Sunday, May 18, 2014

the book thief

In 1939 Nazi Germany, Liesel Meninger is sent to Molching to live with a foster family.

While there is something to be said for USian detective stories, what people usually think of as “novels” are not really my cappuccino. The Book Thief was a rare but wonderful exception; so exceptional, in fact, that I was surprised to learn it was written by an Australian.

When a film is made from a novel, I prefer to read the novel first. Seeing a movie before reading the novel can kill the imagination - when we read the novel later all we can picture from descriptions is what the movie maker imagined.
The Book Thief is a masterful piece of writing I devoured gluttonously, before re-reading it to fully appreciate the writing style.
Seeing the movie is stage three in the order of events, when for me the fun is looking at how the book has been adapted, what has been omitted, and whether or not what I thought the novel was saying has been faithfully represented.

Markus Zusak not only respects the principle of “show, don’t tell”, one interesting way he does this is by turning nouns and verbs on their head:
Every night, Liesel would nightmare.
A bathrobe answered the door.
Arms and elbows fought for room.
When he doesn’t “show” Markus often includes a little observation in the direct telling:
On the ration cards of Germany there was no listing for punishment, but everyone had to take their turn.

Someone suggested to me recently that what happened in the book was all covered in the movie. I doubted it and, dare I say it, I was right.
Cramming a decent novel into roughly 90 minutes of film is a challenge. Some sub-plots have to be dropped, which can reduce 3 dimensional characters into 2 or even 1 dimensional props. It was a bit sad that this happened to the Burgermeister’s Wife. It even happened, to some extent, to Max, one of the central characters in the story.

In the movie, much of the story is about one family rebelling against the insanity of Nazi Germany: It makes Hans and Rosa Hubermann, along with Liesel, appear heroic in a David and Goliath sort of way – something movies must often do to establish and maintain any kind of momentum. In real life, however, when a whole bunch of people are Davids together, no one person appears quite so heroic.
Zusak’s novel, with the luxury of as much space and time as needed, not only showed that there are more heroes in a community than we might otherwise believe, but that everyone has their own unique way of being a hero. It's this sense of balance, of not taking sides and of shifting away from stereotypes that doesn't quite come across in the movie.

Markus Zusak has said, about writing The Book Thief;
When I was growing up in suburban Sydney, I was told stories of cities on fire and Jews being marched to concentration camps. Both my parents grew up in Europe during World War II, and although they were extremely young at the time, in hindsight, they were able to understand many things.
Two stories my mother told me about growing up in Munich always stuck with me. One was about a burning sky when the city was bombed. The other was about a boy being whipped on the street for giving a starving Jewish man a piece of bread. The man sank to his knees and thanked the boy, but the bread was stripped away and both the taker of the bread and the giver were punished.
This showed me that there was another side to Nazi Germany, and it was a side I wanted to write about.

The direction of the movie was at times clever and imaginative. It was well cast, with Nico Liersch doing a brilliant job of playing Rudy. The ending was faithful to the novel but in a very schmaltzy, clunky way. 

The uniting theme of the novel is about the unique and different significance a book theft might have for any number of different people. There are one or two hints about this significance in the movie but, in the end, it is just a story about a girl who steals books. 

It's not the sort of movie I would enjoy watching over and over.

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