Monday, November 11, 2013

The Book Thief (**)

Directed by Brian Percival


The Book Thief really means well, and the overall nice-ness of the storytelling here makes it hard to really dislike. In it's purest form, this is really a story built for children, based on Markus Zusak's young adult novel, yet Brian Percival's film wants the prestige of a serious adult drama. It feels like its overextending its reach, even if it does have the gravity of a Holocaust story on its side. The Holocaust has inspired some of the very best films that I've ever seen (Schindler's List, Seven Beauties), but it's also inspired some disasters (The Reader, Life is Beautiful), with filmmakers attempting to tap one of history's greatest tragedies for sentimentality or life-affirming propaganda. It probably has less to do with the subject matter and more to do with the fact that there have just been so many damn movies made about it. The Book Thief is far from being either the best or the worst Holocaust movie, finding itself somewhere in the middle, with a collection of performances that manage to just raise it above dull.

Like Zusak's novel, the story is narrated from the perspective of Death, himself, peering in omnisciently at the world, but taking a specific notice of Liesel (newcomer Sophie Nelisse). In attempt to escape the dangers of the rising Third Reich in 1938 Germany, Liesel's jewish mother decides to give up her two children to foster parents that can raise them under false non-Jewish backgrounds. When Liesel's little brother dies on the journey, Liesel finds herself alone when she's introduced to her new parents, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). Rosa is a stern, ill-tempered woman who is immediately frustrated with arrival of only one child - one less child means less of an allowance. It becomes quickly evident that Hans will be the good cop of the two, doting on the quiet Liesel before bedtime, and giving her secret winks behind Rosa's back to confirm their bond. When Hans notices that the illiterate Liesel has stolen a book from her brother's grave digger, instead of being upset, he sees it as unorthodox opportunity to help Liesel learn how to read.

An element of danger arrives at their home in the figure of a jewish man named Max (Ben Scnetzer), who falls into their home, half-starved. Max is the son of a friend of Hans, a friend that gave his life for Hans during the first World War and to whom Hans had promised to repay the favor. The debt is repaid when Max asks to be hidden from SS officers looking to sniff out Jews that may be hiding. Liesel is immediately taken with Max, who also has a stolen book in his possession. They both have lost their mothers as a result of the rise of Hitler and their shared pain is shown in their growing friendship. They decide to read together, with Max eventually encouraging Liesel to start writing, but with the coming of a Second World War now seeming all but inevitable, the safety of their household now seems in even more jeopardy. Liesel's one solace is in her newfound love of reading, but even that is threatened as the Nazi party begins promoting the destruction of literature and books in general. Liesel finds herself only reading books that she steals in secret, reading with Max in the basement.

There were no elements of surprise throughout The Book Thief, it's story taking all of the routes you'd expect from a film like this. There were several subplots though that provided charming characters, including Rudy (Nico Liersch), a young boy who volunteers to be Liesel's friend, and loves the sprinter Jesse Owens so much that he's willing to rub coal all over his body to make himself look black. There's also Ilsa Hermann (Barbara Auer), the wife of the small town's fascist mayor, Buergmeister Hermann (Rainer Bock), who notices Liesel's interest in books and invites the young girl to come visit her secret, extensive library. It's Ilsa's books that becomes Liesel's main resource for books to steal. These stories, along with charming performances from Rush and Watson as the polar opposite foster parents, that make you forget how utterly ordinary this film is. Max and Liesel's relationship is interesting in a lift-up-the-power-of-the-human-spirit kind of way, but there's nothing in those aspects of the film that really separate from all of the others.

It's not uncommon for Hollywood-produced films to take place in a foreign land, only to have all of the actors speak in accented English (this happened famously in 2011's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, where no one actually spoke Swedish, and the film's star - Daniel Craig - couldn't even be bothered to speak in anything other than his British accent). But the reading of words is so key to The Book Thief's themes and plots, so when young Sophie Nelisse sees the word "Wirtschaftspr├╝fer" displayed on a building and then we subsequently see the actress struggle to enunciate the word "accountant", it brings on a distracting inconsistency throughout the film. How does Liesel pick up a book that clearly says on its cover "Der unsichtbare Mann", but when she opens it, all there is is the English text of H.G. Wells' "The Invisible Man"? It's all very odd and seems straight up unprofessional that the filmmakers cold not find a better way to handle this issue. Perhaps its a small point, and I'm being nitpicky, but it seems to be the root of the film's problem: outside of the actors, everyone involved seems to think that the story alone is enough to make this film good. But this isn't Zusak's book, it's instead a forgettable film.

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