dir: Brian Percival
Homework. Some books feel like homework. Some movies feel like homework.
Now, please don’t start interpreting this as veiled or unveiled anti-Semitism: I am not going to launch into Holocaust-denying or Climate Change-denying or arguing that there's empathy fatigue because of the sheer quantity of books and movies about World War II and the Nazis and the Final Solution. It's great, wonderful, we need more of them, surely.
It's just that, well, since high school, where we had to study books like The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie and had to be taken along as a class to see Schindler's List, I just automatically associate World War II - Weren't Those Nazis Total Bastards? narratives to be somewhat obligatory and something tedious. I feel like I'm watching it or reading about it because I have to write a 500 word essay about it to be handed in first thing first period.
But of course, writing a review about it is a completely different prospect! I initially read the book years ago, thinking I would hate it, actively hating it when I started, but I was won over as it went on. There was something about how it was calculatedly put together, and the clumsiness of the narrator as Death, or Death as the narrator, I guess more appropriately, that brought my hackles up. The hackles came down over time as Liesel and her story moved me in appreciable ways.
I was reluctant, again, to see the movie, because of these previously enumerated reasons and a whole bunch of new ones (like seeing that chronic overactor Geoffrey Rush was in it) but I was curious about it all the same.
It's not a great version of the book, in fact it's a clumsy version of the book that lifts plenty of moments from the book and does little with them, and leaves out a whole bunch of other strong moments from the book and squanders them.
But it's not completely horrible. It was such a small scale version of this kind of story, that there was never meant to be a Saving Private Ryan - Shoah level of scope to the story. It's closest to Anne Frank as a counterpart, but it's unburdened by the importance of history, since it's fiction. It's a fictional story set amidst the ashes of Europe, and its greatest purpose is meant to be showing us why Death Himself would be curiously fixated by our main character, Liesel. What about her and her story impacted so strongly on Death that he would single her out, out of the countless billions that pass through his bony fingers and into his shadowy realm?
Why is Death the narrator of the book thief's tale?
I think the question is answered adequately by the book. I'm not sure the film answered the question very well, but maybe it answered it enough.
Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) is being sent to live with some new adoptive parents. She has a brother, but he doesn't survive the trip, expiring on the train, the poor little bastard.
As her brother is buried, she steals her first book, being the book that falls out of the undertaker's pocket as soil and snow are thrown onto her brother's casket.
She is, of course, illiterate, so it's not to increase her knowledge base that she 'steals' the book, but to retain a link with her dearly departed brother. Her new parents are very old people, one of whom is sweet Hans (Geoffrey Rush, in kindly old geezer mode), and the other is sour Brunhilda (Emily Watson). No, really, her name is Rosa, and she is petty and cruel at almost all times, loathing the very existence of Liesel.
What kind of a name is Liesel anyway? It's a German name, thanks for playing. Yes, in case it's not obvious yet, this story is set in Germany, starting just before the war as the Nazis are ever so gently ramping things up.
This film is in English. Almost all the actors, as far as I can tell, are not German. But they all speak in sometimes heavily accented German.
Why? I'm not sure, it doesn't make much sense. We know they're in Germany, they curse each other in German and say "Nein!" every now and then, but we know they're communicating in German because they're Germans. What possible value is there in making them harder to understand with those sometimes absurd accents? Instead of bringing you into the story, for me, it's a distancing thing. It's pointless window dressing that gets in the way of telling the story. It doesn't lend credibility. It doesn't make something more prestigious, more Oscarworthy (at least not to me). The book is written in English too, or at least the original was, now that it's been translated into dozens of languages, much to the misery of school kids everywhere.
If they'd spoken in whatever neutral accent of their choosing, it wouldn't have been even noteworthy, which is what films should strive for.
As nasty as Rosa is to Liesel, Hans is ever so kind, first teaching Liesel to read, then teaching her the value of being compassionate in a world rapidly losing its taste for compassion. If you've ever wondered something like "I wonder what it was like for 'regular' Germans who were just trying to get by during the war", well, for much of it, this story is like that. Liesel's in the Hitler Youth, and sings those disturbing songs and wears the uniform, but there's nothing exceptional about it, all the kids are doing it, and have no idea what's to come.
They're just regular people completely tangential to the events unfolding as the Germans unleash hell upon Europe, their own people, and the Jews. Liesel and her adoptive parents aren't Jewish, which would have made this a very different story, but a Jewish man called Max (Ben Schnetzer) comes to them desperate for a place to hide, ill too, to boot.
So what is this film really about? It's not about her death, despite Death's narration. It's not really about her stealing books, either. And it's not really about the war, though that obviously factors into it. It's really about her new father teaching her to read, and loving her, and her loving him. It's about her friendship with dark-eyed Max as she nurses him back to health a couple of times, and as he convinces her to use the power of words to change the world.
It's about her friendship with local Aryan poster child Rudi (Nico Liersch), a blonde slip of a boy who idolises the African American Jesse Owens, which brings him into conflict with the guardians of white awesomeness that are the seig heiling idiots of 1930s Germany. But the problem with any of these elements is that they're not expanded upon, or dealt with as effectively as they are in the book. I remember the part about Rudi 'dressing' up as his idol in the book as being hilarious, and a real highlight. I remember busting a gut. Here, it's fumbled, totally, and used only to show how stern and controlling it's getting to be under the Nazis.
Other elements, like Liesel's relationship with the mayor's wife, who shares her love of books after they bond at a book burning, seem like they're going to be elaborated upon later, to achieve some of the depth they had in the book, but it peters out without resolution, without significance. Especially, since I recall that it ends very differently in the book than it does here, reducing it to a somewhat pointless digression.
I could keep picking at it, but it feels like I'm being a bit unfair. I didn't particularly like the performance of the lead character, at some points it actively bugged me, and at others it was okay, but she wasn't the Liesel I imagined from the book. The flick also speeds through the ending, leaping ahead in a way that diffuses any of the feeling built up for these characters. The coda at the end, as Death intones a summary of Liesel's later life after the war, a life that must have exceeded and surpassed her youth in ways we never find out about, nevertheless delivers the last line with some power, a line so good I can't quote it for fear of diluting it, but it works only because Roger Allam, narrating as Death, has such a deep, sonorous voice. He's great, but he needed more. He's an all-seeing character that is more interesting than the main character, and yet it's him idolising her, and not the other way around.
It's a mystery that endures, mostly because of the flick's missteps rather than its achievements. My partner liked it more than I did, saying that it was beautiful and heart-warming, reminding her of Life is Beautiful, in that while there's a lot of death, it's ultimately life-affirming.
How's that for balance, eh? Now you know what two people out of the billions on this Earth thought about The Book Thief! Use that knowledge wisely.
7 times it can't be very often that Geoffrey Rush is the nicest person in a movie not called Shine out of 10
"One small fact: you are going to die. Despite every effort, no one lives forever. Sorry to be such a spoiler. My advice is when the time comes, don't panic. It doesn't seem to help." - great, now I have to worry about that as well - The Book Thief