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ON FAITH & MEDIA View Comments

The Book Thief

By
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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John Francis Burté and Companions: These priests were victims of the French Revolution. Though their martyrdom spans a period of several years, they stand together in the Church’s memory because they all gave their lives for the same principle. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1791) required all priests to take an oath which amounted to a denial of the faith. Each of these men refused and was executed.
<p>John Francis Burté became a Franciscan at 16 and after ordination taught theology to the young friars. Later he was guardian of the large Conventual friary in Paris until he was arrested and held in the convent of the Carmelites.
</p><p>Appolinaris of Posat was born in 1739 in Switzerland. He joined the Capuchins and acquired a reputation as an excellent preacher, confessor and instructor of clerics. Sent to the East as a missionary, he was in Paris studying Oriental languages when the French Revolution began. Refusing the oath, he was swiftly arrested and detained in the Carmelite convent.
</p><p>Severin Girault, a member of the Third Order Regular, was a chaplain for a group of sisters in Paris. Imprisoned with the others, he was the first to die in the slaughter at the convent.
</p><p>These three plus 182 others—including several bishops and many religious and diocesan priests—were massacred at the Carmelite house in Paris on September 2, 1792. They were beatified in 1926.
</p><p>John Baptist Triquerie, born in 1737, entered the Conventual Franciscans. He was chaplain and confessor of Poor Clare monasteries in three cities before he was arrested for refusing to take the oath. He and 13 diocesan priests were guillotined in Laval on January 21, 1794. He was beatified in 1955.</p> American Catholic Blog The amazing friends I have: I didn’t “find” them; I certainly
don’t deserve them; but I do have them. And there is only one feasible reason: because my friends are God’s gift to me in proof of His love for me, His friendship.

 
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