Even though set during WWII, The Book Thief speaks the language of words and not blood; words that were so much louder than “Heil Hitler”. Jwala K Sukumaran, strongly moved by it shares why spending 130 minutes on the film was a wise decision and how she will never be able to unsee those haunting eyes.
The Book Thief steals your heart for a moment, sure to return it, not all of it though. Liesel Meminger portrayed by Sophie Nelisse enters our world with haunting eyes. A twelve-year-old girl lost, and found at the hands of the Hubermans. She was sent away by her mother to foster parents Rosa (Emily Watson) and Hans Huberman (Geoffrey Rush). She tries to fit into the small house and this new life on Heaven's Street. Her gloomy beginning was brightened by a boy whose hair was the colour of lemons. On her first day at school, she became a joke for being an illiterate. Hans gently held her hand and walked her through the red carpet of words he spread out for her. Life was falling in place, except for Rosa’s soup. Until there was a knock on the door, an unexpected visitor entered Heaven’s Street and her life. Max Vanderburg (Ben Schnetzer) became her roommate, confidant, friend, brother; family she longed for. But then again, guests don’t overstay. For that matter no one does.
The film is based on the bestselling novel The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The film, directed by Brian Percival was released in 2013. The story is narrated by Death (Roger Allam), though not physically present, his presence is felt throughout the film. The descriptive nature of his narration is captivating. The script is most certainly the shining star of the film. Each of the characters are well written giving them the space to evolve. This well-knitted drama maintains its focus on the central characters without delving much into the Nazi regime and its policies against non-Aryans.
The film follows Liesel in her “quest” of words and the relations she weaves. Brian Percival directed this family drama with the utmost care, keeping the essence of the original intact. John Williams’ musical score gives life to the film. It flows effortlessly and is in sync throughout the film. The slow pace piano lifts up the scenes, giving it extra life. The background score along with the cinematography by Florian Ballhaus brings out such masterpiece scenes that one would want to go back to. One such scene is the starting scene - it is so pristine; it gives a sense of calmness. The film stands ground with the amazing performance of its cast. Rush has given a heavenly touch to Hans. He is this charming old man who takes the hand of a lost sceptic girl. He is a man of virtue and someone who keeps his word. Rosa, on the other hand, is a rude and bitter mother. But there are instances where motherhood projects for a second. I feel she has a lot of layers compared to other characters as she is someone who has a lot of love inside her but expresses very little (mostly minimal). A particular scene to describe this would be when she comes to meet Liesel for the first time, she gives a disgusting look of seeing a filthy creature and the other would be the time when she hugs her and they share a light moment. Also marking her first smile on screen. The way she holds up Rosa as the mast is appreciable. The light-hearted moments of Rosa and Hans give the audience a moment to relax their facial muscles. Though Schnetzer hasn't done many films, he proves his mettle in this one as Max. The boy taking refuge at the Hans’ basement, just like Liesel, is lost in the world of words where they both find solace.
Liesel Meminger, the girl with the haunting eyes is very well portrayed by Sophie Nelisse. When she first arrived, she was lost, trying to find a way back home or maybe escape from this madness. But then her father gave her love and comfort and the sweet melody of his accordion. The boy with the lemon-coloured hair- Rudy made life outside the house easy. But still, something was missing. The empty bed beside her, her first book she held onto, the mumble lullaby she sang herself to sleep, something was left out. But Max filled that void with their common love for books. He helped her evolve, know her potential and what did she do? She kept him alive. Her character took a ride on the rollercoaster, going up and then coming to low and then again going up and then a steep low. Eventually reaching a plain.
I felt strongly connected to her character. She was someone who was trying to fit in, having no one to hold onto; even though she had loving parents and a good friend, something was missing. The relationship she shares with Max is beyond words. I fell in love with their scenes together which created magic on screen. The safety and comfort she felt with him was something that can be felt, words fall short to describe that. Even the slightest look and the simplest of dialogues could very well show their connection. It was never blood but eyes that spoke, words that were so much louder than “Heil Hitler”. It was amazing to see the characters pull off such intricate yet simple relationships with great ease. I too long for such a bond, so for me, it felt like a story close to heart.
There were scenes which seemed clichéd, portraying budding teen love, but they were depicted beautifully. The interpretation of the future is brilliantly told. The cinematography as mentioned earlier captures each moment in such a way that after 130 minutes the visuals still stays with us. One may feel that the story ended abruptly, but the end gave a sense of relief. As Max aptly said, “You are full of wonders”.
Jwala K Sukumaran is pursuing Fashion Design at NIFT, Bengaluru. She is from Kochi, Kerala. She came to Bengaluru with dreams of seeing the world through her own eyes, to learn to stand up when she stumbles and assuring her folks that their little girl is finding her way on her own.
This essay was written for the ‘Creative Writing’ course at NIFT, Bengaluru.