HGP Book Club Notes: The Book Thief (1/3)

I am very fortunate to be able to teach at an academy which is a Beacon School for Holocaust and Genocide education. Alongside a remarkable Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Programme, which enriches the curriculum for the entire student body, a group of staff and students regularly attend a RAD Book Group where they read and discuss books in relation to the genocide/human rights themes.

The book group has been running for the past five years, with members reading and discussing texts such as ‘Sunflower’ by Simon Wiesenthal, ‘Against a Tide of Evil’ by Mukesh Kapila, ‘I'm Not Leaving’ by Carl Wilkens, ‘The Promise’ by Eva Schloss, ‘Refugee Boy’ by Benjamin Zephaniah... the list goes on.

Last month, one of the group leaders asked me if I would be willing to do a presentation to the group on films which explore similar events and themes. As well as showing some clips to the groups, she would like a critique of the films as well as an overview of the portrayal of genocide and the Holocaust. Although I will be presenting a more condensed set of ideas for the presentation, the next few posts will be extended versions of my notes on a few of the relevant films.

The Book Thief (2013; Dir: Brian Percival)

The first thing that is striking about this film is its opening voiceover, narrated by death itself: “One small fact: you are going to die…My advice is: when the time comes, don’t panic.” It is the same thing that makes the narrative voice of the novel so unusual, though it isn’t used so much as a plot device in the film.

Date stamps are used to establish a clear timeline of events. The first of these occurs in February 1938, Germany. The titular protagonist – the book thief, Liesel Meminger – is often depicted in interior shots at the beginning as she travels to her foster parents in Munich, perhaps to signify how closed off she is to the rest of the world at this point in her life.

For a World War II drama, the first act is surprisingly merry after the initial death of Liesel’s brother – the children engage in a playground scrap (ignited by a bully who exploits Liesel’s illiteracy), they are seen running and frolicking in the snow, and John Williams’ score supports this with light-hearted orchestral strings. However, things turn darker mid-way through a Hitler Youth Choir performance. On the surface, their young, tuneful voices sound innocent, but when you read the accompanying sub-titles, it becomes apparent that Hitler’s vision for Germany is starting to bleed into the fabric of every element of life – even for children. The angelic voices of the children are used as contrapuntal sound when paired with smashing and fighting in Stuttgart (November 1938) – creating an uncomfortable and jarring effect.

The pace of the film increases after the initial exposition (Who is Liesel? Where is she? Who are her foster parents?) and in April 1939, an event that the whole town feel obliged to attend occurs, which is described by the speaking mayor as a ‘cleanse’ which is needed in ‘morally and intellectually’. An enormous pile of books or ‘intellectual dirt’ are set alight and burned, and through point of view shots, we see this abhorrent act of censorship from Liesel’s perspective. She and her new friend Rudy are reluctant to throw books into the fire, especially when peer-pressured to do so. Her naivety (or perhaps blind courage) becomes more evident as she clearly doesn’t understand the severity or implications of her scepticism of the Nazi orders.

Liesel is an orphan sent to Germany and her classmates begin to realise that she is not like them. She asks her papa… "My mother isn’t coming back, is she?" "Was she a communist?" Although she is not yet wise enough to understand the grave ramifications of saying (out loud!), "I hate the Fuhrer!" Liesel does start to understand some of the reasons why her life has been turned upside down. Interestingly, instead of Hans Hubermann (her foster father) being cross with her, he only seems to want to protect her from any danger. He is representative of the Germans who followed the instructions of Hitler in fear, rather than because of an innate belief that his leadership was right for the country. On a related note, this film does a good job of subverting some of the stereotypes of Germans, which is particularly seen through the character development of Rosa and Hans.

When Hans realises that Liesel stole a book from the ashes of the burning ceremony, this becomes one of many secrets between Liesel and her new papa - ‘A person is only as good as their word… do I have yours?’. This is a pivotal moment in the film; from this point onward words become a powerful motif – reading, writing and talking are used as a common thread and a tool that can be used against hatred.

Besides the obvious antagonist – Hitler – and the abstract antagonist – Death – there is one young boy who embodies the evil of the Hitler Youth Squad - Franz Deutsche. After seeing several insights into how war is having an impact on regular people in Germany (businesses going under, rationing, families facing poverty), it seemed that Franz’s over-enthusastic announcement of the war as he cycled through the town was unrepresentative of the people struggling, even if they did all have Nazi flags hanging from their houses. “We’re at war with England. Wooo!” seems out of place, or perhaps just the words of a scared, misguided little boy.

Besides the historical events taking place beyond Liesel’s new hometown, in her basement is a young Jewish man called Max Vandenburg. This story arc not only allows viewers and Liesel to build a greater understanding of the wider devastation of Kristallnacht (Max’s mother sacrificed herself so that Max could escape), but it also develops a beautiful friendship and bond based around borrowed books and words (including a mutual love for mocking Hitler). Down in the dark, damp cellar where the walls are adorned with a homemade dictionary, Max asks Liesel to describe the world outside – “Make the words yours. If your eyes could speak, what would they say?” Though her response is beautiful, describing the sun as a ‘silver oyster’, the most powerful sentiment here is Max assuring her that in a world where she is shrouded in secrets and uncertainty, she has ownership and control over the words that she uses. This notion is furthered at Christmas (in 1941) as he gives her a blank book as an unforgettable gift – “Words are life, Liesel. All those blank pages, they’re for you to fill.” Coincidentally, Liesel does save him with words.

The camerawork in the film is often used to maximise the audience’s emotional reaction. For example, a reaction shot of a young boy as his dad goes to fight, not knowing if he’ll ever see him again, is used to create pathos; a bird’s eye view shot of Max standing in the middle of the street, taking in a clear view of the night sky as everyone else hides during an air raid depicts his first experience of space and outdoors in so long is one of complete catharsis; a wide shot of Max as he walks down a dimly lit tunnel, perhaps signifies his walk into the unknown, or, more probably, towards death; a backwards tracking shot is used as Liesel walks through a crowd shouting for Max. The movement and costumes of the men makes them look like zombies and because the camera remains still as they move daringly closer, it creates even more dread as they are paraded through the town on their way to a Nazi concentration camp. Finally, near the end of the film, one of the last shots is an aerial one which moves further and further away from the wreckage and bodies – in this shot the desaturated colour palette is full of blue, mournful hues; in the next shot, in exactly the same setting, the tone changes and we see more yellows and oranges, connoting a new lease of life, even in a disastrous setting.

In the last scenes of the film, Death explains who he took, when, their positions (sometimes with an odd, dry humour to counter the sadness), but the camera movement and transitions are soft, as if moving respectfully and peacefully, as their lives are taken. Death’s voiceover again states: “No one lives forever” and in a poetic paradox, tells us “The only truth I truly know is that I am haunted by humans.” There are so many ways to interpret these last sentences that I’ll wait to discuss them at the book group!

Overall, though the abuse of human rights in the film is a present theme, it is somewhat overlooked by the central perspective of a struggling orphan girl. That is not to say that there aren’t heart-breaking moments – Geoffrey Rush’s performance as Hans is devastatingly sad at times and the tragically naïve dialogue from the children is effective in conveying their misunderstanding of the situation and their place in history. And yet, the brutal reality and damage of Hitler and the Holocaust is never really portrayed.

Watch the trailer below:

Final Thoughts

What it does well:

•The abuse of human rights in the film is a present theme

•Geoffrey Rush’s scenes are heartbreaking and that provided a better sense of peril than the Nazis - I was fully invested in the father-daughter relationship!

•Dialogue is tragically naïve – perhaps represents how confusing events were for children.

•Max Vandenburg’s story arc allows viewers and Liesel to build a greater understanding of the wider devastation of Kristallnacht

•Message of art overcoming evil is great message


•Human rights sometimes overshadowed by Liesel’s more personal struggles

•The brutal reality and damage of Hitler and the Holocaust is never really portrayed IMO

For the second post in this blog series, visit this link. For the PPT resource on the portrayal of the Holocaust and genocide in film, click here and fill in the contact form.

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