urgings of his military comrades, Melchior joined the Conventual Franciscans in Krakow. Receiving the name Rafal, he was ordained two years later. After pastoral assignments in nine cities, he came to Lagiewniki (central Poland), where he spent the last 13 years of his life, except for 20 months ministering to flood and epidemic victims in Warsaw. In all these places, Rafal was known for his simple and candid sermons, for his generosity, as well as his ministry in the confessional. People of all levels of society were drawn to the self-sacrificing way he lived out his religious profession and priestly ministry. </p>
		<p>Rafal played the harp, lute, and mandolin to accompany liturgical hymns. In Lagiewniki he distributed food, supplies, and clothing to the poor. After his death, the Conventual church in that city became a place of pilgrimage for people throughout Poland. He was beatified in Warsaw in 1991.</p>
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