‘The Book Thief’ Review
Imagine, if you can, a film about World War II, and orphaned children, and looming death, and brutal Nazis, and the horrors of the Holocaust. Then imagine a narrator for that film. Then imagine the worst possible narrator* for that film – just the most wrong-headed, bizarre and frankly offensive narrator you can possibly picture. Keep that in mind. (And, if you’re not familiar with either the film’s source material or its IMDb page, don’t worry about any spoilers here, we’ll save them for the very end.)
Based on Markus Zusak’s bestseller of the same name, Brian Percival’s ‘The Book Thief’ presents audiences with a hollow and emotionally lacking look at the ravages of war on its youngest victims. When we first meet young Liesel (effectively and believably played over a long stretch of years by the lovely Sophie Nelisse), the daughter of a German Communist mother (Heike Makatsch, given exactly zilch to do here) is on a huffing, puffing train that is crossing the country to deliver her to new parents (parents who are, of course, not viewed as somehow undesirable by the Nazi regime). Liesel has somehow captured the eye of our highly unreliable and frankly unsettling narrator (a being that doesn’t often find himself enamored of the living) and we’re meant to believe that her story is presented to us by way of his unwavering vision.
It’s a bad train ride, to be sure – Liesel’s baby brother dies and is buried on the side of the tracks, her mother mourns without delivering much emotional impact, and the shell-shocked tween steals her first book from a unsuspecting grave digger. Soon delivered to her new parents, the whimsical Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and the hardened Rosa (Emily Watson), Liesel is swiftly set on a new path – complete with a Nazi-run school, an eager new best pal (Nico Liersch), and the heartbreaking (and very public) reveal that she’s illiterate.
Percival’s film suffers immensely from a lack of forward motion, as it meanders along for over an hour with nothing beyond a dull sense of imminent disaster to drive it (this is, of course, a film principally set during the events just before and during World War II, there’s nothing but imminent disaster within that timeframe). ‘The Book Thief’ loosely grabs at narrative threads – Hans teaching Liesel to read in their basement, an evil classmate who taunts both Liesel and Rudy, the wife of the local Buergmeister discovering Liesel’s eventual love of books – before dropping them at random. The film finally finds something dynamic to drive it when the starving Max (Ben Schnetzer) knocks on the family’s door one dark night, a fleeing young Jewish man calling in a favor owed to his father by the morally upright Hans. Max soon becomes the family’s most dearly held secret, eventually taking up residence in their large basement for the better part of two years.
Max and Liesel’s friendship – one based on both mutual loss and a love of books – grounds the film for a time, but it’s never set up as the film’s actual focus, robbing it of any lasting emotional value. It’s indicative of the major problem with ‘The Book Thief,’ a film that possesses all of the pieces necessary to craft a stirring and moving look at some of history’s worst horrors and that fails to effectively capitalize on them at every turn. The film frequently feels fake and stagey, and even its costumes and sets look flaccid and uninspired. There’s nothing new or emotionally bold about ‘The Book Thief’ and, despite plenty of valid entry points into big-time feelings (Children! Books! Air raids! The draft! A secret that could actually lead to death!), it consistently and continually falls short. It’s the most emotionally void film about World War II in recent memory, a frustrating distinction that sets it apart in the worst way possible.
The film does possess some small charms, however, including solid performances by the young Nelisse, Rush and the charming Liersch. Watson and Schnetzer also do well by the material they are given – though Watson’s Rosa is, at first, too mercurial to be believed and Max is thinly written throughout. There are occasional bits of inspired cinematography that elevate the film’s look and feel, though they become harder to find as ‘The Book Thief’ winds on. Despite attempts to telegraph Liesel’s affection for books, there are few instances of her actually appearing to be moved by them, but when those scenes do present themselves (especially in her limited interactions with Max and a very funny scene with Hans early on), they pop and provide brief bits of brilliance. Otherwise, the film disappoints and falls flat, and by the time its horrifying and strange last moments reveal themselves (along with its horrifying and strange narrator), ‘The Book Thief’ becomes an instant example of just how deeply wrong-headed a film can be.
*The film is narrated by Death itself. See? Worst possible narrator for a film already about death.
'The Book Thief' is now in theaters.