Film Review: The Book Thief

TBTDirected by Brian Percival

Starring Sophie Nélisse, Emily Watson & Geoffrey Rush

The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel (Nelisse) , the daughter of Communists who is sent to live with impoverished, kind-hearted house painter Hans Hubermann (Rush) and his surly wife Rosa (Watson) in a fictional German town to hide her from the Nazis who are closing in on her parents.

 

Liesel’s next-door neighbour and bugaboo that evidentially becomes a friend, Rudy (Nico Liersch) is the Aryan angel track star of their school whose made an outcast for his idolising of African-American sprinter Jesse Owens so he naturally gravitates to Liesel after she’s taunted for her illiteracy on her first day. Hans decides to teach her to read which unlocks a huge passion for reading in her, so much so that she rescues a scorched book after witnessing a book-burning rally. She then begins ‘borrowing’ (stealing) books from the home of the local burgermeister after his wife  – whom her foster mother does the laundry for – lets her visit her late son’s extensive personal library.

This is the second feature (excluding several TV movies) from Director Brian Percival who creates a hodgepodge of an adaptation. What he gets right is showing a more nuanced view of everyday German people living under the suspicious eye of the Nazi regime, giving us all shades of people from the truly committed Nazi’s to the Hubermann’s. He also offers up a powerful sequence where Percival intercuts the violence of Kristallnacht with a choir of German children dressed in Hitlerjugend uniforms singing about the inferiority of Non-German’s.

Rush and Watson as The Hubermanns give strong performances. Hans is a compassionate clown whilst Rosa is a scour disciplinarian – on paper they shouldn’t be together, but they create this chemistry that feels so real and affecting that it soon becomes obvious that Hans and Rosa are two halves of a combined coping mechanism.

Despite these nuggets of note the movies saccharine and earnest approach often undermines the darker tones of the story. Like the book, the movie is narrated by Death himself which seems distasteful and wholly inapproate considering the subject matter, and Percival hires Roger Allam who gives Death the honeyed, sinister tone of The Big Bad Wolf enticing Little Red Riding Hood to do his bidding.

The story tells traumatic historical events through a young girl’s eyes which Percival patronisingly perceives as naïve so the story becomes a candy floss that mostly camouflages the horrors of the war. Much of the cast play their characters like storybook figures speaking and behaving in broad strokes. There are many cringe worthy moments, like when Rudy paints himself black to look like his track star idol or when late in the movie Rudy and Liesel stand at the edge of the river shouting the taboo refrain of ‘I hate Hitler!’ into the wilderness.

Language in this film is a bit worrying. We hear German twice in this movie, when a children’s choir sing Nazi songs and the barking rhetoric of a book burning rally. The German characters speak English thus making the German language itself synonymous with Nazism which is quite terrible really.

Many of the books best ideas are either sugar coated clean from their poigniacy or turned to cursory scenes in a movie that flips past moments so fast that there’s barely enough time to feel loss or relief. It’s a haphazard adaptation that remodels Markus Zusak’s subtly written young adult novel into a saccharine piece of Holocaust Kitsch Oscar bait

1.5/5

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