By André Crous
There is something sadistic about the industry inflicting movies on us on a near-annual basis that have to do with Jews hiding from the Nazis. From time to time, these films have undeniable strength and importance – for example, films that are documentaries, like Shoah or The Night and the Fog, or those that veer close to being documentaries, like Schindler’s List or Europa Europa – but just as often, there are movie producers who are interested in the subject more as a moneymaking device than as a historical tragedy.
This is where things usually fall apart. If the subject of fear is used not to teach us about the evil of the past, but merely as a backdrop to a story about a Christian girl who falls in love with a Jewish boy, and who reads him bedtime stories when he is bedridden, it can only be described as abominable. And that is exactly what The Book Thief is.
The Christian girl in question is an orphan named Liesel (Sophie Nélisse). Her brother died recently in the arms of her mother, who has had to flee because she is a communist, leaving Liesel in the care of a parentless couple. Her new “papa” is the kind-hearted, patient and loving Hans Hubermann, played with grace by Geoffrey Rush. Her second “mama,” of course, is the strict and offish Rosa (Emily Watson), who is sharp-tongued, always finds fault with everyone else, and whom we never grow to like.
At her brother’s funeral, Liesel had picked up a book, and with this book her world, which has suddenly shrunk to a small home on a short street in a tiny swastika-emblazoned town in the German countryside, opens up again, and her relationship with her new father blossoms. She falls in love with books, and after the predictable scene of a Nazi-organised book burning in the town square, she can’t help but take one of the books, even as it singes under her coat, making her clothes billow with smoke.
The Book Thief, which is based on a novel by Austrian author Markus Zusak, may have had the best intentions, but when the street on which the girl lives is called Himmelstrasse (Heaven Street), and we constantly have a narration supplied by no one other than Death himself (voiced here by Roger Allam), and everyone speaks as if they’re on the radio, it is truly embarrassing. And the embarrassment is infuriating because of the importance of the historical context.
For a large part of the film, a young Jewish man, Max, hides out in the Hubermanns’ cellar, and Liesel’s fascination with him, mixed with the secret she has to keep – even from her best friend, Rudy, the boy from next door who never leaves her alone and who, from the way he is acting, apparently had decided to fall in love with her even before they met – could have been the source of an interesting story. But because of the terrible acting by almost everyone in the cast and the very one-dimensional characters they all portray, it is difficult to take anything seriously, despite the terrible setting of Nazi Germany.
The only time when the film packs a punch is near the beginning, shortly before the start of the war, when director Brian Percival intercuts the violence of Kristallnacht with a choir of fair-haired German children singing their hearts out, dressed in their Hitlerjugend uniforms with enormous flags of the Nazi Party draped on either side of them. It is a deeply distressing scene for the viewer, which seems to belong to an infinitely more capable film. It is also a scene whose gravity is almost entirely undermined by one a few minutes later in which Liesel and Max make fun of Hitler’s mother.
But the worst is yet to come. Never mind Liesel effortlessly wading into frigid waters halfway through the film and Rudy diving into the ice-cold river to prove his love/friendship, and neither of them so much as get gooseflesh from the cold: The film ends with almost an exact copy of the final scene of Titanic, in which the memories of a lifetime are exhibited on cabinets for our perusal, so that we can all have a nice, warm feeling upon leaving the cinema, knowing that Liesel’s post-Holocaust life was beautiful.
The Book Thief is one of the worst World War II films I have ever seen. It is one thing to try to balance humour with the grotesque events that no man or woman – and certainly no child – should ever have to face, but it is quite another to essentially make light of the events by having a director who doesn’t seem to mind his actors sounding like they are reading from a page just out of reach of the camera, and a story that is incompetently vying for our emotions. Having Death narrate the events is silly, if not appalling, beyond belief, and the whole experience leaves the viewer immensely disappointed, with a desire that someone should have set light to the screenplay.
Director(s) Brian Percival
Screenwriter(s) Michael Petroni
Directors of Photography Florian Ballhaus
Running Time 130 minutes
André Crous is a professional film critic and a member of FIPRESCI. He holds a French honour’s degree, two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. His research examined the works of Francois Truffaut, Mikhail Kalatazov, Martin Scorcese, Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Winterbottom. He writes about movies in his blog, Celluloid Paradiso and lives in Prague, Czech Republic. | Read More ⟩