Adaptation Blu-ray Review

Page-Turning Blu-ray Review: The Book Thief

March 12, 2014Ben MK

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Heaven is a place on Earth

By Ben Mk

We live in an age where books, at least in their traditional form, have lost some of their mystique. Most of what we read nowadays takes the form of bits and bytes on a screen, whether it's that of a computer, a phone or a tablet. But the medium is immaterial — it's the words themselves that matter, for words are knowledge, and knowledge is power. And in The Book Thief, it's truly the words that have the power — inspiring hope and instilling courage in a young girl, at a time in which she needs it most.

Based on the novel by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany, during the tumultuous years between 1938 and 1945, and tells the tale of ten-year-old Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), a young girl grieving the death of her younger brother and whose mother has been forced to give her up. Unable to read, she arrives on Heaven Street to meet her new parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson), with nothing more than the clothes on her back, a single suitcase and a found book, The Grave Digger's Handbook, which she pocketed following her brother's funeral. Like any child in her situation would find, adjusting to her new life initially proves challenging, as the children at her new school tease her for her inability to read (calling her "Dummkopf"). But Liesel soon discovers that she's not as alone in the world as she thought. She makes quick friends with her neighbor and classmate, Rudy (Nico Liersch), an aspiring runner; and when Hans finds her copy of The Grave Digger's Handbook, he offers to teach her to read it. He even draws a chalk alphabet along their basement walls, so that Liesel may inscribe new words as she learns them.

Books soon become a source of comfort for Liesel; and while Hitler's army works to cleanse Germany of "poisonous" literature by staging public book burnings, she (with the help of her adoptive father) secretly acquires more books to read — first, a copy of H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man that survives the pyre, and then, as the grip of war tightens, books from the private library of the mayor's wife, whom she befriends. And after Max (Ben Schnetzer), the son of a Jewish man to whom Hans owes his life, appears at their doorstep, in need of shelter, Liesel finds herself spending many an evening keeping him company and reading to him. But as life during wartime becomes more and more difficult, books eventually become the only constant in her life, not only serving as a source of empowerment but ultimately providing a means for her salvation.

What director Brian Percival (best known for his work on BBC's Downton Abbey) has crafted in The Book Thief shares some common ground with another recent World War II film, George Clooney's The Monuments Men. Both films underscore the importance of art — primarily literature, in this case — except in The Book Thief, we get a better sense for why it's so important, because the story is a far more personal one. And like Clooney, Percival refrains (for the most part) from showing the true horrors of war, instead opting either for allusions or keeping them off-screen entirely. Viewers still get enough of a sense for the turbulent goings-on and the effect of the war on families' lives — via scenes in which we see Nazi soldiers forcing Jewish families from their homes, German fathers, sons and brothers being conscripted to fight for Hitler's cause, and families huddled together in bomb shelters while air raid sirens blare above them — but Percival keeps the film squarely focused on the overarching message of hope and empowerment that is central to the story of Zusak's book. To that end, much of the weight of the film falls on the young shoulders of relative newcomer Sophie Nélisse, who — with aid from Rush and Watson's more expert performances — does a remarkable job of showing us Liesel's arc, as she transforms from a frightened girl into a brave young woman.

A picture is worth a thousand words, and in the case of The Book Thief, that expression couldn't be more apt. The Blu-ray transfer is as crisp as the film's many wintry outdoor scenes, serving as a stunning showcase for the beauty of Florian Ballhaus' cinematography and the intricate detail of the film's period production design. Everything — from the fine texture of the fabrics from which the film's authentic-looking costumes have been sewn, to the cobblestones that line the surface of Heaven (aka Himmel) Street — is sharply defined, granting the image depth and dimensionality, even in candlelit scenes set in the family's basement. The disc's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is equally impressive and nuanced, whether it's conveying the urgency of an air raid or the tenderness of a father-daughter conversation. Legendary composer John Williams' classical score, in particular, sounds fantastic, with its delicate string and piano melodies shining through with crystal clarity.

The Blu-ray release includes a code redeemable for an UltraViolet digital copy of the film, as well as a handful of HD special features, including the film's theatrical trailer, a collection of four (fairly inconsequential) deleted scenes (totaling over six minutes) and a thirty-one minute documentary on the making of film, titled A Hidden Truth: Bringing The Book Thief to Life. The Blu-ray exclusive doc is split up into four parts of varying lengths — An Inspirational History, Finding the Thief and Her Family, Bringing the Past to Life and The Legend and the Music — and though it isn't fully comprehensive, it does touch on key aspects of the filmmaking process, including Zusak's inspiration for the original story, the casting of the film (especially for the part of Liesel), its production design (including brief tours of a few interior and exterior sets) and the evolution of its score.

Though the film is grounded in reality and takes place during one of the darkest times in human history, The Book Thief isn't an overwhelmingly dark or negative experience, but rather a positive one. It does have its share of grim moments — make no mistake — but it never strays from the notion that words have the potential to bring hope and inspiration. The Blu-ray release features a storybook quality, crystal clear A/V presentation, complemented by a modest but thoughtful set of bonus features, making The Book Thief on Blu-ray well-deserving of a place in your film library.

Disc Breakdown
The Film  —  ★★★½
Audio/Visual Fidelity  —  ★★★★★
Special Features  —  ★★★½

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