The Book Thief: a modern fairy tale for adults

The Book Thief has a number of elements that invite comparison with the fairytale genre.

In a fairytale, good and evil are clearly delineated as opposing forces. Liesel comes from a long tradition of young innocent heroines: Cinderella, Snow White, Red Riding Hood, and Goldilocks. Like many of the heroines in the fairytales, Liesel is also an orphan, living with stepparents. In the dark and dangerous adult world the heroines’ innocence is a protection against evil. So it is with Liesel, living in Nazi Germany. She also has a talisman in the form of the power of words and literature to protect her.

The gift of a talisman to the hero or heroine in a fairytale is common in literature. In The Lord of the Rings, Galadriel gives Frodo a gift, as he is about to depart on his quest

‘In this phial,’ she said, ‘is caught the light of Eärendil’s star, set amid the waters of my fountain. It will shine still brighter when night is about you.’

So it is with Liesel who discovers the power and beauty of words through Max, the young Jewish man who is sheltered in her home, and through her stepfather, Hans.

Liesel reads to Max in the cellar

Liesel reads to Max in the cellar

The characters of Liesel’s stepmother and stepfather are archetypal fairytale characters. To begin with, Rosa Hubermann, is the archetypal evil stepmother, gruff, unsympathetic and unloving. Hans is a complete contrast, a very good man who opens his heart to Liesel from the moment she arrives in their home. He also serves to protect Liesel from the worst of Rosa’s behaviours.

Hans, Rosa and Liesel

Hans, Rosa and Liesel

The Book Thief is about one of the darkest periods in the 20th century: Nazi Germany, before and after World War II. The film and the book are a brilliant portrayal of the claustrophobic terror of living at this time, in this case seen from a child perspective. Yet the story of Liesel and the Hubermanns also shows that, in the darkest of times for humanity, there is always some glimmer of hope. In The Book Thief this glimmer of hope is the power of the imagination, in this case, through reading and through writing.

The irony of this is shown in the scene showing the celebration of the Fuhrer’s birthday with the Nazi officer says that the German people will be liberated by literature and art and music and then proceeds to oversee a huge book burning.

The Nazi book burning

The Nazi book burning

This theme is underpinned by the fact that Liesel finds sanctuary from such daily horrors of life in the world of imagination that she finds in the books that she “borrows” from Ilsa Hermann, the mayor’s wife. Liesel delivers laundry to the Hermann mansion where Ilsa, who understands Liesel’s love of books, takes Liesel into her library and lets her stay there and read. When Ilsa’s husband discovers this, Liesel is banished and the laundry contract cancelled. Liesel returns, breaks into the library through an open window, and steals a book. In the original story, Ilsa leaves books out for Liesel to “borrow”. This is left out of the film, which is a pity because it is one of the small acts of humanity that are set as a counterpoint to the horrors of the Nazi regime.

Ilsa Hubermann

Ilsa Hubermann

There are number of such small acts of humanity in the film. When Hans tries to defend his Jewish neighbour from the Nazi police,it is a vain and futile gesture. In the film, it results in Hans being called up for military service. Nonetheless, it represents a way that Hans can maintain his humanity in an inhuman world.

The film has a sombre tone that underpins the dramatic tension of the dangers of Max and Rosa being discovered sheltering a fugitive Jew. This sombre tone is brilliantly established through the narrator, the Angel of Death, whose weary and dispassionate commentary on his role permeates the whole film. During much of this commentary, the Angel is flying above the clouds, just as a World War II bomber would on a bombing raid over Germany. At the end of the film, it is such a raid that kills all the people in Liesel’s Street. Liesel survives, ironically, by sheltering in the cellar of her house, which had been deemed unsuitable as an air raid shelter.

In the final scenes when Liesel has died at the age of 90, the Angel of Death says that Liesel is one of the few that ever made him wonder how it would be to live life. But in the end, there were no words, only peace, a perfect commentary on the sombre moral tone of this wonderful film.

About timothyrhaslett

After 30 years in academia, with a Ph.D. in non-linear dynamics and systems modelling and a Masters degree in English literature, I'm keen to broaden my writing audience. I am interested in becoming part of an informed community of commentary on matters of public interest. For me this will include politics (mainly Australian), films, books and the general cant, hypocrisy and stupidity that seems to infest public life.
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