Review: The Book Thief

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The Book Thief

War is hell, but not in The Book Thief.

This is not to say war is a picnic in the film; the specter of war's ultimate toll is ever present and personified by the narrator, Death. But The Book Thief's absurdly sanitized depiction of World War II barely hints at the horrific realities, and a story that should be gritty and deep is mostly mild and superficial.

The titular book thief in the film (based on a bestselling young adult novel of the same title) is young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse). Her mother, a communist in pre-war Nazi Germany who fears for her family's safety, takes Liesel and her younger brother to live with foster parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Hubermann. Liesel's brother dies aboard the train en route to meet the Hubermanns; after his trackside burial, the illiterate Liesel steals the gravedigger's manual to remind her of her brother. This is the first of many books she'll take throughout the film as she becomes more literate.

The Hubermanns are an odd pair; the amiable Hans dotes on Liesel, helps her deal with her brother's death and teaches her to read, while the stern and humorless Rosa barks orders at the girl and treats her like a cross to bear. Liesel's life is mostly one of deprivation and gloom, but she does enjoy her friendship with a neighbor boy, Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch).

Hans, Rosa and Liesel live in constant fear of the Nazis (Hans has refused to join the party), even more so when they shelter Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), a Jewish refugee whose father fought in World War I with Hans. The start of World War II makes life in their small city even more stressful, as Hans and Rosa try to give Liesel some semblance of a normal life while hiding Max, living in near poverty, dealing with the threat of air raids and cautiously tiptoeing around their Nazi overlords.

In the midst of the insanity around her -- actually, in The Book Thief it's less like insanity than constant inconvenience and harassment -- Liesel becomes ever more literate and longs to read as many books as she can. She gains an unlikely ally in a customer of her mother's laundry business: Ilsa Hermann (Barbara Auer), the mayor's lonely wife, shares Liesel's love of books and invites her to spend long hours reading in the Hermanns' library.

This slightly farfetched storyline sets up a more farfetched second half full of overly convenient plotting, when the war takes a progressively painful toll on the principal characters. Among The Book Thief's many flaws is that it never shows us this toll in any realistic or visceral detail. War movies need not be endlessly bloody to be effective, but The Book Thief is almost totally bloodless (Liesel's skinned leg is about the worst of it). The Nazis are cold, authoritarian and mean, but not brutal; there are only oblique references to the concentration camps and other atrocities. The Book Thief mentions death often, but we see it only when Liesel's brother dies and in the film's climactic scene, which portrays death far too neatly and cleanly, as if the war's victims died gently in their sleep.

The Book Thief's overall tone is completely wrong for its genre. There is a lot of gentle humor, which might work if there was sufficient grit to balance it. But minus the grit, the humor makes the film feel lightweight and lacking the gravitas of its very serious subject matter. (Had the humor been dark and biting instead of so mild, it would be a much more meaningful film.) And because it's so superficial, The Book Thief seldom strikes genuine emotional notes. It's not shocking enough to make us horrified or mournful, and it never explores its essential theme -- the transformative power of great literature to help us make sense of humanity at its worst -- with much depth, so we feel no joy when Liesel finds solace or enlightenment in the written word.

The Book Thief's worst offense, however, is that it tries to overcome its lack of real emotion with forced sentimentality, cloyingly tugging at our heartstrings rather than giving us reasons to care about the characters. A few moments reek of romance novel weepiness, especially an absurd scene in the third act that all but erases any emotive credibility the film earns in its better moments.

To its improbable plot and emotional vacancy, The Book Thief adds an odd linguistic quirk. The principal characters -- all German -- speak English with varying accents, while the Nazis give speeches and everyone sings songs in German at patriotic events. This juxtaposition is strange; why doesn't everyone just speak German? The Book Thief's locale is authentic, as it was filmed entirely in Germany, so to complete this authenticity, the characters should speak their native language. (Or if they speak English -- no doubt a concession to subtitle-averse American audiences -- so should the Nazis.)

What's good about The Book Thief? Not a lot, other than Rush and Watson's performances. Rosa is the film's best-written and most complex character -- she surprises us often -- and Watson does her usual terrific work. There isn't as much for Rush to do as Hans, but he's believable and sympathetic as a frustrated man who's kind to his family and neighbors and sometimes recklessly brave around the Nazis.

I've bashed The Book Thief's execution, but I'm not bashing its intentions. Its premise is intriguing and has much potential as a powerful war story seen through the eyes of a bright and inquisitive child. But the story -- and The Book Thief's audience -- deserve a far braver and more sophisticated film.