Fascinated With Words: “The Book Thief”

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(Here and after are used the screenshots from “The Book Thief,” dir. Brian Percival, 2013)

Dear A., once when you showed me the book you were reading, you told me you have stolen it. It is only proper, you said, to steal a book, which is called “The Book Thief.” Ok, you borrowed it from our favorite coffee house, and you were going to return it later. And of course I stole it – ok, borrowed – it from you before you managed to put it back on the shelf.

That’s how I came to reading “The Book Thief” by Markus Zuzak, a story about a girl who liked to read, set on the background of the WW2 Germany. I liked the novel. There was its screen version in making at that time, as well, but to tell you the truth, I didn’t expect any revelation from the oncoming movie. I was mistaken though.

There are books that are a treat for any bibliophile and there are movies that are a feast for any cineaste. “The Book Thief” is a movie that, paradoxically, shares with you a fascination with words through images. Definitely, it is not the first movie ever made by those and for those people, who enjoy reading. I can tell you that after films made by Godard I want to rush to a bookstore or talk with a friend over a favorite volume. After Greenaway’s “Prospero’s Books” I would gladly sit over a tome on art or history. After Hal Hartley’s movies I would ramble around the city and dream poetry. But all of them are about a ready product, a written book, and emotions it awakens. “The Book Thief,” on the other hand, is a film about the magic of words and the magic of creating a story.

Many cinema critics argue that “The Book Thief” (dir. by Brian Percival, 2013) is so detached from the realities of the war and has its head so far away in the clouds, that it makes a fairy-tale out of a deep, solid book. But fairy-taleness is precisely what I like about ”The Book Thief.” It shows the world seen through the eyes of a dreamer and a storyteller. A word is a magical entity here: it can cure, it can keep alive, it can inspire, and it can chase away evil.

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On the screen, we see a winter landscape unfolding like a white sheet of paper. A train cuts through the snow, like the first string of words cutting through a page. The first sentence of the first paragraph in this story is being born. Every element in the film, be it a person, a stone or a Nazi flag, is highly texturized and groomed, so that it looks special, like a tangible word.

“In my religion,” a Jewish refugee tells the heroine of the story, “we’re taught that every living thing, every leaf, every bird, is only alive because it contains the secret word for life.” In the Universe of “The Book Thief” every object is a word with a form, and all these words that we see make up sentences: a city that is covered with a fresh snow; a girl that holds tight a book that she stole. And all these sentences make up a story, right in front of our eyes.

However, although words can save a person, they don’t make one immortal and they are not the ultimate weapon against death and evil. Bad boys retreat because of the bombs. People die despite one calling out their names. There is no ultimate good in the word of “The Book Thief”: there is life, filled with words, which can mold into actions. There is no ultimate evil, either: there is death that is haunted by humans, and silence. And even the great magician, the author who has mastered words, dies, leaving behind a stack of well-used words bound in volumes, to be used and played with by those who remain.

But hey, what are you reading right now? Anything new stolen?

Hugs,

O.

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