The Terrible Beauty and Power of Language

If you love the written and spoken word, and haven’t yet seen “The Book Thief,” director Brian Percival’s adaptation of the best-selling novel by Markus Zusak, don’t miss the film before it leaves your local art-house theater.

As director Percival and actors Geoffrey Rush and Sophia Nelisse reflect on the book and film in this wonderful interview with Sophia Stein, at the heart of the story is the dilemma of language, or more precisely, as Thomas Merton put it some fifty years ago, “War and the Crisis of Language.”*

Brian:  [The Book Thief] is a cautionary tale about how ordinary, simple folk can be corrupted by an ideology based in totalitarian or fascist beliefs.  I think, in that sense, ordinary people are always at risk of being manipulated.

Geoffrey:  A theme emerges in the book and the film — that language can be used as a controlling, ideological device.  Rather than allowing language to manipulate and diminish her humanity, Liesel transitions from a traumatized ten year old into a young woman who defines and appreciates the world through language.

While Merton’s essay on the powers of language to manipulate and destroy was written mainly as a  response to revelations during the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, he extends his  critique to the Viet Nam War (“We destroyed the village in order to save it”), to race riots in cities across America, and to the ubiquitous imagery and banal rhetoric of advertising. By the end of Merton’s essay one is tempted to despair: Can language ever really be reclaimed as a power for good, for life and mercy, for freedom and transcendence of human spirit? Can language once again be made sacramental, a vehicle of hope?

“The Book Thief,” through the eyes of a young girl, leaves no doubt that the answer is “Yes.” Though, I qualify: to answer yes with the film is an act of faith, a choice left to the viewer. From the bottom of my soul, I say yes. For the alternative, for me, would be too terrible to face.

Without language, words of life, whispered into the void, who could bear to live? Language is love, and mercy, saying “Let it be. There will always be room enough in my love for you.”

“The Book Thief” is a breathtaking and daring film, partly because it asks the viewer to make an act of faith, and in so doing, rekindles the flame of hope. I can’t wait to read the book.

*See Thomas Merton, A Passion for Peace: The Social Essays, ed. William Shannon.

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