The movie begins with a cold hard fact; you are going to die. This truth is spoken by the narrator of the story and the author of the cold hard fact ….death. Although Fox’s The Book Thief begins and ends with death, it is very much a story about life. It is the story of how the word of life enters a hard cold object and resurrects it to a new life.
Winter, Nazi Germany, war, orphan, these are words that describe the setting and the young protagonist of The Book Thief. Yet these words are more than nouns and adjectives; they are symbolic words often associated with and used to describe death.
In the opening scenes young Liesel Meminger catches death as it takes the life of her young brother. At his impromptu burial Liesel sees a small book fall from the pocket of the grave digger and she snatches it. She is not stealing a book. Slipping the picture of her brother inside the book and clinging to it is Liesel’s way of hanging on to her brother …to life. Illiterate, she does not know it is a grave digger’s handbook, a book about death. The small handbook becomes the book Liesel learns to read from, making it a primer for life. Resurrection; taking an object that is dead and transforming it into something that contains new life is the predominant theme of The Book Thief.
The orphan Liesel is brought to her new home and introduced to her adoptive parents, an older childless couple taking Liesel for an allowance not for altruism. Theirs is a very ordinary home in a working class neighborhood where people are living under the shadow of fear cast by Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Only the name of the street…Heaven, gives any indication of what is in store for Liesel.
She arrives unable to read or write, for that matter she can hardly talk. There are no words in her as evidenced by the three x’s she marks on the school blackboard. Descending into the basement of her new home which is very much like a grave she is given a gift by her adoptive father; a chalkboard with the alphabet, a piece of chalk, and the blessing to write as many words as she can. This is the womb of her new life.
Liesel is not the only orphan to find refuge in Hans and Rosa’s home on Heaven Street. Max, a young man who like Liesel has been separated from his mother arrives also carrying a small book about death: Hitler’s Mein Kampf. They are both outcasts; Liesel because her mother is a Communist, Max because his mother is a Jew. Gentile and Jew, two orphans, one with no words and one filled with the Word forge a friendship in the basement of their exile.
War promises glory but brings destruction, deprivation, and death. When living under the conditions of war the tiniest fragment of life as it was “before the war” can bring the greatest joy, and so it is with Liesel’s gift to Max of a fragile snowball. The snowball leads to a snowball fight and a snowman all underground in the basement. Life returns and while the Christmas carol Silent Night plays telling the story of just how Life returns to a war torn world, Hans, Rosa, and Liesel proclaim it to be the best Christmas ever. For Max, it is his first Christmas ever.
This scene is the very heart of the movie. After Hans and Rosa go upstairs Max gives Liesel a Christmas present claiming it is “all I had to give”. He has taken the book Mein Kampf (which translated means “My Struggle”) blotted out all the words of hate and death and made clean white pages. The book has a new dedication “For Liesel ...From Max” and a new title the Hebrew word for WRITE. Max explains to Liesel that in his religion they believe every living thing is only alive because it contains the secret word for life…”we would only be a lump of clay without the word….words are life…fill all these blank pages”.
This scene is not only the heart of the movie it is the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “You are going to die “says death. This is true for “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3; 23) and the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). You are going to die. But the meaning of Christmas and the gift of Christmas is the one true God...the one true Word who created life and is life has now become flesh and dwelt among us. The Incarnation is the invasion into enemy held territory by the God who created the world and will not leave his children or creation in subjection to the harsh taskmaster death.
And so He enters the world in the most inconceivable way…as a human fetus in the womb of a virgin. As pure as the white snowball that brings life to the dark basement and those held captive in it, is the Son of God Jesus Christ. And at just the right moment he descends into the deepest and darkest grave of all and overcomes the power of death. Because he is sinless death cannot hold Him so rising on the third day with a new kind of life, the Word of Life is now made available to all, Jew and Gentile as a free gift. To all who will receive Him, He blots out their own versions of “My Struggle” giving them clean pages on which to write a new story.
All of this is contained in symbol, word and music in that one small scene.
In the “Hero Journey” stories the “inmost cave” stage (where light and revelation come to the hero) is not the end of his quest. It is the pivot point where he turns and starts the road home having obtained that for which he set out on the journey. This “Road Back” stage is always met with fierce opposition and so it is for Liesel and Max.
Liesel’s Christmas gift, her book of life is snatched out of her hand by an agent of the enemy whose young heart is filled with hate. Only through her friend Rudy’s sacrifice is the book redeemed from the icy waters and returned to Liesel. A beautiful sort of baptism scene.
Max on the other hand falls into a deep coma produced by a life threatening illness making death a real possibility. Liesel believing in the power of words of life risks her own life to “borrow” books to read over Max. She places the picture of her young brother on Max as if to acknowledge that he has become her brother and then she begins to read and read, and read ….this is prayer, intersession, and hand to hand combat with the enemy. Finally the fever breaks and Max rises from his death bed ….. Life wins!
The name Hans means “God is gracious”; the name Rosa means rose, and roses are the symbols of love. In the small non-descript house on Heaven Street two lost orphans carrying books of death like a sentence upon them found refuge under the wings of a loving gracious God. It is important to note they were saved through a holocaust not from it. They climbed out of the basement grave having become a word of life and they went on to live lives imparting that life to others.
The power of life transforming that which was dead is overwhelming in the movie The Book Thief.
· A childless couple become loving parents
· An orphan receives a mother and father
· A handbook of death becomes a primer for life
· Mein Kampf becomes Liesel’s book of life
· A dank dark basement of old stuff becomes school/hospital/haven of life
· A brother lost…a brother restored
· An angry fearful woman becomes a loving courageous mother
In the last scene of the movie the narrator death speaks about finally coming for Liesel Meminger in her old age. She has lived a long life and written volumes of words; words that imparted life to others. There is no sense of death in all its dark ugliness in this scene; there is light, beauty, peace, memory, people and love. The word that Liesel became was a word of life and death could not hold her…she passed through it into the resurrection of the righteous.