Mark Reviews Movies

The Book Thief


1 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Brian Percival

Cast: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Ben Schnetzer, Nico Liersch, Barbara Auer, the voice of Roger Allam

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material)

Running Time: 2:11

Release Date: 11/8/13 (limited); 11/15/13 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 15, 2013

There is one narrative conceit in The Book Thief that is so wrongheaded it serves to undermine both the movie's specific and greater story. This is a tale of woe for a little girl set against the horrors of World War II, which, rather confoundedly, take place off-screen. If we're meant to have any emotional attachment to this story, it's difficult to tell, given that Michael Petroni's screenplay (based on the novel by Markus Zusak) has the entire affair narrated by none other than Death.

Right at the start, Death (voice of Roger Allam) informs us that everyone dies, and to him, it's no big deal. The omniscient voice is one thing, but there's something off-putting about the bemusedly philosophical tone of this entity that witnesses and participates in so much human devastation. We can almost hear him chuckling a bit in the opening voiceover, which sets up the first of the many terrible things that will happen to our young protagonist. If one is going to indulge in the kind of melodramatic ups and downs that take place throughout the course of the movie, it's probably better not to have the voice guiding the audience through those turns be one of superior condescension.

The moral of the story ultimately seems to be that the universe doesn't really care one way or the other about the trials of humanity, let alone the suffering of a little girl. If that's the case, is there really any reason we should care?

Aside from that, there's something dishonestly fanciful about the tone that comes with this existential narrator. In giving Death a flippant attitude, that attitude carries over to the movie's own approach to death when it inevitability comes in one fell swoop for significant and ancillary characters. The millions of nameless and faceless victims of the war are brushed aside even more thoughtlessly, with Death merely pointing out in a matter-of-fact air that he has been used by tyrants and madmen to help them achieve their goals.

Perhaps the worst part is that the movie clearly knows better. It begins with the death of the young heroine's younger brother and her adoption into a new family after her mother has been sent to a concentration camp for suspicion of being a Communist. She is Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), a shy and quiet girl whose story begins in a small, unnamed town in Germany in 1938. Her adoptive father and mother are Hans (Geoffrey Rush), a kind-hearted and loyal man, and Rosa (Emily Watson), a tough-as-nails woman who will, inevitability, have the veil of her toughness lifted to reveal a disposition that is quite the opposite.

The town is full of Nazi iconography: Flags bearing the swastika fly above the doors to the school, and a portrait of Hitler is on the wall at the front of Liesel's classroom. Soldiers occasionally show up to march men wearing yellow Star of David patches through the street (The only actual allusion to the Shoah in the entire movie), inspect the basements of homes for any "undesirables," and push down a main character here and there. Essentially, the Nazis here are nothing more than bullies who are no worse than the school bully (Levin Liam) who taunts Liesel for her inability to read and write.

She, of course, quickly learns with the help of Hans and a new inhabitant of the home named Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jewish man whose father died saving Hans' life in the Great War and whose mother has likely met the same fate as Liesel's. Lisel and Max discuss their similarities in the night, and later, the family even has a snowball fight in the basement after hauling buckets of snow into the house. Rudy (Nico Liersch), Liesel's neighbor, alternates between wanting to race and kiss the new girl in town, and the two shout, "I hate Hitler," when no one else is around to hear them. There's a phony romanticism to these ordinary acts of defiance.

To help her new hobby, Liesel begins to "borrow" books from the mayor's wife (Barbara Auer), who saw the girl pick up a smoldering book spared from a pile of ones that were burnt to celebrate Hitler's birthday. As awful as the burning of books and what that act represents are, it's a little strange that this scene—not anything else happening immediately near the characters or in the background—is the only one director Brian Percival portrays with a sense of genuine horror.

One could argue that, since the story is told from Liesel's perspective, the movie's naiveté is thematically sound, but that would mean dismissing the character's undeniable understanding of the evil happening around her, which is, uncomfortably, exactly what the movie does. Add to that a proclivity for cheap reversals of fate (One character is drafted into the army only so that there can be a chance to make us believe he's dead), and The Book Thief is a troubling mistreatment of its subject.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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