Sunday, December 29, 2013

THE BOOK THIEF (2013): Young Adult Film on Nazi Germany

The Book Thief probably would have received a somewhat better reception from the critics if it had been filmed forty years ago.  Still, though far from perfect it essentially accomplishes what it sets out to do – create a moving impression concerning a young girl’s struggle to be a decent person while living in Germany under Nazi rein. 

I was reluctant to see a film that was 131 minutes in length concerning a subject that few filmmakers would likely handle well.  Most such films become dreary melodramas focused on the tiny angst of the central character while forgetting that World War II is going forward.  Thankfully this does not occur here.

The central character here is played by a newcomer named Sophie Nelisse as Liesel.  Liesel is taken away from her Communist sympathizing mother and forced to be raised by two adoptive parents living in a small village in Germany.  The war is soon to begin.  The girl is apparently as spirited as her biological mother as she doesn’t fit in smoothly with her surroundings, but even her hard-hearted adoptive mother, Rosa (Emily Watson), comes to adore the girl.  Liesel’s adoptive father, Hans (Geoffrey Rush), is already particularly soft-hearted and takes to the girl right away.  Hans is the near-to-well father who would rather play an accordion than locate a job and who refuses to join the Nazi party.

As Hans owes his life to a Jewish father who saved his life during World War I, Hans in turn risks his own family’s existence by harboring the Jewish son named Max (Ben Schnetzer).  Liesel and Max hold many conversations together as Liesel learns more about the outside world.  Liesel also learns about the world through the wife of a German aristocrat who lends her books and teaches her all sorts of stories.  And while Liesel continues to grow, the world around her grows more ominous.  We see book burnings, Jews marched through the streets wearing yellow stars and individuals as old as Hans being drafted and forced to go off to war.  (Typical treatment of the Nazis in film I would agree, but much more relevant than what The Reader portrays where we could easily forget that there were any Nazi atrocities whatsoever.)

Max is forced to flee the village and we presume never to be seen again.  Hans eventually returns after being wounded, and the family hopes to live out the end of the war without more tragedy.  It’s not to be, however, as the village is bombed.  Rosa and Hans both are killed in the bombing as is Liesel’s young friend, Rudy (Nico Liersch) – a young boy with much of the same charm and gifts of Liesel.  Nevertheless, Liesel does survive to see the end of the war and to reunite with Max who miraculously survives.

The Book Thief was directed by Brian Percival and based upon a young adult novel that I’ve never read.  The film is sentimental, but so can be a reading of Oliver Twist or Silas Marner (not to mention the watching other films that have examined life under Nazi occupation such as The Sound of Music or even Casablanca).  It’s not saccharine, like the New York Times review suggested.  In fact, three particularly negative reviews of the The Book Thief written by Stephen Holden writing for the New York Times, Godfrey Cheshire sitting in for the late Roger Ebert, and James Bernardinelli are all pretty much interchangeable.  These reviewers seem to take particular glee in pointing out the film is too warm and tender to be believed.

I agree that the film would have been vastly improved if the narration by a character named Death would have been reduced to a mere thirty seconds.  It’s one of those hiccups in the film.  But picking on the film because Liesel goes from age 13 to 18 without ever seeming to grow older or that the corpses of Hans and Rosa should really have been pictured on screen bloodied and cold with limbs missing are quibbles at best.  There is real sadness when we see Max forced to flee or when we learn of Hans, Rosa and Rudy dying in the bombing.

We’ve come to expect and even applaud crassness coming out of Hollywood.  Everything in most films (both from yesterday and today) is simplistically explained away by demonstrating that there’s little difference between one human being and another and that one person is as bad as the next.  That may be why The Book Thief comes across somewhat as a dated film.  The makers of The Book Thief still believed in something besides self-involved characters who have little thought about anything but themselves. 

December 29, 2013

© Robert S. Miller 2013