Silver Screen: The Book Thief **
Almost everything that’s wrong with The Book Thief is neatly encapsulated in a single scene. The first fifteen minutes of the film are spent establishing its young heroine, a German girl named Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), who is given away by her mother to a surrogate family for mysterious reasons. It’s a hard-luck tale intensified by the brusque indifference of her new mother (Emily Watson) and the taunts of her new schoolmates, who mock Liesel for her inability to read.
Having earned our sympathies for Liesel, director Brian Percival cuts to a closeup of her delicate features as she sings in German. The camera pulls slowly back to reveal that Liesel is part of a school choir, and pulls back further still to show a trio of blood-red Nazi flags looming over the children. As the swastikas come into view, the nationalistic lyrics of the song curdle into xenophobia and antisemitism. It’s an effectively loaded scene that establishes the movie’s central tension and confounds the audience’s empathy.
Then Percival intercuts scenes of the choir singing with images of Nazi thugs destroying the storefronts of Jewish businesses and dragging their proprietors out into the street, as if the dark irony of cherubic faces sweetly singing a cruel anthem were not enough, as if a Nazi flag— likely the single strongest symbol of evil in the Western world— lacks semiotic resonance.
It’s the first of many instances in which Percival spoon-feeds the audience a message. In fact, Percival doesn’t seem to know who his audience is in the first place: kids Liesel’s age being introduced to the terrible concepts of Hitler’s Germany and World War II, or adults who might have the patience for this slow-paced, defiantly anticlimactic drama. The conceit of the screenplay, written by Michael Petroni adapting Markus Zusak’s novel, seems to be a testament to the power of literature for people who don’t like to read.
The Book Thief is boilerplate stuff as both a coming-of-age story and as prewar Holocaust drama. Its lone audacity is to have the story narrated by the Grim Reaper himself, and Death turns out to be a dry-humored gasbag who’s as in love with his own florid language as the movie is taken with its own perceived self-importance. It’s a dumb move that only really pays off in the final scenes, which are not just implausibly bloodless and polite but also strangely weightless. Though I would not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me... and then wouldn’t shut the hell up about it.
It’s up to Death (voiced by Roger Allam) to relay the exposition about Liesel’s abrupt relocation, her dour foster mother and kindhearted adoptive father Hans (Geoffrey Rush), and Max (Ben Schnetzer), the young Jewish man they hide in their basement. It’s Hans who teaches Liesel how to read, but Max who gives her a true love of words. He asks Liesel to vividly describe the scenes from outside as he withers away in his dank refuge, and gives her a homemade journal in which to transcribe her thoughts. All of this contrasts with the mounting horrors Liesel sees out in the world, which first begin to take shape when what appears to be an exciting town meeting turns into a Nazi book-burning. A similar confusion afflicts Liesel’s young would-be boyfriend Rudy (Nico Liersch), whose youthful patriotism is at odds with his unfettered adoration for his athletic hero, African American Olympian Jesse Owens.
Strong performances do buoy the film. Nélisse does a fine job in a role that seems tailor-made for Saoirse Ronan five or ten years ago. Schnetzer has dark, soulful eyes and an appeal that’s underused as he’s consigned to a surprisingly uneventful subplot, though his story is the movie’s most compelling, while the always-fantastic Rush is the standout as the movie’s moral compass.
The Book Thief proves that just because a piece of art concerns itself with material of the utmost importance doesn’t necessarily mean it has much of anything to say. Aside from some pretty inarguable platitudes about Nazis being evil dicks, the film is mostly concerned about the power of storytelling, a sentiment that comes across as a self-congratulatory jerkoff in which the filmmakers celebrate the importance of their own efforts. The Book Thief is barely as much about the rise of National Socialism and the Holocaust as it is about what heroes these writers and filmmakers are for telling a story about it.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008) is a much better introduction to the themes and horrible history of the Holocaust, one more smartly and directly calibrated to its preteen audience. On the other hand, another 2008 film, The Reader, was a superior literary adaptation that dealt with the moral complexities of life in Germany under Hitler’s brutal regime. The Book Thief’s subject matter is vital; The Book Thief is not.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.