The Book Thief has touched off a mini-debate about whether the world needs more Holocaust films. Yet nobody has asked the truly pressing question: Does the world need more movies that exhort young people to read and, more problematically, to write books? Has anybody checked out the sheer number of Kindle self-published titles lately?
I kid, sort of. Books are great. Kids should read (preferably extensively before they offer the world their own literary creations). But one of the problems with this adaptation of Markus Zusak’s acclaimed novel is that it treats the horrors of Nazi Germany primarily as fodder for one sensitive budding writer. While it’s lavishly appointed and well acted, The Book Thief overemphasizes the redemptive value of the protagonist’s art and underemphasizes, well, the horror. That’s rather a surprise from a film narrated by Death himself (voice of Roger Allam).
It’s 1938, and Death informs us that he has taken a particular interest in Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), an illiterate 9-year-old whose Communist mother has left her with a foster family in rural Germany before fleeing the country. We watch the familiar narrative unfold — Kristallnacht, book burning, blond children extolling “Deutschland Über Alles” — through the eyes of a kid only gradually realizing something’s wrong with this picture. That realization comes home when Liesel’s foster father, Hans (Geoffrey Rush), decides to shelter Max (Ben Schnetzer), a young Jew to whose family he owes a debt of honor. Max nurtures Liesel’s nascent love of stories; she brings him stolen books.
Combining a personal history with a collective one is a delicate matter, especially when the person in question occupies a relatively privileged position. By all accounts, Zusak succeeded in fleshing out both Liesel and Max so that their literary companionship would serve as a meaningful rebuke to the inhumanity surrounding them. The film fails on that score.
Director Brian Percival, a veteran of numerous “Downton Abbey” episodes, has given The Book Thief an impressively lived-in look; set designer Mark Rosinski makes us feel the deprivation of Liesel’s home compared with those of prominent party members. But the characters remain static icons: Hans is goodness personified, his wife (Emily Watson) has a sharp tongue but a heart of gold, and so forth. Soulful-eyed Max seems to exist solely to further Liesel’s coming of age; he has no quirks of his own, let alone the anger one might expect from someone forced into a dank cellar by a genocidal regime.
Québécois actress Nélisse shows great promise in her emotional moments, but Liesel is often frustratingly opaque. One problem is that she ages considerably during the story, without corresponding changes in her behavior; another is that she’s been saddled with a faux German accent in a misguided attempt at authenticity. (Note to writers: Tossing “und” and “nein” into your characters’ dialogue will not fool us into thinking we’re hearing German.)
It is possible to treat dark material with tasteful obliqueness, and that’s where Percival seems to be aiming, at least until a rankly sentimental scene late in the film. But he lacks the skill to convey the weight of atrocities while keeping them offscreen. Instead of mounting dread, we may feel impatience at Liesel’s all-too-familiar tale.
Yes, stories have great power, and gentiles could be important witnesses to the Holocaust, too. But seriously, Death, when Anne Frank was busy writing her diary, this is the girl you chose to obsess over? The book may justify that choice; the movie doesn’t.