Celebrating The Book Thief: Ten Haunting Holocaust Movies

Book Thief Holocaust movie

The Book Thief is a holocaust novel that captured hearts and souls back in 2005, landing a prestigious place on The New York Times Best Seller list for over 230 weeks. Now it’s a movie adapted to the screen by scriptwriter Michael Petroni and director Brian Percival. The Book Thief stars an ensemble cast including newcomer Sophie Nélisse as the main protagonist, Liesel, Nico Liersch (Rudy), Geoffrey Rush (Hans Hubermann), Emily Watson (Rosa Hubermann), Ben Schnetzer (Max) and Roger Allam as the narrator: nobody other than Death.  Australian author Markus Zusak’s novel takes place in World War II-stricken Germany, under the oppressive Nazi state, and recounts the horrors of the holocaust, Jewish death marches, Nazi book burnings and on the other side how compassion, kindness and reading could help people in the darkest of times.

The novel is narrated by Death, who claims to be “really busy” during this time in Nazi-occupied Germany. He tells the story of an illiterate orphan, Liesel and her self-discovery as she interacts with her foster parents, the boy-next-door and the Jew that her foster parents hid in their basement. Through her overactive imagination and her love for reading, Liesel affects the life of Max, the Jewish refugee in her home and Hans, her foster father. She is also affected by them as they give her the gift of reading and expanding her imagination. The story also shows us Liesel’s unique connection with Ilsa Hermann (played in the movie by Barbara Auer) the mayor’s wife, who shows Liesel her huge library and hands her a small black book in which Liesel later on writes her novel “The Book Thief,” read only by the Grim Reaper.

Some changes have been made to the movie which render it different than the novel, but critics have been positively rating it so far. In celebration of a holocaust-themed movie (more or less) let us revel in the wonders of 10 powerful holocaust movies that truly inspired people worldwide and shed the light on the horrors of the Shoah (the Holocaust in Hebrew) The movies are listed in no chronological order:

10. Life is Beautiful (La Vita è Bella, 1997):  Roberto Benigni’s Italian comedy-drama shows us the holocaust through a different light. A Jewish father uses his vivid imagination to shield his son from the horrors in Nazi death camps. The movie is both touching and humorous with Benigni’s vibrant and emotional performance reflected in the movie’s atmosphere where resilience and love stand side by side to grimness and death.

9. Europa Europa (Hitlerjunge Salomon, 1990): This German film is based on the 1989 autobiography of Solomon Perel, a Jewish-German boy who escaped the holocaust by posing as an Aryan German. The movie takes us into dark places and questions our idea of “fitting in.” The film also is a gritty look on survival instincts, through Solomon Perel’s (nicknamed Solek) rise in the Nazi society as a heroic combat veteran all the while hiding his true, Nazi-loathing self. Marco Hofschneider played Perel to perfection and the movie scored a well-deserved Academy Award: Best Writing Adapted Screenplay.

8. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008): This movie plays on the unprejudiced, innocent outlook that children have for the world. Adapted to screen from Irish author John Boyne’s novel  The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, it tells the story of the unique relationship that was formed between two 8-year-old children in a Nazi extermination camp, one of them the son of the camp’s Nazi commandant, the other a Jewish inmate. The film tackles horrors at the death camps, loss of innocence and the strength of the bond that forms between the two children on the opposite ends of the spectrum.

7. The Pianist (2002): Adrien Brody’s powerful performance as Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish-Polish piano prodigy trying to survive horrors at the Warsow ghettos built by the Nazis in war-stricken Poland. The movie sets the grim mood and haunting experience of theShoshanna Holocaust heroine Jewish ghetto before they were transported to concentration camps. Brody became the youngest actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Szpilman whose autobiography was the stance on which the movie was based.

6. Inglorious Basterds (2009): Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to give such a historical main event such as World War II a crazy twist. In Basterds, Tarantino creates an alternate universe through a bloody, hilarious and also grim revenge flick. With memorable characters (the vengeful Jewish heroine Shoshanna, The Bear Jew, The Jew Hunter,etc), an ensemble cast and a suspenseful storyline, the movie succeeds in offering an adrenaline-fun ride dripping with blood and viciousness in every scene.

5. Shoah (1985): Told through first-person testimonials of camp survivors, this French documentary film tells the horrors of the Holocaust and the traumatizing experiences most of those who lived through the Nazis’ reign of terror. The nine hours and twenty-three minutes long documentary gained lots of awards but also landed controversy due to ignoring Poles who either helped Jews or were murdered in German concentration camps. Overall it is an important and dreadful view.

4. The Reader (2008): This German-American romantic drama, based on the 1995 German novel of the same name by Bernhard Schlink, landed Kate Winslet her first Academy Award for Best Actress after a series of nominations. In The Reader, she plays the hauntingly grave and seductive Hannah Schmitz, who engages in a sexual affair with 15-year-old Michael Berg then later goes on to serve as a concentration camp guard. The movie plays on themes of guilt, mostly German guilt over the crimes committed against the Jews but also Michael’s guilt over having fallen for a war criminal and Hannah’s shame of her illiteracy. Some critics slammed the movie for trying to create sympathy with a war criminal while others resembled Hannah’s illiteracy to worldwide illiteracy back then about the Holocaust.

3. Sophie’s Choice (1982): An American drama  based on the novel of the same name by William Styron. The movie disturbingly sets the mood for the master scene, when Sophie recounts the haunting (choice) she had to make when she was interned in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Meryl Streep played the (choice) scene in one take only, saying it was too emotionally draining and painful to shoot. Her performance haunted mothers worldwide and demonstrated how barbaric the Nazi commandants were.

2. Bent (1997): A British-Japanese drama adapted from Martin Sherman’s award-winning play. It depicts the crimes committed against homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps with a focus on another aspect of the genocidal Nazi Germany. Bent is both courageous and difficult to watch featuring strong performances from Clive Owen and Lothaire Bluteau.

1. Schindler’s List (1993): Downright the best movie ever made about the holocaust. It captures all the traumatizing experiences of the victims of the harrowing crimes committed by the Nazis, mixing this with a haunting soundtrack, great cinematography and an emotional storyline. The movie is based on the novel Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally which tells the story of German businessman, Oskar Schindler as he turned from a greedy and vain person into savior of the lives of more than a thousand Jewish-Polish refugees. Stephen Spielberg masterfully directed the film and created an unforgettable epic.

The Book Thief opens in U.S. theaters on November 8th, 2013.

Written by: Jaylan Salah

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LA Times Review: The Book Thief

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