Directed by: Brian Percival.
Written by: Michael Petroni based on the novel by Markus Zusak.
Starring: Sophie Nélisse (Liesel), Geoffrey Rush (Hans), Emily Watson (Rosa), Nico Liersch (Rudy), Ben Schnetzer (Max), Oliver Stokowski (Alex Steiner), Carina N. Wiese (Barbara Steiner) Rainer Bock (Buergmeister Hermann), Barbara Auer (Ilsa Hermann), Roger Allam Roger Allam (Narrator / Death).
The Book Thief is an overly earnest, overly sentimental attempt to do something that is basically impossible – trying to explain the horrors of the Holocaust and Nazis to children. The film is nowhere near as awful as The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas a few years ago – where a the son of the Nazi who heads up a concentration camp befriends a Jewish boy on the other side of a barbed wire fence – neither of them seemingly knowing what the hell is going on until it’s too late. That film was wrongheaded in the extreme, overly manipulative and just plain ridiculous. By contrast, The Book Thief is an honest effort that simply comes up short – because there really isn’t a way to pull off what the film attempts to do. The film has some good performances at its core, but overall it feels like it’s pulling its punches – mainly because it is.
The film stars young, gifted Quebec actress Sophie Nelisse (who won numerous prizes – deserved – for her performance in Monsieur Lazhar a few years ago) as Liesel who in 1938 Germany, along with her brother, is taken from their Communist mother, and shipped across the country to live with a new family. Her brother doesn’t make it however, and at first she is shy around her new parents – kindly Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and strict Rosa (Emily Watson) – but gradually Hans wears her down simply because he’s such a nice guy. Liesel has no understand of where her mother is and what’s happened to her – which is a flaw, because is Liesel in the movie cannot understand it, how can the “young adults” the film is aimed at understand it?
Liesel quickly befriends the boy next door, Rudy (Nico Liersch) – a boy so innocent he doesn’t understand why pretending to be Jesse Owens, complete with black face, is offensive to pretty much every one - and is trundled off to school – where her secret – she cannot read – is revealed to all. After a few short scenes of Hans teaching her, all of a sudden, Liesel is in love with reading – and reads everything she can get her hands on. The Nazis, of course, hate books and burn them – making Liesel into a rebel. Further rebellion happens when Max (Ben Schnetzer) arrives on their doorstep – he is a Jew – and the son of the man who saved Hans’ life in WWI – so they take him in and hide him in the basement. Max, like Liesel, is an avid reader – and he’ll teach her even more about books and their power.
My biggest problem with The Book Thief is that I don’t really think it achieves what it sets out to do. The film is based on an acclaimed, best-selling Young Adult novel (unread by me), and I suppose the purpose of the movie is to introduce children to the evils of the Nazis. Yet the movie doesn’t really want to address what the Nazis actually did. Although the film is narrated by Death (and that’s not a typo), it pretty much remains firmly from Liesel’s point of view – and she doesn’t really understand what the Nazis are doing. She doesn’t know why her mother, a Communist, was taken away. She’s told that they must hide Max, or else the Nazis will do bad things to him, but she is never told what they’ll do or why they’ll do it. When she sees a group of Jews being marched through the streets or some taken away the movie never tells what will happen to them. So if the movie is supposed to introduce children to what the Nazis did, but it never explains what they did, how can they possibly understand it? You can, of course, make a movie about the events through the eyes of children who do not fully understand the events happening around them – sometimes the result is ghastly, like The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas, and sometimes it works wonderfully – as in Cate Shortland’s Lore from earlier this year. But Lore works because the audience brings the knowledge of what the Nazis did with them into the theater – something that the target audience for The Book Thief may not.
This wouldn’t be quite so much of a problem had the movie been better overall – but despite fine performances by Watson, who gradually reveals more layers to the seemingly bitchy Rosa, Rush, who really does make Hans into an idealized father figure and especially Nelisse, who somehow keeps the naïve Liesel from becoming overly cloying and annoying, the film just never seems to quite find its footing. It’s too earnest, too overly sentimental – it quite simply tries too hard to make the audience FEEL, that I found myself resisting it.
All told, I didn’t hate The Book Thief as much as many seem to do – I certainly don’t think the movie is as awful as some other WWII films aimed at children. And yet, I cannot say that the movie really worked for me in any real way. When a movie tries this hard to milk tears from me – and everything about the film from the performances to the writing to the direction to John Williams score tries really, really hard – I often find I have the opposite reaction to the one the filmmakers intended. Such is the case with The Book Thief, which never feels authentic, and doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do.