Death has a sweet-tongued tone, like a benevolent grandpa narrating the movie of Markus Zusak's much beloved novel, The Book Thief, as he picks off characters on the large canvas of small town Germany during World War II. Yes the citizenry suffered bombings, conscription into the army, and deprivations of all kinds. But at least they weren't hunted down like vermin. At a recent luncheon at Michael's, "the book thief," Sophie Nelisse, her blue eyes wide and apple cheeks impossibly healthy says kids her age, 13, don't know this history, even in Montreal, her native city, which, like Toronto and other large Canadian cities, has a significant population of Jews and Holocaust survivors. So the question is, will this movie teach them something about a dark time?
Director Brian Percival agreed, that was a goal in making The Book Thief, to bring history to young people, and perhaps this fairy tale is the best possible way. More Grimm than Disney, Death's tale does not shy from the extremes of life under military occupation, including the Nazi's infamous burning of books. While Jews are hunted and marched away, this is not specifically that story. We're not sure why Nelisse's character, Liesel is on a train with her mother and brother--was mother a Communist? Or why she is left with new parents in the persons of a crusty, heart-of-mush Emily Watson and accordion playing Geoffrey Rush, but we can fill in the blanks. Books, literary promise, love even under harsh circumstances, and luck keep our heroine alive even after bombing turns the town to rubble, and Death takes her new family. At lunch, Emily Watson thanked the director for making her mean and unattractive. When asked whether he played the accordion, Rush replied with a twinkle, do I look like I do?
And Sophie Nelisse did learn a lesson. A beautiful library her character discovers was filmed in a building in Berlin’s Wannsee suburb where the Wannsee Conference was held on 20 January, 1942, ensuring the deportation of Jews to Poland for extermination. The building is now a Holocaust memorial. The Book Thief will open on November 8, the day before the anniversary of Kristallnacht.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.