A train winds its way through a wintry forest; nine-year-old Liesel watches as her young brother dies in their mother’s arms. After the burial, the book thief’s first acquisition is The Gravedigger’s Handbook, fallen from the pocket of the gravedigger. Just as Great Expectations begins in a graveyard, the film The Book Thief begins with this unavoidable end of all earthly quests.
Liesel is soon separated from her mother, whose political views attract the unwanted attention of the Fuhrer. She is assigned a foster family, an elderly couple living on Himmelstrasse – Heaven Street. There she finds a gentle foster father who teaches her to read and to sing through fear, and a stern but sacrificial foster mother who teaches her to love, though haunted by insecurity. And there she also finds a true friend who teaches her to hate evil and cling to good.
Liesel is not the same girl at the end of The Book Thief. She is a young German girl seeing the War from the perspective of Max, a Jew her foster family hides in their basement. And she sees her beloved Papa conscripted into the army in retaliation for defending a Jewish neighbor. She knows suffering. She is acquainted with grief. But Liesel also sees that even in a bomb shelter, hope can flow from an accordion, and comfort sometimes comes with the telling of a story.
It does not require a spoiler alert to reveal that this film, like others set during World War II, ends where it began — with death. Most well made war movies (think Apocalypse Now) do not view death with the modern, sentimental, but false notion that death is simply a natural (and even beautiful!) part of life – that’s difficult in the midst of so much death and dying. For many, this shadow of death leads to darkness and despair.
Our own quests cannot bypass The Valley, but our Inspired stories, Inspired music, and Inspired poetry promise green pastures and still waters. Knowing that, is there any room for despair?