In what may be the most saccharine exploration of the German experience in WW2 ever committed to film, The Book Thief plays more like a television movie-of-the-week than a truly engaging cinematic experience. Based on the immensely popular and acclaimed novel of the same name by Australian author Markus Zusak, The Book Thief is clearly a film aimed at younger audiences, such is its superficiality in the depictions of the Nazi regime and the harm inflicted on so many during this time. In fact, the film presents the whole wartime experience as a mild inconvenience rather than a period in which so much of the population lived in a constant state of fear and repression.
The story centres on golden-haired Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), abandoned by her mother and sent to live with the kindly Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his not-so-jolly wife Rosa (Emily Watson), whose bark is much worse than her bite. Liesel adapts remarkably well to her new circumstances and soon the trio are firm friends, with Hans taking it upon himself to teach Liesel how to read. Liesel’s subsequent fascination with words and reading leads her to salvage a book from a stockpile burned by the Nazi regime. When a young Jewish man named Max (Ben Schnetzer) arrives on their doorstop, the family offer him refuge in keeping a promise made many years earlier, the details of which are quite sketchy. With a shared passion for reading, a bond develops between Max and Liesel, who takes to ‘borrowing’ books from the home of the local Burgermeister.
There is a lot about this film that bothers me. First and foremost is the ridiculous German-accented English used by the cast that is more reminiscent of Hogan’s Heroes and proves an infuriating distraction. When singing in the school choir, Liesel and her fellow students use German, yet they speak in English at all other times, including in the classroom. The obvious need to attract a wide audience has no doubt been the catalyst to use English dialogue, but the dubious accents only serve to magnify the anomaly. Another irksome aspect of the film is the fact that, although the story spans a period of five years, neither Liesel, nor her best friend Rudy (Nico Liersch), look a day older at the end of the film than they did at the beginning. Don’t even get me started on how quickly Liesel morphs from completely illiterate to a voracious bookworm under the tutelage of a man who, by his own admission, is not a very good reader.
It seems that director Brian Percival (TV’s Downton Abbey) has opted for a somewhat literal approach to adapting the novel and, as a result, has seemingly cast aside the cardinal rule of ‘show, don’t tell’. On too many occasions, significant events and key information are addressed superficially in conversation, rather than through visual renderings of what has taken place and, as such, these moments are not articulated with the level of exposition that allows the audience to clearly understand the actions and motivations of key characters. However, perhaps the most bothersome element of the film is the way in which the war itself is presented. This version of history presents WW2 as a completely bloodless affair in which people, whilst a little wary of the Nazis, simply go about their business in their somewhat quaint neighbourhood. There is no real insight into why Max is hiding and what may happen to him and his hosts if he is found. I mean, there is a scene where Jews are being marched through the streets, but nothing that hints at the horror that awaits them. Likewise, in the final moments of the film when the streets are strewn with rubble and houses have been destroyed, those killed are laid neatly on the street, nary a cut or bruise to be seen. Certainly, there are no limbs torn asunder or gaping flesh wounds that we might reasonably expect from a moment of such destruction.
The film, and the book as well I assume, is rich in sentimentality, offering a respite from the real horrors of war. Whilst it might not be a film about the Holocaust as such, any story connected with these events does carry an obligation to, at the very least, offer some hint as to the horror that unfolded. There is little doubt that everybody involved in this was well-intentioned and the performances are fine (accents aside) for the most part. Unfortunately though, The Book Thief sugar-coats a particularly dark period of history and I can already envision a rush by teachers to utilise this film as a way of making the Holocaust palatable for younger students and quell any concerns by parents and school administrators about material that may prove upsetting. Heaven forbid that young people should face the realities of what took place.