Friday, January 24, 2014

The Book Thief Movie Review

I’m not even sure where to begin describing everything that is loathsome about The Book Thief, Brian Percival’s film of the novel by Markus Zusak, adapted by Michael Petroni. It almost stirred in me a potentially self-punishing interest in reading the novel to discover if Zusak’s representation of a German town during WWII is any less trite and sanitized than Percival’s film. It is true that a WWII-themed story, even one taking place in Germany, doesn’t have to be mired in depression and death. The Book Thief has its share of death and some destruction, but it fails to capture any real sense of devastation and decay among the German people as their morals and country crumbled around them.


When death comes in The Book Thief, and it comes in the form of narration by Death itself (provided by Roger Allam), it is clean and fleeting. The first character taken is a small boy traveling on a train with his mother and older sister. The woman is taking her children to a foster family. Her daughter, Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), observes the death with virtually no emotion. The boy, obviously ill beyond imagination, looks merely a little peeked. The same goes for characters who are killed in an allied bombing later – their bodies are intact and their faces bear not a single mark, as if violent explosions and falling debris induce a peaceful death in sleep. This is part and parcel of a film that doesn’t want to go too far in making people feel something except a bit of uplift. Percival wants this to be an experience that makes people feel like they’ve fulfilled their moral obligation to remember the Holocaust without having to get too deeply invested.

The screenplay adaptation is structurally muddy, the characterizations are bereft of anything other than broad stroke clichés, and any sense of true national mood is omitted. When Liesel arrives at her new foster family’s home she is frightened and turned off by her hard-hearted “mama” Rosa Hubermann (Emily Watson). A cartoon version of a foster mother, she callously complains about the boy not arriving because she was expecting allowances for two children. You don’t have to have seen too many movies to know that before the end this spitfire, who has her husband totally henpecked, will do a 180 and become a loving wife and mother. On the opposite side of the fantasy character spectrum is “papa,” Hans (Geoffrey Rush), who engage her by appealing to her childish imagination. Ah yes, the parent who does little to support the family financially, but who is spirited, warm, and caring. These are stock character and flat as a result. Others include the bullying boy who toes the party line, the loyal best friend, the kindly woman who indulges Liesel’s love of book, and the Nazi official who threatens with his presence.

This is not even to mention Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jew who turns up looking for help from Hans, an old war buddy of his father’s. Max exists in the screenplay for two reasons: to be the intellectual (no coding there) who encourages Liesel in her writing; and to be a reminder of the horrors that lie just outside the scope of what’s represented by the story. He’s the reminder that Hitler and the Nazis committed unspeakable atrocities, but not substantial enough to make anyone in the audience too uncomfortable. In fact, you would think what happened to the Jews was a mere footnote from watching this movie. Oh look, it’s Kirstallnacht! Oh look, that Jew who’s been passing has been discovered and removed! Oh look, the Jews are parading through town with yellow stars and suitcases on their way…somewhere.

It’s also cheaply manipulative whenever it finds the opportunity. When Hans is conscripted into the army, we see him in a truck that is blown up on the road and flips over. Several scenes pas us by before we see him return home, now with a walking stick. What is the purpose of showing us the explosion but withholding his fate for several minutes if not to artificially make us worry that he’s died? A much more powerful effect is created if we don’t see the accident, but only his return as an injured veteran. And this is sadly just one of several examples of manipulative overreach.

Maybe Zusak’s novel accomplishes much more in terms of the view from Death’s point of view that the human species is a marvel for the way beauty and ugliness can exist simultaneously alongside one another. Death the narrator and observer of Liesel, her family, and friends doesn’t enjoy war. He’s written as an entity just doing what he’s supposed to do (which is unintentionally, I hope, just a little too similar to ‘just following orders’), but who has grown weary of it. I’m afraid The Book Thief adds little, if anything, to the conversation about WWII. It’s empty and flat and rather desperately trying to be something it is not.

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