The Book Thief (2014)

The Book ThiefWhen death (Roger Allam) first meets Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) she is mourning her beloved brother on a train through Nazi Germany. The siblings were to both be adopted by Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa Hubermann (Emily Watson) — their biological mother charged as a communist — but instead Liesel goes into care alone. Despite himself, death takes an interest in the young girl, whom he brands ‘The Book Thief’ after she is caught stealing a copy of The Gravedigger’s Handbook at her brother’s funeral. He watches as she teaches herself to read, meets Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch) at school and helps to conceal a Jewish fist-fighter called Max (Ben Schnetzer) in the Hubermann’s basement. But the Nazis are burning books almost as fast as Liesel can read them, and when Germany finally goes to war she and death will only become better acquainted.

At least, that’s the gist of Markus Zusak’s celebrated source novel of the same name. The book is written exclusively from death’s perspective, as he ruminates on everything from the colour of souls to his own suitability as storyteller, with the effect of exploring the Second World War from a new and unique point of view. Sadly, this element of the story is all but left out of Brian Percival’s adaptation. Death is still present, occasionally offering up a few lines of narration, but he never feels like an integral or even important part of the story. A large part of the problem is Roger Allam’s anaemic and rather vague voiceover; chances are audiences will spend much of the movie wondering who it is they are listening to, particularly if they are unfamiliar with the novel, with Allam’s vocals more likely to conjure images of Geoffrey Rush (who, confusingly, stars elsewhere as Hans) than the Grim Reaper. He could just as easily have been left out altogether.

Without death’s interpretation of events, The Book Thief is simply Liesel’s story, a rather more ordinary account of life under Nazi rule. She spends much of it reading, at first with her foster father in the family’s basement and then in the better-equipped library of one Ilsa Hermann, and though her literary lessons may be gripping on paper they are substantially less so on the big screen. For a film so fundamentally about death, in theory if not necessarily in person, The Book Thief is worrying light on threat. Swastikas hang from just about every window and yet the Nazis feel distant and removed from the action; even during war-time there is very little sense of the horrors befalling millions, aside from vague references to what sort of fate might await Max Vandenburg is he is caught. Poor CGI only exacerbates the sense of weightlessness, with many of the effects evoking Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade when perhaps The Boy With The Striped Pyjamas would have been a more appropriate touchstone.

That said, The Book Thief is not a total failure by any means. Though there is much to distract audiences from the central story, that of a young girl forced to grow up under fascist rule, the performances are of sufficient quality to compensate. By not drawing attention to the conflict, Percival manages to normalise war, and it is undeniably unsettling to watch the Hitler Youth — of which Liesel and Rudy are members — sing the German national anthem with such patriotic pride. Newcomer Sophie Nélisse is exceptional as Liesel, and ably carries the movie through to its tragic end. Schnetzer too does great work despite limited experience, his fist-fighter earning great sympathy from the confines of his basement. Ultimately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, however, it is Rush and Watson who impress most as Hans and Rose Hubermann. Watson in particular shines as “a woman shrouded in thunder”, and every time she lets her guard down is an occasion for either great joy or terrible sadness. Arguably the best scene involves an indoor snowball fight between the four of them.

The word ‘unfilmable’ has been bandied about a lot in recent years, and yet most of the films referenced in this way — Life Of Pi and Cloud Atlas in particular — have in fact been very successful indeed. Less so with The Book Thief, a film which has all of the book’s events present and correct but fails completely to capture its spirit or recreate its personality. Brian Percival has directed a perfectly functional war drama, but has done very little justice to Markus Zusak’s masterpiece of the same name. You leave unsure whether the film had any soul at all, let alone what colour it might have been.

3-Stars

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About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

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