I swear my wife knows everyone. So, I should not have been too surprised when she announced that, thanks to her friend Tiffany Masterson, we would be attending a special screening of the movie The Book Thief. What did surprise me was how deeply the movie touched me, and the fact that I had not read the book. (Shame on me!)
We never experience life in a vacuum. Everything we do and everything that happens to us is tainted by the events around us that shape and frame our experience. At face value, the movie, and story, is about a young orphan girl in Nazi Germany that learns to read and then becomes so passionate about reading that she is willing to steal books. But since she is in the middle of a war, it is much more than the simple coming-of-age story.
Likewise, my opportunity to attend a special screening of the movie did not happen in a vacuum. It was a very hectic day. I had several projects to finish, the chief of which was refurbishing an old bed I made twenty-four years ago so my daughter could use it. It was a labor of love, but when you have a deadline, it’s work. Right before the movie, we attended the same daughter’s last volleyball game of the season. It was a special event in which the two rival teams wore pink and honored breast cancer survivors. I didn’t want to miss it since my mother and my mother-in-law are both breast cancer survivors. Unfortunately, my daughter’s team lost, and I had to comfort her.
In the middle of the game, my soccer-playing son came limping into the gym. He had damaged his foot and ankle during practice. Since I was focused on my daughter’s game, I didn’t give his injury the attention he felt it deserved. A family quarrel ensued. By the time we got back to the house and prepared to leave for the movie, the quarrel had heated up. I almost didn’t make it to the event. I was still angry when I pulled out of the driveway.
Leave it to my wife to not only get us into a special screening, but to also get us VIP status. We were the first people into the theater, thanks to Tiffany. We were joined by several of my wife’s girlfriends. However, all the husbands, except for my buddy Wade, stayed away because the last game of the World Series was on. I grabbed some greasy theater food, and settled down to experience the story.
The Book Thief is a story about young Liesel Meminger who finds solace in reading stolen books and sharing them with others during the horrors of WWII Germany. What makes this coming-of-age story unique is that Death himself narrates the story, because he is so intrigued by her life. Several times in the story we get a firsthand account of what it’s like to take the soul from the body and bear it home.
The first thing that I noticed about the movie was the attention to detail. Unlike some popular movies about historical events that paint the scenes with a broad brush, this movie used the small fine bristled brushes to create detail in vivid and authentic strokes. These intricate details included but were not limited to – the locomotive belching out steam and smoke, the era-appropriate clothing, the uniforms of the soldiers and officials, the labels on food bins in the kitchen, and the wedding on the right hand of Hans, the foster father (the common custom in Germany especially during that period). You felt transported to the very time and place with the pan of the camera. Details can make or break a movie, or book, but The Book Thief delivered, by painstakingly ensuring that the details were authentic.
The pacing of the movie was slow, but appropriate, never letting you feel impatient with the story. If you like fast-paced action movies that use pyrotechnic explosions, elaborate stunts, and car chases to create suspension and action, then you will probably be disappointed. However, if you like a movie that can propel you forward and keep you on the edge of your seat with the strength of the story, then you will love The Book Thief. The pacing moves like the steady current of a river, never rushing you along, but never allowing you to stagnate or hang up in the driftwood along the banks. The rhythm of the film allows you the time to absorb the emotion of each scene without letting you linger in overdramatic pauses.
The actor’s performances were outstanding, particular Sophie Nélisse’s portrayal of Liesel Meminger. Her eyes were so expressive and curious, like lenses that captured everything in her world with wonder. Sometimes child actors behave more like adults than children, but not so with her performance. Additionally, Geoffrey Rush delivered an excellent portrayal of Hans Hubermann, Liesel’s foster father. Granted, he portrayed a character you couldn’t help but like, but he did it with grace, wit, and a sense of presence on screen that drew me into the emotion of each scene he was a part of. Emily Watson also portrayed Rosa Hubermann, the foster mother with the hard shell, so well that it made me uncomfortable. The entire cast delivered and brought the dialogue to life.
I especially enjoyed the ironies present in the story – Death himself narrating a story about how to live your life; A young girl hungering to read in a time when they burned books; An outcast helping her to fit into society in her own way; A street called Heaven Street in the middle of a hellish war; Stealing books instead of food in a time of starvation; Two of Hitler’s Youth screaming “I hate Hitler!” at the top of their lungs; Destroying all reason for hope in order to find hope. These pleasant ironies added to the movie’s charm.
Liesel learned the value of reading in a time of war. She learned of writing in a time of great emotional crisis. The words on the pages gave her life meaning. In essence, the words were life. After the viewing they asked us to write one word on a chalkboard to describe the movie. I wrote the word “Authentic.” My wife wrote the word “Life.”
If you enjoy an emotional movie with a powerful and moving story line, go see The Book Thief.
We never experience our life in a vacuum. As I drove home, I pondered the scenes of the movie that touched me. I thought about the argument with my son. I reflected on the love for reading and writing that my parents nurtured in me by having a house full of books, even when we had little else.
When I got home, I went and found my son. I apologized, and we made amends. Life is too short to give any life to ugly words when we have so many beautiful words worthy of living. I told my daughter I was proud of her efforts to honor those whose lives were affected by breast cancer. Words of peace and hope had been restored to my home.Before I went to bed, I opened an email from my older sister. Over a year ago my mother’s cancer returned. The email was an update about her worsening condition. I smiled, because I knew that no matter what happened at this point, my mother, like Liesel Meminger, has certainly intrigued Death with the full life she has lived. He will be waiting to carry her soul to Heaven Street, and it will be light.