The new film “The Book Thief”, based on the bestselling book by Australian novelist Markus Zusak, depicts a Holocaust-lite version of World War II era Nazi Germany and inadvertently poses the question, “Can a cute Nazi kid steal your heart?” The answer, like those conflicted times, is not as black and white or as simple as it may seem.
I haven’t read the novel, “The Book Thief”, so this review is of the Brian Percival directed film on its own merit. It’s the story of a poor, non-party German family caught in the middle of Hitler’s pre-war Nazi fervor; and even though you might find yourself sympathetic for their situation it is difficult to feel much compassion for them after considering the plight of their Jewish neighbors.
It’s that paradoxical complexity that makes “The Book Thief” an intriguing film. It’s true that the tale also tries to tie in a statement that reading, writing and words are the key to life, but the movie didn’t work on that level for me and the screenplay by Michael Petroni stumbled awkwardly through most of that forced thematic message.
The film begins with young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse) being delivered to her new foster parents, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Hubermann, after the death of her younger brother. At the boy’s burial, Liesel picks up a book, “The Gravediggers Handbook,” that was dropped at the funeral proceedings and the handbook is then used by Hans as the catalyst to help the uneducated girl learn to read.
The young girl becomes obsessed with words and reading and goes so far as to steal books from Nazi book burnings and even a local Nazi leader’s library. When the Hubermann family takes in and hides a young Jewish man, Liesel makes a connection to him through her books and even saves his life by reading to him when he is sick and in a feverish coma.
In between her book stealing and reading adventures, Liesel becomes friends with her schoolmate, Rudy (Nico Liersch), sings Nazi propaganda songs at school, beats up a Hitler youth bully and helps her foster-mother with her laundry business. Eventually Hans is conscripted into military service as World War II begins in earnest and the young girl finds herself filling her foster-father’s spot in the bomb shelter, providing entertainment to her frightened neighbors by telling stories.
The Holocaust and the Nazi treatment of the Jewish people are only touched on lightly in this film, but in the end that soft touch works, for the most part, in the context of the story, which is told from the perspective of a young German girl who likely never saw the depth of the atrocities her countrymen committed.
The film is narrated by “Death” (voiced by Roger Allam), which I’m sure was meant to add depth and some sort of poetic weight to the human carnage taking place off-screen and I understand that this is the same way that the story is conveyed in the book; but the distracting Death voiceovers felt out of place in the context of the movie and were the weakest parts of the film.The perfectly cast young actress who plays Liesel, Sophie Nelisse, is adorably cute and it is startling to see her in a Nazi uniform singing Hitler’s praises, even though her character doesn’t have much choice in the matter. If you were ever to have empathy for a Nazi, I guess it would be for this charming and naïve little girl. She, like her foster family, is only trying to survive in the insane world thrust upon her, not necessarily conform to it.
The Book Thief also has fantastic performances by the always wonderful Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, as well as a musical score by the legendary John Williams (one of his few non-Spielberg efforts in recent years.)
Although the film’s direction has more than a few bumps and the narrative sometimes meanders and stumbles, trying too hard to force a connection to its literal title, this movie shows Nazi Germany from a different and ultimately provocative viewpoint. This is no Schindler’s List, but it is certainly worth seeing. Grade: 7/10