The Book Thief (2013) Blu-ray Review

By Chris Rebholz   X Formly Known as Twitter
6 Min Read

he Book Thief is an often noble film, but it ultimately fails to really connect on the emotional level it should have.

Young Adult Fiction has provided fodder for several huge film hits over the past several years, including such iconic franchises as the Harry Potter movies and the still current Hunger Games outings, which has just seen the Blu-ray release of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The Book Thief might seem like a somewhat odd addition to this growing subgenre. Despite its huge success (something that, like the source novels for the films listed above, stretched far beyond any one limited demographic), it was a standalone novel, without the built in opportunity to build a franchise, and it also was a perhaps more purely literary work, one which focused on books. The setting of Germany on the brink of World War II might not seem to be an immediate calling card for younger viewers at least, and the fact that the story is narrated by none other than Death itself might seem counterintuitive to attracting a younger audience which largely believes itself impervious to the threat of aging and ultimate demise. The film version of The Book Thief has a lot to recommend it, however, while at the same time never fully realizing the potential the book at least had the opportunity of offering. At times too glamorous and glossy for its subject matter, and also stuck in some weird stylistic netherworld where its German characters either speak in German with English subtitles or lapse into English with faux German accents (sometimes with just a word or two of German thrown in for good measure), this is a film whose parts are definitely greater than the whole. Some fine performances, an often evocative production design, and an absolutely gorgeous (and Academy Award nominated) score by John Williams all contribute to the film's luster, but ultimately this is one cinematic adaptation that never quite manages to capture the haunting magic of its source.

Speaking of Harry Potter, the film starts with a gorgeous overhead shot of a train making its way through a frosty environment which is reminiscent of a journey to Hogwart's. Something decidedly less magical is actually happening, and that fact is brought home by the odd conceit of Death providing a voiceover narration, letting us know about his (its?) fascination with a young girl named Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse). While Death may have an interest in Liesel, he (it?) actually has come to snatch away Liesel's little brother, who dies right there on the train while being cradled in his mother's arms. The poor boy is forced to be buried right next to the tracks in a frigid environment, and when one of the gravediggers drops a little book, Liesel picks it up as a momento. It soon becomes apparent that Liesel's mother had actually been transporting her two children to a new foster family, for she is attempting to outmaneuver the encroaching Nazi domination of Germany since she has a Communist background.

Liesel soon finds herself delivered to a small German town where she's presented to a kindly man named Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his curt, often nasty, wife Rosa (Emily Watson). Rosa is upset because she's been promised two children (and the allotment money that comes with them). Hans seems genuinely moved to have such a lovely little girl suddenly being offered as his "daughter", and he coaxes a timid Liesel out of the car by calling her "Your Majesty". A neighbor boy named Rudy (Nico Liersch) sees Liesel's arrival and is instantly smitten with the girl, making an excuse to come to the Hubermann home to escort Liesel to school the next day.

It turns out that Liesel is illiterate, something that causes her to be ruthlessly teased at school, a fact that she doesn't exactly react to as a shrinking violet. When Hans finds out about her predicament, he starts schooling his new family member, even coming up with a dictionary of sorts in the basement of his home (more like a hovel, really), where Liesel can write new words she's learned on the walls in chalk. Liesel gradually becomes acclimated to her new home life, ultimately becoming a Hitler Youth along with the rest of her classmates. The fragile domestic peace of the Hubermann home is soon set asunder, though, when a Jewish refugee named Max Vanderburg (Ben Schnetzer) shows up, calling due a long ago debt incurred by Hans during World War I, when Max's father saved Hans and Hans promised to do anything he could for the family going forward. Against Rosa's better judgment, the Hubermann's hide Max, cautioning Liesel that she must keep this potentially dangerous secret entirely to herself.

At a book burning rally, Liesel is forced to throw a book into the bonfire somewhat against her will, but she stays well after everyone has left and manages to rescue a copy of The Invisible Man that she spirits back home, with Hans' panicked but ultimately grudging approval. Liesel knows she's been seen by Ilsa Hermann (Barbara Auer), the Mayor's wife, but the little girl, perhaps frightened, does not share this information. Later, she's asked to deliver laundry Rosa has done for Ilsa to the Mayor's palatial home, and Liesel is shocked when Ilsa, instead of upbraiding the girl for "revolutionary" behavior, instead commends her bravery and shows a stunned Liesel into the expansive Hermann library. Ilsa is nursing a personal tragedy of her own, and Liesel becomes a surrogate child of sorts for her.

All of these many plot threads (as well as a few others that this review doesn't address) are woven together into a largely tragic climax. But the very fact that The Book Thief never really decides on an ultimate focus or theme is perhaps already evident in the sheer number of strands which the film attempts to depict. The Book Thief is an impeccably handsome film, but it's strangely emotionally distant on a meta level, able to really only touch the viewer in small moments like Hans' incredibly nurturing comments to Liesel rather than developing the kind of overwhelming general impact that a film like Schindler's List was able to effect.

The performances are what really work here. Geoffrey Rush brings a certain wry resignation to the role of Hans, and his many scenes with Liesel are among the film's best. Emily Watson delivers just the right combination of bitterness and, ultimately, genuine caring as Ilsa. Relative newcomer Sophie Nélisse (Monsieur Lazhar) has the lion's share of the film's weight on her slight shoulders, and she pulls off a tricky role exceedingly well. Never cloying, but always nicely nuanced, Nélisse offers a portrait of a young girl caught in a situation she never fully comprehends that is totally believable and finally rather affecting, especially in the bittersweet finale with Rudy.
The Book Thief is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.40:1. This is a largely flawless high definition experience that offers the crisp digital look of the Arri Alexa bolstered by a refreshing lack of overt color grading. In fact a lot of this film features a wonderfully natural looking palette, from the cool, frozen whites of the film's opening snowbound scenes (an environment which is revisited a couple of times in ensuing years) to the drab browns and beiges of the interior of the Hubermann home. The Book Thief's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 provides a wealth of surround activity, including relatively subtle ambient environmental effects like the bustle of the little village's main street. The one place this track may surprise some audiophiles is in how restrained it sometimes is, as in some instances like a major bombing attack that rains down destruction on various characters, where just a couple of relatively conservative explosions play out underneath a swelling music cue.

Special Features:
  • Deleted Scenes
  • A Hidden Truth: Bringing The Book Thief to Life is a set of featurettes that provides some interesting information on the film. The best thing here is the interview with original author Markus Zukas, though the segment devoted to casting little Sophie Nélisse as Liesel is quite good as well.
  • Theatrical Trailer
The Book Thief is an often noble film, but it ultimately fails to really connect on the emotional level it should have. It's hard to say exactly where the fault lies, though perhaps a too meandering screenplay (despite having jettisoned quite a bit of the book) is to blame. Certainly the actors are all top notch, and Nélisse provides one of the finer juvenile performances in recent memory. Production design and other technical credits are all superb, including yet another classic John Williams score. What's here works in fits and starts, but the entire film feels like it could have been so much more. Still, video and audio are superb on this release, and even with its flaws, The Book Thief comes Recommended.
Directed By:
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 127 minutes
Distributed By: 20th Century Fox

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For more information about The Book Thief visit the FlickDirect Movie Database. This release has been provided to FlickDirect for review purposes. For more reviews by Chris Rebholz please click here.

The Book Thief images are courtesy of 20th Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

FlickDirect, Chris  Rebholz

When Chris was but a wee lad growing up in the slums of suburban New Jersey, he happened to rent a little movie called Tron. Then his head exploded. It was at the moment that he realized that he loved movies, and since then Chris has made it a habit of renting movies, going to the movies, discussing his favorite movies, and anything else in between when it comes to that genre.


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