The Book Thief

The Book Thief

There’s a certain kind of reviewer who likes to start off reviewing any film about the Holocaust or World War II with explaining to everyone how repetitive and boring it is to have yet another Holocaust and World War II film to review. Poor baby. It’s at this point that I stop reading his or her review. He or she may go on to talk about formal, stylistic and technical aspects of the film very well, they may go into great detail about the acting and individual performances, and they may have some intelligent things to say about the film. But I stop reading at the point where they whinge about Holocaust films being ‘boring’ because that comment tells me straight away about a) their sense of empathy, and b) their depth as people.

If you really think there are ‘enough’ films, books, stories, art, poetry, painting, music, or anything else about the Holocaust, you’re suggesting that the worth of human life can be measured in a finite manner – ‘that’s it, we’ve had enough films on you people, no more now, we’ve met our quota for empathy and remembrance.’ Screw that logic; if that’s how you approach these films, stop reviewing films altogether. We will never reach a point when it’s ‘enough’. After all, how do you measure human life, and how do you measure the ways we have to continually redress a violence committed on such a large scale against the entire concept of human life?

The thing about The Book Thief as a novel is that it’s written by someone who knows what life is – what it’s worth and how we need to hold it carefully as the fragile thing it is. So, to read any review of the film that was adapted from its pages that starts off with the childish complaint of ‘not another one’ is rather insulting to the spirit of the novel and to the people who died.

I saw The Book Thief in the cinema yesterday. I saw it after reading some reviews in the local and international press that used the ‘not another one’ argument to suggest why they had lukewarm responses to it (not all reviews, of course, but some). This, and the repeated mantra of reviewers reminding audiences that the film will never be ‘as good’ as the book. I don’t know what people expect when they go to see a film adaptation of a novel, but it seems naive and dismissive to expect a film to neatly replicate a book.

Film adaptations are sort of my ‘thing’ when it comes to my research. This doesn’t make me an expert, it just means I’ve spent more time thinking about what they do, and how they do it, than the average person. What interests me about them is not how ‘faithful’ they can be to their source text, because I don’t expect fidelity. What I want to know is how they transform, expand, rework and engage with the source text. Often this happens in ways that move the original story of the book in an opposite direction. But in the case of the film of The Book Thief, the process of adaptation in fact highlights what the book is about in a rather moving way.

When I read The Book Thief, I was, like everyone else, struck by the idea of the narrator being Death itself. This is hard to translate into a visual medium, and the voiceovers may not be as effective as reading the entire story through Death’s perspective in the book. But so what. Rather than focusing on what the film can’t do, I decided to focus on what it does do.

I was bound to have an emotional and deeply personal reaction to this film for obvious reasons. So when examining what this film does do well, I took a highly personal route. To me, the book and the film explore what I wrote about in this post: that when it comes to the Holocaust, words are not just words. There’s a scene in the film that encapsulates this perfectly, when Max gives Liesel a copy of Mein Kampf in which he painted over every single page of the book, leaving it blank for Liesel to fill out. He explains to her that in his religion, to write is a life-affirming act. But there is a particular word he writes himself on one of the first few pages: Ktevi, written in the Hebrew letters, which translates as ‘write’, written as a specific instruction for Liesel (ktevi is a gendered term for ‘write’).

Call me silly, but I started crying when I saw these Hebrew letters – so familiar, yet so strange to me. Thank goodness for the darkness of the theatre that allows you to cry in peace at movies. Then I realised what this film does so well: it places the written word as a symbol of life in a dialogue with the visual and sensory world in which these words often exist. This may seem like an obvious ‘revelation’, but it was quite moving for me. I resent the idea that something is always lost when films try to tackle the written word through their own language. If done well, films about books and about words can in fact emphasise and highlight the value of the written word. To see those Hebrew letters on screen, as an image, knowing what they represent, made me appreciate the book even more.

I linked that image up in my mind with that of the book Liesel rescued from a Nazi bonfire burning inside her coat with the remnants of the fire close to her body. To see that image on the big screen, it’s simply moving. The burning words against the burning body; and how they both relate to all those bodies burnt and gassed. By protecting that book through her body, through sensory flesh that can be viewed on the screen with smoke rising from inside her, Liesel shows us that she is trying to protect life itself.

What both the film and the book challenge is the argument that there are ‘enough’ stories or enough words and images. They do this by reminding us that for each word you see and read, there is a story; and for each story, there is a life; and for each life, there is a community lost and a betrayal of what bonds us together as human beings. And also, I guess, that the very least we can do is remember that betrayal and fight against it, even if we can’t stop it from being repeated.

Image credit: image from here.