The Book Thief

Maudlin adaptation of the acclaimed WWII-era novel

The Book Thief

Rating The Book ThiefThe Book ThiefThe Book ThiefThe Book Thief

Directed by Brian Percival. Starring Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nélisse, Ben Schnetzer, Nico Liersch, Joachim Paul Assböck, Kirsten Block, Rafael Gareisen. Written by Michael Petroni, from the novel by Markus Zusak.

Picture the scene: during the midst of WWII in a small German village, an officer is examining the basement of a family home. A Jew is hidden in the back – laying under a Nazi flag, no less – while father Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) nervously walks the officer through the basement. 

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They stop by the flag as the officer glances down. “What is this?!” (or rather, “Vat ist dis?!”) he incredulously exclaims, bending over for a closer inspection. Hans is frozen. Upstairs, mother Rosa (Emily Watson) and adopted daughter Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) clutch each other in fear. 

The moment holds. Suddenly, the officer stands back up with something in his hand. 

“Oh,” replies Hans, “That’s my old paintbrush.”

“Well…” The officer pauses. “You ought to keep better care of it.” End scene. 

That, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with Brian Percival’s The Book Thief, a well-intentioned, well-acted adaptation of the best-selling novel by Markus Zusak that tells an intimate story of a young girl coming to age in the horrors of Germany during WWII. The worst thing this film like this can do is feel inauthentic – and yet The Book Thief continually rings false every few minutes. 

There’s no need for the over-scripted, Hollywood-ized moments like the one above, but Percival’s film is full of them. The worst of all comes at the end, an unforgivable mid-sentence last gasp that takes you right out of a powerful climax and into the land of groan-inducing schmaltz. 

That’s a real shame, because the movie does a lot of other things right, and the source material seems to be crying for an adaptation that’s more grounded in reality. Though I’m not entirely sure about that: having the story narrated by Death (voiced by an overly-empathetic Roger Allam in the film) reeks of the kind of cutesy choice that suggests the author didn’t take this Nazi drama entirely seriously (I’ve not read the book, but trust that the hokum has been significantly upped for the screen version).

At the outset, young Liesel is on a train with her brother, sent to live with foster parents Hans and Rosa after her Communist mother has been forced to give them up. Her brother has already died on the train, a fact that Rosa isn’t too happy about; “you can’t blame the boy for dying,” Hans tells her. Through the horrors of WWII, the family will struggle to keep their spirits up. 

Young Nélisse gives a sensitive performance in the lead role, lending sympathy to a character we don’t always understand. She’s matched by Rush and Watson as her foster parents; Hans is a nice, doting father figure right from the start, while Rosa is initially tough on Liesel but soon warms up, especially after the family takes in Jewish refugee Max (Ben Schnetzer) and hides him in their basement.

The best scenes are shared by Nélisse and Nico Liersch, who plays her young friend Rudy. The innocents who know little about Jews or Communists or what Hitler is really all about, they struggle to come to terms with their surroundings. The kids could be seen as stand-ins for an ignorant German population that didn’t fully comprehend what has happening in their own country. The story’s strongest point is its setting: we rarely see a WWII film from this perspective. 

Not that we needed to have it conveyed with a dopey John Williams score and actors speaking English with bogus German accents (every ‘and’ becomes ‘und’, every ‘with’ a ‘mit’). Unfortunately, for all the good here, the final result – as cornball and mawkish as Hollywood can make ‘em – feels flat-out phony.

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