Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Better In Your Head?--THE BOOK THIEF

Marcus Zusak

"You can't eat books, sweetheart."

Proving that nothing rivets the imagination more dependably than the end of life, one of the best (and best-selling) novels of 2005 was a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of World War II, narrated by Death. 

The end is the beginning, as well as the end. In the middle of collecting souls strewn along a recently-bombed street in a small German town, Death picks up a book dropped by one very fortunate girl, who somehow avoided having her thirteenth year on Earth be her last. The book is a journal of her four years with a foster family, a story that so enraptures the grim guy that he decides to share it decades later.

The Meminger family--Mom, son Werner, daughter Liesel--are on a train for Molching, Germany, where the children will be handed over to new, middle-aged parents. Werner dies en route, but the show must continue. Liesel is slow to warm up to the Hubermanns: sharp-tongued washer-woman Rosa and amiable painter/accordionist Hans. The nightmares that plague little Liesel do not escape Hans' notice. After one visit, he notices the book she's clutching: The Gravediggers Handbook. Liesel had snatched it up at the site of her brother's burial, and it represents her sole tangible connection to the family that was. Hans reads the handbook to her, kicking off what will become a series of late night "classes" for Liesel.

Away from home, Liesel strikes up a quick friendship with Rudy Steiner, an underfed blond boy who loves to footrace and could probably give an ailing pronghorn antelope a good go. He challenges Liesel to a quick dash shortly after meeting her, with the promise of a kiss if he wins. Cue a running gag that will end in devastating fashion. Rudy's dad is a tailor and member of the Nazi Party; not because he hates Jews so much, but because he's fearful of them coming into the neighborhood and taking away customers/food from his dinner table.

Liesel steals her next readable at a book burning held in the town square on Hitler's birthday. She's unable to hide the steaming tome from her father's notice, but he promises to keep it their secret. Truly, he is the "awesome" half of the parental unit. Mama Rosa orders Liesel to take over the laundry route, which includes a stop by the opulent residence of Bürgermeister Hermman und Frau. On one such stop, Mrs. Mayor does not extend a bag of dirtied fabrics but rather an invitation. Fearing the worst, Liesel follows the woman into her library. She is too awed to perform any action beyond caressing book spines. Subsequent stops embolden Liesel to treat books how they're meant to be treated, damnit, and the simple act of sitting and reading seems to do the older woman some relative good as well ("relative" in that it alters her demeanor from crestfallen to melancholy).

A pre-teen girl is still a pre-teen girl, however, no matter how voracious her appetite for knowledge. A secret is a terrible burden to bear. If not for her solemn promise to her Papa, Liesel probably would have blabbed about the Jew in the Hubermann basement.

Promises, promises. Max Vandenburg, son of the man who saved Hans' hintern in the First World War, hauled ass during the helter skelter of Kristallnacht, with only a slip of paper bearing the name and numbers of a savior. His shame nearly equals his fright. He spends day after day in the frigid basement, waiting to die.

Liesel decides to remind Max that things such as hope and beauty persist. The silent child and the scared Jew. With the world at war, both find solace in words.

Rudy doesn't care about words, though. Hitler Youth is as full of shit as the uniforms imply, and he's on the verge of eating his own fingers. The trees and fields aren't exactly bursting with fresh fruits and vegetables for the picking (legal or otherwise) so Liesel suggests the house on the hill. Earlier, the Hubermann laundry "business" lost its most prominent client when Mrs. Master of Citizens handed over a book rather than clothes. A clumsy parting gift that Liesel refused to take. Still seething at the memory, Liesel slips in through an open library window and finds the very book she refused.
The books help. Max is felled by a dreadful malady. The books help. Nazis drop by to inspect basement fitness. The books help. Air raid sirens wail. The books help. Jews are marched through the street on their way to Dachau. Hans, forgetting that no good deed goes unpublished, offers one a bite of bread. The books do not help. Max has to scram. The books do not help. Hans is drafted into the army, albeit as a member of a special unit that rescues survivors of air raids and accumulate corpses. The blessing of a broken leg allows Herr Hubermann to return home just in time for another air strike.

Liesel, hunkered in the basement filling a diary, escapes death. She emerges from the rubble to utter her bewildered goodbyes. Mama, Papa, Rudy. Horrific, harrowing, heartbreaking.

Yet ultimately, happy.

Ah, another tale of a young girl enduring the trials and tribulations of one of the world's darkest periods with the unerring help of the written word! Isn't reading great, guys? I know, I know. The Book Thief beautifully dodges the cliches. What could have been cloying claptrap coalesced instead into an earnest epic.

All thanks to Death.

Wordwise, Thanatos is possessed of an eloquence he hasn't quite tamed. His humor tends towards self-deprecation. Metaphors and similes are plentiful and unorthodox. Death prioritizes color. Death does not respect spoiler alerts, since the mysteries hovering above the path are suffused with much more intrigue and value than the end itself could ever contain. 

Director-Brian Percival
Writer-Michael Petroni

"I am haunted by humans."

"Touching" is one word fit to describe The Book Thief. "Touchy," another. A young German girl and her foster family hiding a Jewish man during the reign of the Reich? That the box office turned out decent didn't surprise me. That it underwhelmed artistically didn't require more than a single take for me to comprehend.

Who dares wins…or loses, as well, spectacularly either way. Who doesn't dare, made this movie.

Death (Roger Allem) pops up via voice-over to remind the viewer of life's one immutable fact. Then it's time to meet little Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), huddled with her mother and little brother on the most symbolic train ride since Anna Karenina.

Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his wife Rosa (Emily Watson) are anticipating the arrival of both young children to brighten their lives, but receive only Liesel. As Rosa berates cruel fate, her husband gently cajoles the wary girl from the car and into their not-exactly dream house.

Illiterate and shy, Liesel deals with school bullies the old-fashioned way, which impresses a boy named Rudy Steiner (Milo Leirsch), whose irrepressible energy is upstaged only by his flaxen hair. She's quite taken, but what can compare with a father who reads to you?

Books become an obsession for Liesel. How else to explain braving a pile of burnt books to save one that has been merely singed, even as a woman is looking right at you? But not just some woman; she's Mayor Hermann's wife, as Liesel discovers when her Mama sends her to the mayor's house to collect laundry. Rather than upbraid the child for thievery, Mrs. Hermann invites her into a library so dreamy she can't stay long for fear her teeth will clatter onto the floor. She returns the next day, and many days after, until the Mayor himself puts the kibosh on.

We should all have such problems. During Kristallnacht, the Vandenburg family is presented with a choice no one should ever have to make. Escape is possible, but for only one of them. Mrs. Vandenburg insists her twenty-something son Max (Ben Schnetzer) take the opportunity, and gives him the information he needs to wind up in the care of Hans and Rosa Hubermann.

Max bonds with Liesel over how much fascism sucks and how much literature rules. When living nearly every second in a frigid basement begins having deleterious effects on Max's health, Liesel reads to him. No one tells her to; she simply knows.

Max recovers, and all is back to what was settled upon as normal. Until Hans speaks up on behalf for a neighbor. A brazen act of decency that forces Max out of the Hubermann home and earns Hans a spot in the German army. His ladies aren't sad for long, though, as Hans seems to be one of those guys who could fall face first into a vat of swine guts only to emerge with a sheepish grin and a sudden idea for an invention that could change the world. Except actually he injured his leg and was shipped back home. In time for the neighborhood to get bombed while everyone's asleep.

Location, location, location saves Liesel's life, although for many minutes it must seem to her a pointless stroke of luck. Her parents are dead, as is her best friend. Max is…well, if he isn't dead he probably should be. She has no one. Until Mayor Herrmann and his wife appear to survey the damage and bear witness to the sole miracle on the scene.

The Book Thief sure is pretty. Luminous sets and gorgeous shots that pretty much make sure any despondency any character or viewer may feel is short-lived. The script runs the pathos through a hand-wash cycle before tossing it in for a delicate spin. And oh look, it's John Williams to put everything up on plastic hangers.

The actors sure are pretty. Sophie Nélisse has a face ideal for selling people crap they can live comfortably without. She's quite good throughout, with her shining moment coming as Liesel explores the library for the first time. Geoffrey Rush makes for a thoroughly lovable Papa Hans even if his German accent isn't quite as bangin' as Emily Watson's. She makes Rosa sounds like a woman who does everything with a wooden spoon: beat children, brush teeth, stir ingredients, clitoral stimulation.

Film Max isn't followed by the "about to croak" cloud that followed his original version around or the yappy "this family is risking everything to keep me alive" dog that nipped at his heels, but Ben Schnetzer does have the "swampy" eyes that the book obsessed over.

Then there's the middling matter of Death and his infrequent, inconsequential voice-overs. If the Reaper does indeed sound like a man one desperate phone call away from narrating a retrospective on The Vicar of Dibley, what exactly are all of us so scared of?

Markus Zusak's work left me halved. Bad things befall good people, but that's only part of the story. Scrutinize "the whole truth" and you'll see several dividing lines. There are moments than can frost a jungle. There are moments that can make a glacier spontaneously combust. The ease with which a dictator can assume power can cause a lethal electrical short, to say nothing of the price paid to maintain their stature.

Brian Percival's film treads light, wary of leaving traces. This results in an experience that is much less fatiguing--and practically unmemorable.

Liesel isn't haunted by nightmares, since those would be extra money to shoot, and hey aren't her waking hours full of enough terrors? Keeping the main characters likable means no Liesel temper tantrum in the Bürgermeister's library, meaning no letter from Liesel to the mayor's wife explaining herself, and no follow-up face-to-face that inspires Liesel to embrace words which leads the girl to keeping a diary that winds up saving her life.

Keep Liesel's public abnegation of the Chancellor (what's more endearing than a child speaking out against fascism?) followed by Papa's pragmatic pointing out that feigning fealty is a survival skill, but don't include the punitive slap. (A slap's the same as a punch in some minds.)

Only one death march is shown, so haphazardly directed it has all the impact of a rubber band landing in a bubble bath.

When the air raid sirens pierce the sky, the Hubermanns join over a dozen others in a neighbors basement. During one such gathering, Liesel begins reading aloud from the book she just couldn't bear to abandon. Everyone hangs on the words, grateful for the distraction. The movie changes this, showing an empty-handed Liesel improvise a story while Funkmaster Flex exposes DJ Clue outside. And I'm supposed to believe this was met with encouragement rather than a smack?

Every good novel-made-film has at least one quality character backstory that couldn't make the transition. In The Book Thief, we get a peek at Max's past as a feisty street pugilist, which manifests in present fantasies of boxing Adolf himself in front of a rabid crowd. The sight of Hitler in a boxing robe, Goebbels rubbing his shoulders as he whispers sourly in his ear, would only really work in a Mel Brooks movie, so I can't fault Pervical and co. much.

The most regrettable exclusion concerns The Word Shaker. In the book, Rosa hands Liesel the final gift Max left for her: a makeshift book he'd created from the painted-over pages carefully tore from his copy of Mein Kampf. Within are stories and drawings with captions of Max's brief time with the Hubermanns, followed by the fable of a bad man who ascended to macabre glory on the back of some "lovely ugly words"--and the good girl who used words to battle back.

More than just a means of creative release, or a way to sublimate his guilt, The Word Shaker also served as a "thank you" to a young girl of boundless curiosity and compassion. Without it, the script must stuff cliches in Max's mouth: "You're my family," "You kept me alive."

Why does the movie let Rudy discover the existence of Max? Nothing comes of that. Surprised they showed Rudy's "Jesse Owens Tribute Run," complete with charcoal. A child mimicking a hero without appreciating that he can wash the black off at day's end is probably more sobering than scandalous.

Liesel's understated reaction to seeing the corpses of her adoptive parents and close-to-corpse of her best buddy is believable enough--no such thing as an "incorrect" reaction in that situation--but I much prefer her near-hysteria in the novel as shock took harsh possession of her flesh and bone.

Yes, the movie really had to scale back Death. The modicum of relief the End Boss provided every two pages or so with a sharp observation, unique description or weighty reflection was a massive part of the book's appeal. Death is the ish. Death knows every word to Big Boi's verse on "Poppin' Tags." Remove Death, and the story of the girl who swiped readable loses loads of luster. (Think what Geoffrey Rush's Oscar for Shine looked like the night he won it compared to what the award likely looks like nowadays.)

Death's final words hit harder after 500+ pages than after 120+ minutes.

Death is not a thief. A thief, per definition, steals what does not belong to them. The first cry of life is a binding verbal agreement that when the body is no longer of any use, the soul shall be collected and taken for reassignment. Do I believe that? Today I do. Might not tomorrow.

Competence really is attractive. Hence, death's allure.

Death's writing style is pretty distinctive given the demands made on his time. The similes are mostly novel and occasionally amusing ("His teeth were like a soccer crowd, crammed in" being my favorite). I confess, I'm not sure what "a breakfast colored sun" would look like in the sky--or anywhere else. But "smells like friendship," while incredibly awkward is also quite engaging, if you allow yourself to think about what odors you would personally associate with friendship. Anything could apply, which is half the fun had right there.

Why do authors still see "ejaculated" in the list of "Alternative Words For 'Said'" and go, "Oooh, I'll use that one! Definitely not going to take a reader out of the moment whatsoever!"

Works based on or around the Holocaust can be good or bad, but they can never be unwelcome.
Nothing makes me want to punch a froggy fuckboy quite like seeing books engulfed in flames.

The film adaptation was worthwhile just to let us all see what Ian Fleming and Natalie Merchant would look like as grizzled Germans.

Earth apple, earth apple. Will you be mine?

So there I am, relaxing my body on whatever, turning pages with dry fingers and damning the Nazi Party all book long. Seething over "blood and soil" between bites of jam-blessed toast, cursing the day of reckoning that never came for the worst of the worst, insisting that when it comes to moral apathy and moral turpitude there cannot possibly be a "better than." Coulda bitten clean through titanium, I tell you. Then I finally finish and realize: the Hubermanns were good people. Rudy was a real decent kid with a wealth of athletic promise. Along with Liesel, they privately, personally defied the Führer and every nonsense he gestured for. Many of their neighbors did not feel the same. They displayed their swastikas with pride. They believed in the superiority of the white Christian and the wickedness of Jews. And almost every single one of them perished at the hand of the Allies. Whatever they held to be true did not matter. 

Wars are about money, ideas, places. Wars are never about people. Any powerful country on Earth has always been willing to have a certain percentage of bodies residing within its borders wiped out.

German really is the language of imminent death.

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