Based on Markus Zusak‘s award winning novel, The Book Thief is World War II through the eyes of a young girl in Nazi Germany. Narrated by Death (Roger Allam), it is a touching story about her struggle to find a place in life, and her search for understanding in the tumultuous time.
When her mother is excised for being a communist, young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) is sent to live with new foster parents – the Hubermans. Hans (Geoffrey Rush) is a twinkling grandfather figure, quick with a joke and soft on the heart. Rosa (Emily Watson) is a no nonsense, tough cookie that is going to take some getting used to as Liesel’s new mother.
At first determined to run away to find her real mother, things start to change for Liesel as she gets to know the Hubermans, befriends a Rudy, boy her age (Nico Liersch), gets caught up in hiding a Jewish man (Ben Schnetzer) from the Nazis, and – as the title suggests – learns the power of the written word.
The book has been very well received, but having not read it, I cannot speak to how accurately it is followed. Glancing at the Cliffs Notes for it, it seems like it has been condensed and simplified a decent amount, which is no big surprise. One thing that struck me while watching this film was how little narration there is. It seems if narration – by Death himself no less – is introduced as important, it would show up more than a few times. Not the case here. I’m not sure if that is a bad thing though as it could have run the risk of becoming quite tedious I think.
The first trailer quickly gained a reputation for being the cheesiest of the year. As a World War II film that leans towards gloss rather than grit, yes, it does teeter on the edge of overly emotional and poetic at times, channeling Pollyanna more than Saving Private Ryan. Earnest performances, especially from the two talented young stars, though, keep it from falling into the gooey trap it sets for itself. This is war shown through the eyes of sheltered innocents who cannot fathom the horrific things taking place just outside their bubble. On the occasion that some of those things pierce that bubble, they are all the more effective.
Unlike most American films, the protagonists here are part of “the enemy.” Though Liesel and Rudy begin to have misgivings about the fuehrer, they are both part of the Hitler youth and celebrate German superiority, even if they have a few ideas and thoughts of their own, as children will. It’s reminiscent the Japanese animated masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies, though with a much softer touch. That’s not to say it isn’t an emotional tear jerker – it just tugs them out with rope rather than barbed wire.
There is something about the whole aesthetic of the film, however, that comes off as too clean. Almost like a stage production. Again, this goes back to being a happy/glossy/innocent take on war, but it never quite fulfills it’s potential. Countering the conservative take on war with certain brutal events that occur could have been overwhelmingly compelling. Instead, they feel sad, but expected, and in the same flavor as everything else.
There are strong performances from all, touching moments aplenty, but for all the carefully constructed heart playing with characters you will care about, it fails to deliver the knockout blow that would cement this film in the mind of the viewer as it was surely meant to.
Mrs. Hamster says:
“I didn’t remember the book that well (I read it a few years ago). It wasn’t exact, but it had the same feel and theme to it as the book. Needed more Death, I think.”
My rating: Three out of Five hats
The Book Thief is currently in limited release, stealing into 29 theaters November 15