Words and Humanity in THE BOOK THIEF (2013)


“I see their ugliness and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both.”

This line, read by the narrator Death, is meant to refer to mankind generally. But for Brian Percival’s THE BOOK THIEF (based on Markus Zusak’s novel), this statement more aptly applies to Nazi-era Germany. This film captures the heart and soul of a beautiful nation gripped by a disease of political thought – fascism. The Germany of this movie is a grand fairy tale snowscape, with bubbling rivers and golden forests. The cinematography embraces the light and landscape in such a way as to prove to the viewer that this place, this country, is not inherently evil.

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In Hans and Rosa’s house the set designers have created a true German home. The kitchen is the most used room of the house, steaming with warmth and fellowship. The scale of the house is small but suggests utility rather than poverty. The homespun feeling is also reflected in the clothing the family wears. Liesel’s aprons and dresses have German designs on them, and Hans’s thick sweaters are perfect for the German winters. The German style in the set design and costuming is homey, hospitable, but above all, normal. The overall atmosphere of THE BOOK THIEF is similar in tone and color to WAR HORSE (2011).

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Unlike most WWII dramatic stories, THE BOOK THIEF places the protagonist on the German side of the conflict. We are able to sympathise with Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) because her family made an enemy of the Nazis by being Communists, but Liesel is still very German. Her problem with the Nazis is purely political, and has nothing to do with race, religion, or disability – her “handicap” cannot be read in her physical appearance.

Film Review The Book Thief

Liesel’s adoptive parents should be more difficult for audiences to befriend. They do not belong to any of those groups inside Germany which aided the allied cause; they are not partisans, conscientious objectors, or even pacifists. They may not look like fairy tale Germans, but they are meant to represent the average German demographic. They are excused from our judgement simply by the occasional hesitancy to burst into the national anthem (Deutchlandlied) and the fact that they have to do some digging to find their huge Nazi flag. It is not through any desire to rebel that Hans and Rosa agree to hide Max, but only a debt Hans owes Max’s father for saving his life in the First World War.

bt hansHowever, by the end of the picture both Hans and Rosa are deeply enveloped into the audience’s hearts. Hans (Geoffrey Rush) leaps into our arms in his first scene, when he refers to shy young Liesel as “Your Majesty.” Lines like these activate the star persona in Rush, which should have viewers remembering his fantastic performance playing on the opposite side of the war in THE KING’S SPEECH (2010). Papa is also full of the warmth and fun of Guido in LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (1997). With his patience, humor, and jolly accordion playing, we learn very early on in the movie to sincerely care about Hans’s well being. Rosa takes a little more effort to embrace. When Liesel firsts moves in, Mama is fearful, suspicious, strict, and bitingly bitter toward her adopted daughter. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear that Rosa’s crusty exterior shelters a tender, loving heart.

Liesel’s next door neighbour’s family is strictly 100% Aryan. They are the Norman Rockwell equivalent of the typical postcard WWII family. Young Rudy quickly becomes Liesel’s best friend. Rudy reminds me of the little boy described in Disney’s anti-Nazi cartoon “Education for Death” (a must-see). With his white-blonde hair and swift athletic ability, he is quickly chosen for special training with the Hitler Youth. Rudy’s one secret ambition, however, is to be Jesse Owens, the fastest man in the world. His father teaches him that it is not a good idea to want to be a black person, as he gentry scrubs the black coal dirt off his son’s back in the tub. Just like the families of the American and British homefront, the strong, caring father is sent off to war, kissing his many weeping children as he leaves in his shiny new uniform.

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THE BOOK THIEF does a great job showing how children like Liesel and Rudy would have been educated in Nazi propaganda. It is unbelievably eerie to feel how rousing and exciting the Nazi propaganda was: the songs, the bonfire of books, the speeches, the pomp for Hitler’s birthday, the Hitler Youth uniforms and activities. Living in a country as politically divided as our own, it is not hard to imagine how satisfying it must have felt for Nazi-era Germans to feel united against a common enemy. The credibility of the propaganda is by far the most frightening part of this movie, much more frightening than the bombs themselves

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Fear is not a central theme in THE BOOK THIEF because it feels almost mundane. The Nazi soldiers inspire fear, yes, but it is a familiar fear. When Hans and Rosa’s house is being searched, for example, they are truly petrified the Jewish man they are hiding will be discovered. But they are also personally acquainted with the soldier doing the searching. He is a member of their community and not someone who would generally inspire fear in their hearts. He is slightly miffed that Hans never joined The Party, but his annoyance does not stretch to hatred or suspicion.

Film Review The Book Thief

The central motifs of this film, as the title suggests, are books, words, semiotics, names, spellings, information, and knowledge. History has taught us how semiotics, the use of signs and symbols, plays a central role in propaganda. In THE BOOK THIEF, words are used as symbols of identity. “Communist” is not used so much as a political term, since Liesel is too young to understand the complexities of international politics, but more as a label. When it is discovered that she cannot read or write, words become a symbol for lack of information and knowledge. In order to gain understanding of the world in which she lives, Liesel begins accumulating words in her chalkboard dictionary in the cellar.

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As Liesel accrues words, she begins to take possession of her knowledge. The story refers to her as the book thief because she happened to pick up a book left at her brother’s graveside at the beginning of the film. Her love for reading leads her to the Burgermeister’s big library. Although the Burgermeister’s wife warmly welcomes her to come and read to keep her company, the Burgermeister forbids Liesel from coming again. That’s when she starts to “borrow” books. Later, her friendship with the Burgermeister’s wife will be her salvation.

“We’re out here starving and you’re stealing books?!”

Max gives Liesel a diary for Christmas, in which he writes the Hebrew script for “write.” He explains that words are the secret to life. When Max gets cabin fever from being holed up in hiding for so long, he asks Liesel to use her words to describe the day for him. Her descriptions of the world outside are his only link to life outside his basement room. He relishes and devours every newspaper Liesel is able to bring him. Later, when he becomes ill, Liesel reads to him from books she borrows from the Burgermeister’s library. For Max, words are life and life is words.

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Final Analysis

THE BOOK THIEF is a beautiful film with as much depth and complexity of feeling as young Liesel’s braids. Themes weave into the movie naturally and consistently. If one were to ask what this movie is about, I’d have to say it is about humanity and how war is just a terrible for everybody, on both sides of the front line. This film reminds audiences that all of mankind is really the same, as Shakespeare‘s Shylock once said:

“…fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer…” (Merchant of Venice)

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This year Channkah fell at the same time as Thanksgiving. I love how many homes embraced this coincidence by including latkes on the dinner table. But I was also disheartened and ashamed by some anti-semitic comments made by a couple of my acquaintances. It is tempting, at this time of year especially, to fall into the pit of thought that would have you believe the holidays are anything but a joyous time. Stories like THE BOOK THIEF remind us that we needn’t fall prey to the suggestions of stress and separateness in the world. We should embrace our differences, because in the end, we’re all basically woven in the same tapestry of life.

“In the end there were no words, only peace.”

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5 thoughts on “Words and Humanity in THE BOOK THIEF (2013)

  • Reuben Roth

    I commented on the Book Thief’s distortion of history, in using the Hebrew word for “write” when Max presents his gift to Liesel. The word should logically have been “shreib” which is Yiddish for the term ‘write.’ I believe that the filmmakers (not the book’s author Markus Zusak) were influenced (knowingly or unknowingly) by the modern post-WWII Zionist movement. Thanks to your blog for the quote.

    See: http://autowork.blogspot.ca/2014_04_01_archive.html#9156735083234495519

    • MargaretPerry Post author

      I read the post on your blog and found it absolutely fascinating. I wish I could comment on your blog, but there wasn’t that option, so I hope you’ll see this. Thanks for the pingback to this post, btw.
      I have a couple of questions. Would a young German Jew like Max have learnt Hebrew at Hebrew school? Would he have known how to read and write in Hebrew? My understanding has always been that Yiddish was used in every day speech and Hebrew reserved for the study of sacred texts. Since my reading of the film suggests that words/reading were closely linked with life, and that his life in that moment was held in the balance because of his devotion to those sacred texts and his religion, I thought he purposefully chose to use the more special Hebrew, rather than the pedestrian Yiddish of daily life.
      I am less inclined to believe in a political conspiracy theory of Zionists lobbying the filmmakers, because I don’t put much store in those types of theories. They are almost always speculative, and there is seldom a way to find any proof. The quote you’ve pulled from “Original Sins” is discussing the term Hebrew as a way of labelling the group, not the language Hebrew. That’s why I ask if Max would have known the language, though he never would have thought of himself as “a Hebrew.”
      If my French serves me right, you teach sociology at Laurentian? I wish I could take one of your classes! If you ever need a research assistant…

      • Reuben Roth

        Hi Margaret, I just came across your post here — commenting on my comment — a mere 18 months later. And your French does serve you right, as I do teach both Sociology and ‘Labour Studies’ at Laurentian University. By all means, come join the student body at Laurentian U. and I’ll arrange for you to be my TA. You’re an admirable writer, and we could always use one of those.

        As for your question: it is *possible* that Max would be exposed to an early version of daily spoken Hebrew, but only a slight possibility, given that modern Hebrew was invented around the 1880s, give or take. Frankly it is far more likely that Max would have been studying in ‘Cheder’ — a school for the study of biblical texts and rabbinical commentaries. That was FAR more prevalent even into the 1930s and 40s. Until the invention of modern Hebrew (which was adapted from biblical Hebrew, of course) it was utterly unheard of — even blasphemous — for the Hebrew language to be spoken outside of prayer or referencing rabbinical/biblical commentary. This is why there are many Hassidic (orthodox) Jewish sects whose members refuse to speak Hebrew in daily conversation, but instead use the Yiddish language (see Boro Park, etc. in the NYC area).

        I’m not suggesting conspiracy theories; far from it. But it’s well-known that lobby groups exist — the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies have given their approval (and free consultation services) to many Hollywood movies.

        In the future, I’ll try to look in on your blog more often than every year-and-a-half. Keep up the good work!

  • Jonathan Dune

    G’day Margaret –

    A lovely review of this lovely movie. Most touching was the book that
    Max gave to Liesel with the Hebrew inscription. And his words ring so true.

    “Words Are Life”

    The blank page is for you to fill. Every living thing that exists has within it this
    secret word or life. It’s the only difference between us and a lump of clay.

    Words are life.

    Be well, be fruitful and remember words are life.

    ~Jonathan Dune
    P.S. For any writer confronted by a blank page… it’s not writer’s block, but life.

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