The Book Thief

The trouble with movies like The Book Thief is that they almost make you feel sorry for Nazis.  Ever the baddies and usually without any redeeming features, they form the backdrop of evil in such a huge array of movies.  Decent people reluctantly take up the uniform and become vicious unfeeling brutes.  Yes, the Nazis were responsible for very many appalling atrocities, among the worst known to mankind, and on the largest scale – but villains in movies are much easier to love than heroes.

It’s all too easy and hackneyed to set a movie against the curse of Nazi rule, such that I see this movie and images of Life is Beautiful, Inglourious BasterdsCabaret, Schindler’s Ark, The Tin Drum, Saving Private Ryan, The Pianist…. thousands of them spring effortlessly into my mind in every genre you can think of – even animations.  Here’s a clutch of especially evil swastika wearers, and they don’t even have to feature in war films either – just chuck in a Nazi and you have an instant villain, an eternal bogeyman to boo and hiss!

The danger is that the reality of World War II is hijacked and corrupted by movie makers for dramatic licence and for easy pathos, tears and heroic escapes – and in the process lose, while from the audience perspective every wartime movie featuring Nazis has to go beyond the hoary clichés in order to be appreciated on its own merits.  Common consent holds that The Book Thief is one of the better examples of the genre, with excellent source material, fine actors and a sympathetic translation, but the question is whether it can supersede its trappings to present a view of raw humanity – which is often the essence of any film set in the war.  However, the news was not all good.  From Wikipedia:

The film received mixed reviews upon its theatrical release with some reviewers praising its “fresher perspective on the war” and its focus on the “consistent thread of humanity” in the story, while other critics faulting the film’s “wishful narrative”

This example is perhaps unusual by virtue of being narrated by a natural ally of the Nazis, namely Death, where he is kept eternally busy.  Being unavailable in person to take the role, Death is here given the fruity voice of Roger Allam, always a fine selection for character roles.  The reason for Death’s interest in Liesel Meminger is not entirely made clear, but the beautiful and talented young Sophie Nélisse will spark much interest throughout her career, you suspect.

Following the death of her brother, Liesel is fostered to the kindly Hans Hubermann (the estimable Geoffrey Rush, always winning our attention) and his sharp-tongued and apparently grumpy but loving wife Rosa (Emily Watson, also an actor worthy of her billings.)  Despite not being able to read or write, Liesel quickly uncovers her love of books, meets her “love interest” Rudy (Nico Liersch), her family takes in a Jewish boy, Max, with whom Liesel develops a strong interaction (Ben Schnetzer, also excellent recently in Pride) and…. those pesky Nazis start interfering.

The book motif is undeniably powerful, notably the Nazi book burning ceremony.  The parallels with the likes of Farenheit 451 give weight to what might otherwise appear a meandering tale, though the suggestion that the learning of books is what saves Max from death and ultimately ensures Liesel’s longevity might seem far fetched.  If anything, the importance and relevance of books to society, particularly a society trying to create an artificial mythology of racial superiority, could be given greater clarity in the movie.

However, what director Brian Percival really wants to do is not construct an academic debate but tug on the heartstrings.  This he does by employing regular doses of syrupy strings and heartfelt hugs to demonstrate depth of feeling by and for Liesel.  To my mind it would have been a far more effective ploy to offer a bittersweet narrative that did not attempt to manipulate the emotions artificially, but instead illustrated the ambiguity within the characters and how they chose to address their dilemmas.

Percival and scriptwriter Michael Peroni also made a howler in the use of language – a common issue for war films set in Germany.  The two approaches that work, to my mind, are to shoot entirely in German and apply subtitles, or to adopt vernacular English as if the characters were speaking the German equivalent  What does not work, ever, is for characters to speak English in bad German accents littered with “Ja” and “Nein” and the occasional “dumkopf”.  It doesn’t fool anybody, but sounds utterly stupid and detracts from the intelligence of the narrative.

Lost amid the Nazi atrocities, Jew-hunts and war machine (Liesel and Rudy play their part in the Hitler Youth, of course), plus the strings and the pidgin German, is the thread of why this is a timeless tale that grows in the telling.  Compared to The Reader or The Lives of Others, for example, the resonance of The Book Thief seems lacking, the power diluted rather than concentrated where it can create the most lasting impressions.

For this distraction I blame director Percival, but none of the players (who are uniformly splendid and credible to a man, woman, boy and girl), nor yet the production designers (whose mise-en-scène in wartime Germany is effected to convincing effect.)

To answer my own question, the film tries hard but for all the fine ingredients ultimately can’t escape the shackles of the war-film-with-Nazis genre.  Unless we’ve exhausted all the evil-doers in the world, perhaps it’s time to move on and find a new bad guy?  Hang on, what’s the betting the next big war movie out stars Islamic State in the role of all-purpose villains of the peace?

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