The Book Thief and John Williams


If you intend to go see “The Book Thief,” stop reading now.

I’m certainly not a film critic, but after viewing that film last night, I found myself ruminating about what was, for me the primary issue of the film, which is the love of language, of writing, and of the pursuit of information.

We live in a time where most any information we desire is a mouse-click away, and I have started to think that this expediency cheapens the information in some fundamental way. I can remember getting my first understanding of this as a young music student. I was taking composing lessons from Alf Clausen (Emmy winning composer for “The Simpsons”) and he was teaching me some principles of line writing for big band. We were using various musical modes in this technique and Alf had a sheet of music paper with the various modes written out. I asked if I could borrow it to photocopy it, and he said “No, you should write it out in your own hand. That’s how you absorb the information.”

It was much later on in my life when I realized the truth in what he said – by writing out the modes by hand (not to mention paying for my own lessons) I was earning the information. The effort required to attain the info somehow enhanced and deepened my understanding of it.

Of course these days, I, along with everyone else, love to get answers to questions big and small at an instance’s notice. What’s the range of the Eb alto clarinet, again? One click, and you got it! (Low Eb, written) Who directed “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken?” (“Attaboy, Luther!”)

I HAVE noticed that I do not retain the information in any long term way, although I guess I have lost billions of brain cells since I was a kid -maybe that’s part of the issue!

But I do have serious questions for a young generation brought up on instant access to information. Will these kids be able to show the kind of perseverance necessary to get an in-depth understand of whatever discipline they choose to study? Will some heart surgeons in the future need to check their iPhones for the right stent to use in an angioplasty? Eek.

In “The Book Thief” The young heroine Liesel is initially unable to read, and has some embarrassing moments as a result. She lives in Germany in 1938, where the Nazi party would control its citizens by depriving them of information, and by holding public book burnings. This offends Liesel greatly but fortunately for her, her stepfather Hans agrees to teach her how to read, and this leads to the film’s core, which is Liesel’s growing love of language and writing. It was moving to see the lengths she would go to in order to obtain books to read. It was inspiring to see how so hungry for knowledge, so desperate to soak up every bit, every morsel of every book she can get her hands on, and the topic of the books mattered not a bit.

Liesel was a girl who had suffered many losses at an early age, and had to live with well-meaning but economically challenged foster parents during a difficult time in Germany’s history. And you have to wonder if perhaps these external circumstances contributed to her thirst for knowledge, as an escape from the drudgery of her daily life. Whatever the reason, this is a person who stoops to stealing (well actually borrowing, she brings them back) books from the library at the home of the town’s mayor. She does this at considerable risk.

Around this time Liesel be-friends a Jewish man named Max, whom her foster parents are hiding from the Nazis. Max helps to nurture her love of reading, and encourages her to start writing herself. “Words are life” he tells her. And it is about here in the film that I realized I am in deep with this story, that it has me be the emotional short hairs! (Now, there’s a poetic phrase).

As the story plays out, Liesel suffers many more losses, the last of which is one of the most heart-wrenching scenes I can remember seeing. Of course, if you know me, you know of my great affection for the music of John Williams, and his work on this film plays no small role in giving added meaning to an already resonant story. This is no comic book score, and in it’s way, it is even more subtle than JW’s score to “Schindler’s List.” That previous score was, of course, a devastating statement on the tragedy of the holocaust, but this score is heartbreaking in a different way. There is no big sweeping melodic statement, this score kind of lurks in the background for much of the film.

But you can feel the score building, little by little, as Liesel starts to rebuild her life around her love of words. The score’s understated presence pays off in many ways, but a significant one for me was in the scenes where Liesel’s stepfather Hans plays his accordion. In this damp and depressing world, Han’s accordion acts as a ray of light, both in their home and later in the film as the residents of the town shiver as they spend the night in a bomb shelter. Because JW’s score was as sparse and understated as it was, Han’s accordion did indeed sound like a lone voice of hope and comfort that it was for those people.

And then we get to the scene of Liesel’s ultimate loss, where the Allied bombs hit her neighborhood and her family (along with her friend Rudy who lived next door) is killed. The camera shoots from above as we see Liesel mourn the loss of her parents and her friend, and that freaking Williams pulls out all the stops here. His music here shouts Liesel’s agony, it conveys such tragedy and loss, and I honestly do not know how a human being writes music with that kind of meaning. JW’s music at the end of “ET” made me cry, same for the end of “Close Encounters”, and same for “A.I.” This particular cue was less tonal then the music in those other films, but I’m not ashamed to tell you, it was moving in a different way – it had a kind of ambiguity to it that you could perceive, as if Liesel was saying “What did I do to deserve all this loss? I lose my brother, my real parents, my step parents, Max, Rudy, the freakin’ Nazis are everywhere, bombs are falling from the sky, I mean, what the hell?” And yet, you also got that she would, once again, pick up the pieces and start again.

This is the genius of John Williams. It’s one thing for a director to tell you to “Write music that conveys her sense of tragedy and loss and agony but also conveys that she will rebound from all this even though she is only a 15 year old kid.” and it’s a whole ‘nother thing to sit at a piano (OK, kids, a workstation) and make the melodic, harmonic and orchestrational choices that address those instructions. JW does it here, and if you cannot perceive that we are hearing a master at the height of his emotional nuance, then there is probably no describing it to you.

Sadly, there are not a lot of films being made these days that can accommodate the level of artistry in this score. I guess that makes us appreciate it all the more when we do hear it. It may be wearying to some to keep reading of my man-crush on John Williams (well, on his work, at least!) but I am going to cherish the man while he is still with us. Guys like him don’t come around all that often, and I feel fortunate that I was around when he was. I don’t know him very well – I’ve worked with him a few times, and the last time I saw him (last August at the Bowl) I cornered him and, after a nice conversation, thanked him for his work and his inspiration. He waved off my compliment –as he does – but I did get to say it. And I’m saying it again, here. This film, along with John Williams’ music, enriches our lives.

Do you agree with my assessment? Either way, thanks for reading it!




One thought on “The Book Thief and John Williams

  1. Hello! I play in a big band i Norway. We play a lot of the fantastic Music arranged by Gordon, but we would like to buy three charts which I can’t find in the catalog. Never enough, september and party rocker. Are there any possibillity to buy these Three, please?

    Best regards,

    Rune Hatten

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