Yesterday I went to the cinema as I often do on a Tuesday morning, one of the benefits of working from home. Usually the cinema is empty with the staff outnumbering the movie-goers but not yesterday.
The cinema is exactly 12 minutes walk away and there are usually 15 minutes of trailers before the film starts so I cut things fine and leave home about 2 minutes before the trailers start as there aren’t many variables on the way. This time though there was a small queue of people buying tickets and when I made it into the auditorium of the screening I was seeing, there was around 20 people inside. 20 people at 11am? ‘Why isn’t everyone at work?’ I wondered. I pondered how unusual it was just in before the film started, it was The Book Thief.
The film is based on a best-selling book by Markus Zusak but it was all new to me though I did know the basics. However the basics in this case were in no way shape or form to do justice to this great film.
The film is narrated by ‘Death’ which is a nice touch and immediately rather reminded me of old Swedish The Seventh Seal but in the end he turned out to be more lovable, rather like ‘Death’ in the Terry Pratchett tv-movies but without the sense humour.
The story is about a young blonde German girl named Leisel Meminger, she is on a long train journey when her young brother dies and is buried in a remote snowy village. After the burial, Leisel picks up a book she sees on the ground and resumes her journey. It transpires that Leisel is being adopted as her family as suspected of being communists, not the best thing in the world in pre-war Nazi Germany. Her new family are impoverished and the mother is strict and tough and seems to be into adoption for some sort of financial rewards whilst her husband is warm, kind and comforting.
It takes a while for Leisel to adopt to her new surroundings, she misses her family and her brother and her adoptive mother is unwaveringly harsh on her. She is also bullied at school but makes friends with her neighbour Rudy, a young handsome Aryan boy who immediately takes a fancy to her and is upset that she won’t kiss him.
Leisel’s new Dad starts reading with her on the book she brought with her. It is a guide to being a good funeral-director but Leisel is thrilled by it and they read it every night, starting it again once they finish it. Her Dad, Hans Hubermann converts the basement into a play area for Leisel and together they make a large dictionary, writing words all over the walls as Leisel gets to be a better reader.
War is looming in Europe and the children and locals alike are groomed into being good Nazis with Tommy Muller not just being the school bully but also the local Nazi Youth flagbearer. Rudy however is different and longs to be as great a runner as Jesse Owens, unaware of how wrong it is for a white boy to look up to a black man and in 1930’s Germany, how dangerous it is too. Tommy makes the pair throw books on a fire along with the other villagers though both are hugely reluctant and Leisel even comes back afterwards to retrieve a book.
Britain declares war on Germany and the ‘Death’ muses on how the teenagers are running excitedly to fight but are in reality running to meet him. Leisel’s home-town becomes impoverished and her mother, Rosa Hubermann, has taken to washing and ironing the clothes of the local mayor and Leisel is amazed to see their family library and becomes friends with the mayors wife who invites her to come back and read at any time until her husband finds out and puts an end to it.
With war raging and German Jews being rounded up, a stranger called Max seeks sanctuary at the Hubermanns as Hans had his life saved by Max’s father in WW1. Max is ill and sleeps in the shared attic with Leisel. Harbouring a Jew in the house would have been punishable by death and so Rosa becomes even more strict as she is worried that Leisel will spill the beans.
Max and Leisel strike up a friendship and in the winter of 1941 and Hans helps the pair smuggle snow down into the basement where they have a snowball fight and build a snowman, even Rosa joins in. However the basement is cold at the best of times and the whole thing makes Max ill again until he is at deaths door. Leisel takes it on herself to read to Max to make him better but she has no books, instead she goes to the mayors house and sneaks in through the windows to borrow books which she reads to him.
This goes on for some time until Rudi catches her in the act and makes her feeling so guilty for keeping so many secrets from her best friend. Just when he finds out the truth, Tommy Muller the Kinder-fuhrer passes by and wants to know what is going on. Tommy and Rudy fight and Leisels precious book goes flying into the river. Rudy later goes and collects it but it takes a while and Leisel thinks he has drowned. Rudy promised never to tell anyone of the secret and he is as good as his word.
The next day the local Nazi soldiers turn up to search the cellars and with a lot of luck, Max is hidden behind a drooping Nazi flag. The house-hold is always under suspicion as Hans refused to become a member of the National-Socialist Party.
The war goes on and Rudy’s dad is forced to join up into the army. The town is now being bombed from the air which terrifies everyone except for a recovered Max as with everyone under cover it allows him a few brief minutes of freedom and fresh air.
When Hans is in the street and sees a Jewish shopkeeper being dragged away he intercedes and tells the officer that he has known the man for years and his son is fighting in the German Army. Hans is beaten and his name is taken which sets off a series of events leading to Max fleeing for his life.
Rudy runs away and wants to take Leisel with him. He has been earmarked for elite training and must leave next year. There is a funny and touching scene where they both shout out over a beautiful lake how they hate Hitler.
Things take a turn for the worse Hans is called up despite his age, it is a mark of how badly things are now going for Germany. Leisel is distraught, having lost her original family, then Max now her father and soon Rudy too. At least Rosa has now opened up a little and reveals that underneath that tough exterior is a warm hearted mother even though she admits she is a witch.
Max is seriously injured in the war and is invalided out and for a while everything is ok before ‘Death’ returns one last time. An Allied bombing run accidentally hits the wrong target and the whole of their street is bombed. Everyone is killed except for Leisel and Rudy but Rudy too quickly dies moments after his body is recovered and never quite finishes his “I love you” moment. Leisel tries to kiss him before it is too late… she is too late and she collapses only to be found by the mayors wife who takes her in.
A few years later, Leisel is working in the shop belonging to Rudy’s father who happily made it through the war. A tall dark stranger walks in through the front door. It is Max he made it too and from ‘Deaths’ point of view it seems they both lived out a happy life overlooking Central Park in New York but having never forgotten the family and friends taken from them in the war, especially the lemon haired boy Rudy.
I thought the film to be amazing with a hint of ‘Life is Beautiful’ and ‘The Boy in Striped Pyjamas’ but only slightly so as it was really about a young girl in a poor family trying to get by in the most difficult of circumstances. It was a very moving film and the last 45 minutes the auditorium was filled by sniffling from around the darkness.
The relationships between Leisel and Rudy and also Max were hugely moving as it was with Hans and on those few moments Rosa let her real self show through it was very touching.
There were several funny moments and the scene where they talked about how all mothers love their children, even Hitlers, as Max and Leisel imagine what she must say to her awful son was hilarious and one which I hoped would happen when the scene first started.
It was also tragic in places as it was so clear the Rudy was anything but a Nazi and when Leisel heard her adoptive mother belittle her and her mother, dashing her dreams as she thought it was the realistic way to proceed. Most of all though when ‘Death’ came that last time which was heart-breaking.
All the actors did an amazing job and Geoffrey Rush is always dependable and likeable. Young Marie-Sophie Nelisse from Canada was terrific as Leisel as was Emily Watson and Nico Liersch the young German who played Rudy.
It’s amazing just how distant WW2 now is. Bring 40 I am of an age that doesn’t at all remember it but does very much remember what it was like in post-war Britain in the dire 70’s and the war looming over everything. It’s incredible how those 10 or 20 years younger don’t have any of that and I think films like this are great at reminding them as well as being excellent stories in their own right. It also gives an insight of what life could be like again if things turn out badly or how it must be for people living in less fortunate lands.
When the film finished, everyone sat in silence which rarely happens. The titles rolled and when the lights came on it was just I and two older women left, the rest running out with their hankies no doubt. I turned round and said to them that “it was a good film wasn’t it”. “It makes you think” was their reply. I walked back home thinking ‘It certainly does’.
This post is dedicated to my Granddad, Harold Heard, who fought in WW2 and would have been celebrating his 98th birthday today on 5th March. I’m sure he would have loved the film as much as I did.