The Book Thief (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) were promised two children so they can receive two allowances, but only one makes it through the trip. The girl’s name is Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) and her younger brother is buried en route near the railroad tracks. Their mother is a communist so in order for them to have a chance of living in Nazi Germany, they had to be given up for adoption. Due to unmet expectations regarding pecuniary matters, Rosa does not quickly warm up to her new daughter.
Based on the novel by Markus Zusack, “The Book Thief” is quite large in scope—the story beginning just before World War II and ending when the lead character has passed due to old age—and it does not have enough time to focus on every character or subplot that matters. However, it is an emotionally engaging film for the most part because it is willing to show the horrors of war from time to time even if its target audience is a younger crowd.
The picture does not make a good first impression. Although beautifully shot from the opening scene, it is a challenge to appreciate how certain characters are drawn. A simplistic approach comes across as one-dimensional at times. More specifically, Hans being the nice, supportive figure and Rosa acting like a witch with just about every opportunity she gets. While Watson is effective in the role, the evil adoptive mother subplot, which lasts for about half the film, runs out of steam within the first half hour. However, the screenplay by Michael Petroni proves able to move beyond the mean substitute mother storyline in an elegant fashion as the horrors of Hitler’s reign move front and center.
Many might argue that the most heartwarming relationship in the film is shared between Liesel and Hans, especially with the latter’s attempt to make the girl’s transition easier. But I was most interested in Liesel’s friendship with her next door neighbor named Rudy (Nico Liersch), a boy with whom the narrator, Death (wonderfully voiced by Roger Allam), refers to as having lemon-colored hair. Liesel and Rudy’s scenes are sweet, amusing, at times funny, and it is easy to root for them to make it through dark times. It is most disappointing that Rudy disappears for a good chunk of time somewhere in the middle.
Another important connection that Liesel makes in the Hubermann household is with a Jewish man named Max (Ben Schnetzer). However, the script does not delve deeply enough into why this relationship is special. We are given repetitive scenes of Liesel reading to Max when he is not well and a few acknowledgments with regards to both of them being targets of the Nazis. Although the scenes where Liesel helps to take care of Max appear touching, I did not buy into it completely. For a smart young person like Liesel, I did not believe that they are not able to have more meaningful conversations about the war and mortality.
I wished, however, that the picture had managed to show more evil actions done by the Germans—not the Nazi soldiers in uniforms and carrying guns but of fellow neighbors who genuinely believe the war’s causes. Some of them probably feel they must support the war. After all, their sons and husbands are participating in it. It would have added a layer of truth or complexity and the dramatic tension might have been more palpable.
Despite its shortcomings, “The Book Thief,” directed by Brian Percival, is worth watching for all-around good performances, beautiful interior shots of small homes and palatial manors serving as contrast against monstrosities happening outside one’s walls, and the score by John Williams. The combinations of these will almost surely tug at the heartstrings.