What We See in The Book Thief

Last night my husband and I saw the movie The Book Thief, an adaptation of the novel by Markus Zusak with the same name. The book, which I read recently at the recommendation of my daughter, is quite good – one of those books that, having started, I couldn’t put down until I finished reading it – so I was anxious to see the movie.

As is almost always the case, much is lost in the translation of book to movie. As just one example, in the book, I thought the narration by Death worked well and adds to the story; it adds nothing to the movie. Nonetheless, I thought the movie worthwhile.

I read a piece about the movie the other day that raised the question whether we need more Holocaust movies, suggesting that perhaps there “isn’t anything new to be said about World War II, the Nazis, and the Holocaust that hasn’t been said (and said very well) before.”

I had two thoughts on the question after seeing the movie. First, while many of us have seen many films about the Holocaust and about Nazi Germany, for many young people it is just something they may have read about in school. The book was written for young adults, many of whom will be the audience for the movie. Is the movie going to tell them everything they need to know about the period? Of course not. But does it begin to tell, in an age-appropriate way, the horrors of the Nazi period and the power of words to demonize others.

Second, the movie (and the book) are not just about the evil of the Nazis and the Holocaust, but about people who stand up against evil even when there they face grave danger in doing so. Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether the context is the Holocaust or some other injustice, but it is good for us to see examples of people willing to put themselves on the line to do what is right. Do we already know some people did that during World War II – hiding Jews and helping them to safety, acting to try to upset the Nazi order? Sure we do. But it does something to our souls to see it, touches us in a way different than the intellectual knowledge does. The Hans and Liesel’s of the world teach us something about strength in the face of adversity.

I spent time during the day yesterday afternoon preparing for a weekend retreat I will be giving in February on the Beatitudes. Specifically, I was working on the talk I will give on “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And so I was thinking of people like Oscar Romero, who consistently spoke out against poverty, social injustice and government-sanctioned torture in El Salvador, even when it became clear that his words would lead to his death, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose actions to oppose Hitler I wrote about recently. Countless people over the years have been willing to pay a high price in order to live their lives consistently with the Gospel and to call others to do the same. In his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis wrote that “The disciple is ready to put his or her whole life on the line, even to accepting martyrdom, in bearing witness to Jesus Christ.”

It matters to us to see such people in film. Even if we’ve heard their story before.

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