THE BOOK THIEF – John Williams
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
The Book Thief, based on the popular novel by Markus Zusak, is a World War II drama set in Germany about the power of the written word. Young Sophie Nélisse stars as the lead character, Liesel, who is sent to live with foster parents (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson), just as the specter of war looms over the country and Nazism begins to take hold. Through her innocent eyes Liesel begins to witness the first months of what would be eventually become the Holocaust, but through the compassion of her new parents, their imparted love of books and literature, and her friendship with of a young Jewish man named Max, she finds a way to deal with the atrocities that are starting to take place in her community. The film is directed by Brian Percival, best known for his work on the critically acclaimed TV series Downton Abbey, and has a score by the legendary John Williams.
It came as something of a surprise when Williams was announced as The Book Thief’s composer, as it marks the first time he has worked on a film that did not involve either George Lucas or Steven Spielberg since Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in 2004 (Spielberg was originally set to direct Memoirs of a Geisha, and is one of that film’s producers). Williams has tackled this sort of subject matter before, in films like Schindler’s List, and he is an acknowledged master at composing scores from a child’s point of view, as he has done numerous times through his career, but for him to turn up scoring a film such as this, working with a new director at the age of 81, is unexpectedly wonderful. Apparently Williams read Zusak’s novel, and when he heard that a film was being made, he actively sought out the scoring gig. As such, this is clearly a very personal project for Williams, and the resulting score reflects that obvious love of the source material.
The Book Thief falls squarely within that realm of heartfelt, weighty, profound dramatic works that also feature a little bit of child-like innocence and idealism, to stop the whole thing from bogging down. As with virtually all Williams works, it’s also remarkably beautiful, written for a full orchestra, masterfully orchestrated, and containing a great deal of heart and sentiment, as befits the work of someone who has been bringing beauty, heart and sentiment to the world of cinema for over 50 years. In terms of overall sound, one could say that The Book Thief is an amalgamation of Schindler’s List and Angela’s Ashes, with a little bit of Empire of the Sun and a little bit of Jane Eyre thrown in for good measure. It’s classic emotional Williams through and through, and a welcome reminder of everything that can be good about film music, and his music in particular.
The score is mainly dominated by piano and strings, with the rest of the orchestra dancing around it, bringing little bits of color and flavor to the score, but never overwhelming this intimate core sound. The main theme flows fluidly through many cues, beginning in the opening “One Small Fact”, which passes the main melody from strings to woodwinds and back again, while the piano provides elegant, undulating accompaniment. “The Journey to Himmel Street” is a slightly more downbeat and reflective recapitulation, but by the time the florid piano line reappears in “Learning to Read” it has become a recurring leitmotif for Liesel’s thirst for knowledge, and her increasing love of literature. The solo cello that anchors “Learning to Write” allows the theme to grow even more, as another new aspect of Liesel’s communication skills is developed, and the whole thing reaches a lovely conclusion in the warmly emotional “Writing to Mama” .
Elsewhere, Liesel’s idyllic life, and her carefree childhood is depicted by the lovely “New Parents and a New Home”, while the flighty playfulness of cues like “The Snow Fight” and “Foot Race” bring the similarly effervescent sequences from The Adventures from Tintin and his Harry Potter scores into a new setting. Conversely, cues like “Book Burning” and the tragedy-laden “Rudy is Taken” are starker and darker, reminding the listener that the horrors of war and the evils of Nazism and the Holocaust are never far from Liesel’s front door. Low-end piano chords, bassoons combined with deep brasses, minor key crescendos and an overtly more oppressive tone anchor the former in a sense of darkness that is wholly appropriate in context, while the overwhelming poignancy of the latter is quite devastating.
Dotted throughout the score are several moments of wonderful orchestration, masterful technique, and beautiful instrumental combinations. The duet between Gloria Cheng’s piano and Joanne Turovsky’s harp in “Ilsa’s Library” is sublime; the sensitive oboe solo in “Max and Liesel” is heartbreakingly tender; the crescendo towards the end of “The Train Station” has a profound sense of longing and loss. Later, “The Visitor at Himmel Street” offers a touch of romance to the proceedings, with a warm string and harp combination that is very touching, while the lovely “Finale” features the most compelling piano solo of the entire score. The seven-minute end credits concert piece, “The Book Thief”, gives Williams the opportunity to raise the emotional content of his music even further, with the boldest performances of his main themes.
Some may criticize The Book Thief for being unoriginal. It’s true, The Book Thief breaks no new ground, and it’s awash in all the compositional traits and hallmarks that have characterized the majority of Williams’ scores over the last 20 years. But, at this stage in the game, re-inventing the wheel is not really the point any more – when you hire John Williams to write music for your film, you do so because you want more of what John Williams brings to the table – his sound, and his sensibility. The Book Thief is exactly that sort of score. Warm and inviting, familiar and comfortable, a vintage Williams work in every sense of the word.
As has been mentioned by myself and others over the last few years, Hollywood is currently going through a period where strongly thematic, emotionally direct scores for serious films are considered passé, and perhaps even a little cheesy, by mainstream film critics. I just don’t understand how that opinion has become the prevalent one, especially when listening to scores like this one. The Book Thief illustrates and brings out the emotions in the listener and the viewer with grace and sincerity, never overwhelming them, allowing the audience to feel the story at it unfolds. Simultaneously, the musicality and compositional excellence in the score illustrates just how well Williams understands musical storytelling and the importance of structure and narrative in film music. How can this be passé or cheesy? It’s the essence of good cinema, and just proves once more why Williams is one of the greatest film composers who ever lived.
Buy the Book Thief soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- One Small Fact (1:46)
- The Journey to Himmel Street (1:48)
- New Parents and a New Home (1:33)
- Ilsa’s Library (2:21)
- The Snow Fight (1:01)
- Learning to Read (2:48)
- Book Burning (2:52)
- I Hate Hitler! (2:06)
- Max and Liesel (1:11)
- The Train Station (2:16)
- Revealing the Secret (4:11)
- Foot Race (1:20)
- The Visitor at Himmel Street (2:02)
- Learning to Write (2:07)
- The Departure of Max (2:32)
- Jellyfish (2:08)
- Rescuing the Book (1:55)
- Writing to Mama (2:42)
- Max Lives (1:31)
- Rudy is Taken (2:00)
- Finale (2:48)
- The Book Thief (7:05)
Running Time 52 minutes 15 seconds
Sony Classical 379707 (2013)
Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Ramiro Belgardt. Album produced by John Williams.