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Arts & Entertainment Presented by Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts

Cinema in Focus

Cinema in Focus: ‘The Book Thief’

By Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman | @CinemaInFocus |

3 Stars — Thought-provoking

Death narrates the tale of The Book Thief. Hearing death (Roger Allam) describe the mortality of human life, yet the haunting dignity in which humans live this life adds a fascinating level of transcendence. Written by award-winning author Markus Zusak and adapted for the screen by Michael Petroni, director Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) brings the tale to life.

Set in Germany during World War II, the central character is Liesel (Sophie Nelisse). Liesel is a young teen whose mother (Heike Makatsc) came into difficulty when the Nazi regime deemed her a Communist. Taking her children from her, Liesel's younger brother (Julian Lehmann) dies in the transition.

The government places Liesel, alone and grieving, in the care of Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson), who need the stipend her placement provides. What they do not realize is the unique place Liesel will have in their hearts. She will also have the admiration and friendship of a young blond boy who lives next door named Rudy (Nico Liersch).

Perhaps due to Hans and Rosa's Christian faith and certainly due to their loving hearts, they soon find themselves struggling with the Nazi Party's racist and nationalistic policies. Requiring Liesel to study in a state school that includes the party's indoctrinations, they are all placed in danger when Liesel courageously rebels by stealing a book the Nazi Party has tried to destroy.

Her journey from illiteracy to becoming a gifted author is made possible through the two most important men in her life: her new father Hans, who teaches her to read, and her new tutor, who becomes a member of the family through the dangerous decision Hans and Rosa make to take in and hide a young Jewish man who is fleeing for his life. Their decision to allow Max (Ben Schnetzer) to hide in their basement is due in part to a promise Hans had made to Max's father when he saved his life during World War I. But it is clear that this is only the initial reason for their sacrificial act. Hans, Rosa and Liesel all come to feel their moral obligation to protect Max from the horror that has taken over their nation.

We won't tell any more of the story except to note the moral and theological messages within the film. The moral message is obvious. When a nation begins to profile and imprison a racial minority, its citizens must not stand aside, either due to fear or indifference. Similarly, the theological message expressed by death is the assertion that all die and no one lives forever. Though true at the biological level, there is more to human existence than our momentary biological lives.

As people of faith, we believe that we live beyond death. This is not only a hope that changes life now, but also defines the type of people we need to be to live beyond death. Describing Hans as having the soul of a child, the message is clear that he has discovered how to live and that his innocence and joy that helped others live more fully in this life will continue to be his experience in the life to come.

Though we cannot imagine the world ever tolerating another evil like the Nazi Party, the message of death in this film is that humans are capable of both great good and great evil. That choice to do good or evil not only defines who we are but also how we impact others in this life and the life to come.


» It is difficult to imagine being in the situation where your own government commits genocide on your neighbors. What would you do? How far would you go to save the lives of your neighbors?

» The loving infatuation that Rudy has for Liesel becomes a source of true joy in her life. Why do you think love is so important in a place where it is being extinguished?

» The author of the novel on which the film was based had a parent who immigrated from Germany to Australia soon after the war. Do you think this familial involvement in the situation described in the novel helped you understand the experience of those who lived through the war? What did you understand after viewing this film that you had not known before?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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