The Book Thief

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Director: Brian Percival
Starring: Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Ben Schnetzer
Rating:  4.5 stars (out of five)

The Book Thief is a very enjoyable, well-made film–one of the most engrossing I’ve seen this year.  Director Brian Percival leads a very talented, mostly German cast through a tale straddling World War II.  A young girl is sent to live with a new, adoptive family in 1938, and we follow her story closely through the war until it concludes in 1945.  Set entirely in a small village–almost entirely on one street–it’s far removed from the action of the war, but touched daily by it nonetheless.

Geoffrey Rush is his usual excellent self as Hans, a kindly and somewhat broken-down man of quiet integrity (a potentially dangerous affliction in Hitler’s Germany), and Emily Watson, as his harsh wife, is better still.  She begins the film cold and compassionless, clearly adopting young Liesel for the state stipend that comes with her.  Through the course of the film, she never loses that unpleasant edge, but we see far more of her decency and her heart than the character herself would probably want to reveal.  It’s a credit to both Watson and the filmmakers that this is a subtle expansion of character rather than a cartoonish transformation.
And then there’s Sophie Nelisse, who plays Liesel, aging from 9 to 16 over the course of the film (she was about 12 during filming).  She conveys age and character growth that cover both a mere handful of years and a third of a child’s lifetime, which is a hell of a challenge. She’s in nearly every scene of the film and carries the weight skillfully.
The film grapples with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust in a way that some critics have called, if not sanitized, then soft-pedaled.  But this isn’t a film meant to assess Nazi atrocity or the complicity of the average German.  It’s more about a specific family of individuals, the micro scale, not the macro.  I found this fascinating–the detachment of the average villager in this film from the monstrous behavior of the regime makes sense.  The danger is that the film seems to separate the society from the government.  For instance, when a local Jewish shopkeeper is hauled off by Nazi soldiers and only Hans will speak up for him, the rest of the crowd seems silenced by fear, when surely a number of average Germans must have cheered such things.  It’s not like the Nazis were an occupying army in their own country.
Still, Percival demonstrates his perspective early on.  For a considerable stretch of time, we see Nazi Germany with no sign of Nazis.  The first time a swastika appears in the film, the camera is at ground level shooting up that the school Liesel is about to attend.  Two Nazi flags hang from the front of the imposing building.  Liesel and her best friend walk into the frame from behind and stand in front of the camera, backs to the viewer, looking at the school.  They have stopped in exact place to block our view of the swastika flags–a clear message that this is a film about characters more than the broader historical context.
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The film has small imperfections.  I would count as one of them that it is narrated by Death.  This may work in the novel (that’s one seriously omniscient narrator), but the thankfully sparse uses of Death for voiceover narration here seem a little forced.  And if you’re doing a story where you literally give Death the last word, you’d like his signoff to be a little more weighty or insightful than is managed here.  That aside, the film also feels compressed in a way that means events sometimes feel more random than a structured screenplay generally allows–but therefore all the more like real life, and plot threads are introduced and dropped.  For example, the family ends up with a secret that could literally get them all killed, and it is impressed upon Liesel over and over that she must never, ever tell anyone.  When she eventually does tell someone, there is no consequence.  That character does not rat her out, does not one day use the knowledge to help, does not struggle with the secret, nothing.  It’s of no consequence to the film that she spilled.  Similarly, Liesel does some daring things to acquire books (see title), and thus a major story concern for the viewer is, “How will she get away with this?  What if she gets caught?”  That never quite pays off, either.
Thematically, I wish the film were a little more unified, stronger in its point of view.  A major running theme is the value and power of books, words, story.  There, the film’s perspective is clear and indisputable.  But its greatest thematic question is about why a person commits acts of heroism or kindness at great risk and sometimes for little reward (or, from the perspective of our narrator, perhaps, futilely since everyone dies anyway).  We’re given an answer, more than once, to the effect that we have to–it’s what makes us human.  But the explicit followup question, “Is it worth it, and does it mean anything?” isn’t so clearly dealt with.  I don’t need the movie to tell me the answer, but I’d like to feel like the story is in service to a single authorial viewpoint on the question, whether I’d agree or not.  It’s harder to tease out the intention on that.  Particularly because Liesel is implicitly “favored” by Death, who takes an interest in her life.  Depending on how we understand that interest, it could mess up the equation of what an ordinary person’s behavior means.
Nonetheless, the movie is touching, tense and engrossing, powered entirely by the cast rather than the big action set pieces that a story told by Death and set in WWII could certainly rely upon.  It does present a lot to chew on, and a lot to consider.  It wrestles with small, individual lives and huge questions of human nature and existence, and is entertaining in every moment.
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