Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The book thief: an exercise in imaginative futility

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for February, of The Book Thief.

The Book Thief
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

I stole away from work to watch The Book Thief. With temperatures touching 45 degrees Celsius, I found myself stepping into a somewhat chilling cinematic meditation on imagination in dark times.

The words of death (the voice of Roger Allam) begin and end The Book Thief. A constant presence, they serve as a chilling reminder of life in Germany during World War 2. Leisel (Sophie Nelisse) is a child growing up through Germany’s descent into its darkness. Adopted by a family living in a small German town, she witnesses the smashing of Jewish shop fronts,the impact of conscription on German neighbours and the helpless fear palpable in night time bomb shelters.

The Book Thief is based on a novel of the same name by Markus Zusak. I live in a house of admirers. Unable to thieve their precious copy, leaves me unable to provide any sustained comparison between original text and cinematic portrayal.

While the acting is solid, the faux-German accents present a stumbing block. Geoffrey Rush plays Hans, a playful father, a strong moral centre in Liesel’s growing world. Emily Watson plays Rosa, a mother sternly covering her fear. Nico Liersch plays Rudy, a loyal childhood friend.

A central metaphor holding together The Book Thief is that of words. Words inhabit the books that fascinate Liesel and cover the walls of the cellar in which her imagination is nurtured. It is words that are painted out of an old book, Hitler’s Mein Kampf and given as a gift to Liesel, inviting her to be a writer, as well as a reader, of fine words.

All of which sets up an interesting philosophical dilemma. What is the place of words – poetic, imaginative – in war? Are they actually a way to avoid reality, a book something to clutch while Jews sadly shuffle through your town? Or are they a pattern of resistance, a way to cultivate a world more beautiful, a humanity more noble, no matter how meanly pragmatic and helpless your times?

Intriguingly similar questions are often pointed at church. Are they, like the cellar in The Book Thief, a retreat place in order to listen to words as other worldly as the ghost stories Liesel creates in the night shelter as Allied bombs fall?

The role of the church is limited in The Book Thief. By way of introduction, we see an anonymous minister burying Liesel’s brother. Interestingly, he too is speaking words from a book. Later in the movie, a panoramic shot of the German town in which Liesel is lived includes a spire, dominant and centre.

It raises the inevitable question regarding the words uttered by the church as Nazi Germany rose to power. What happened to sentences like “Blessed are the peace makers” or phrases such as “Love your enemies”? Perhaps it is that at some times, in some place, words, no matter how powerful, simply fail.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 07:44 AM


  1. Re the power of words / stories to sustain amidst the darkness of Nazi Germany I saw comparisons to 90s flic “A Beautiful Life. ” – Father telling imaginative life-giving stories to his young daughter through to the moment when he is taken away to be executed.

    Comment by Trevor Whitney — February 18, 2014 @ 10:23 am

  2. Yes, that’s a helpful link Trevor. Humanity’s search for a metaphor perhaps


    Comment by Steve — February 19, 2014 @ 10:34 pm

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