The Book Thief review: don’t mention the war…

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The Book Thief yellow light Nico Liersch Sophie Nélisse Emily Watson

Thoughtful tweens and teens interested in history and unusual adventurous stories of kids their own age should love this, but adults may find the lightness of the tone off-putting.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I haven’t read the Markus Zusa novel this is based on, but what ended up on the screen makes me suspect that it might be one of those unfilmmable books that should probably have been left alone. On the one hand, this is a tale of a tough, plucky young girl — that alone is rare enough to be cheered — who loves books and loves reading, which doubles the reason for applauding it. On the other hand, this is essentially a kids’ movie about life in Nazi Germany, and it ends up being rather more offhand and airy than feels appropriate.

It’s 1938 in Germany, and 12-year-old-ish Liesel (the charming Sophie Nélisse) has just been adopted by Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush [Green Lantern, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides] and Emily Watson [Anna Karenina, Oranges and Sunshine]) because her mother is unable to care for her any longer… for nefarious reasons that will only become clearer to her as she gets older. Indeed, Liesel’s coming of age is more bittersweet than most, because at the same time she is trying to figure out what sort of person she is, she is also confronted by the horrific realities of the place and time she is living in: she witnesses a book burning, and must hide her despair at what is intended to be a celebration; she befriends Max (Ben Schnetzer), the young Jewish man the Hubermanns hide in their cellar, and her love of words deepens through their friendship, as when he pushes her to craft the most evocative description of a day he dare not venture out into.

It’s a lovely scene that beautifully demonstrates the power of words for a young audience who, like Liesel, is just starting to figure that out. And the whole film is pitched to be suitable for thoughtful, sensitive tweens and young teens who are interested in history and unusual adventurous stories of kids their own age. Liesel’s uneasy acquaintanceship, for instance, with the kindly wife of the nasty burgermeister (Barbara Auer), who shares the girl’s love of reading, opens Liesel up to a minor career as a book thief, “borrowing” volumes from the rich couple’s enormous library when she has devoured all the other books she’s been able to get her hands on.

This is like a kids’ movie that doesn’t realize it’s for kids, which is great for youngsters — it might feel like a sophisticated grownup movie to them, increasing the appeal to exactly the sort of kids who’d be drawn to it in the first place. But from an adult perspective… this is Germany in 1938, after all, and spanning the war years, and the tone is oddly light to anyone who knows what else is going on beyond Liesel’s little world. The narration, by the calm, soothing voice of Death (the voice of Roger Allam: The Woman in Black, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), opens by reminding the viewer that we all die and it’s nothing to panic about, best to just relax and let it come when it’s our time… which is weirdly off-putting in a story that is at its core about millions of untimely deaths happening all around Liesel, and a few much closer to home for her. It’s also rather odd that Liesel and her pal Rudy (Nico Liersch) don’t age at all over the years the film covers, a time in their lives when kids tend to change a lot. (It’s always tough to do that in a satisfying way onscreen; casting different actors for the different ages is hard to pull off, too.)

That may be just about right for the young audience that will get the most out of The Book Thief. But it left a little bit of a sour taste with me.

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Wed, Feb 26, 2014 10:31am

Haven’t seen this, but I get the impression that it’s a story told against the background of Germany in 1938, as distinct from a story about people in Germany in 1938.

reply to  RogerBW
Wed, Apr 23, 2014 4:05am

You have to understand the history & times of Germany prior to Hitler. The country was economically crippled. Hitler came along at a time when Germans were desperate & thought he would bring positive change. Now before most saw that he was evil & insane it was too late & they dared not go against the Nazis or that would be the end of them & their families. There were many “nice” Germans. Some were more courageous than others. This is coming from a Jew by the way

Wed, Feb 26, 2014 12:30pm

For me there was something off about the book as well, and I couldn’t finish it. (Maybe I’ll try again one day.) Death is also the narrator in the book, and while it’s an interesting device it grew somewhat forced and cumbersome.

Wed, Feb 26, 2014 3:04pm

I quite liked this film and thought it had some very touching moments in it (whilst I concur with the weaknesses you and other reviewers pointed out). I like the fact that, unlike some of the other reviewers, you don’t damn the film outright for aiming its tone at a younger audience. I took my two kids (tween and teen) specifically for the reason that the film seemed like a ‘soft’ introduction to an important piece of recent history. Indeed, we all had an interesting discussion about the content on the way home which was exactly what I was hoping for. That said, my youngest was quite distressed by it which surprised me given some of the other TV/film/theatre she’s been exposed to. There was something about this film – maybe the warmth of the characters (curse you, Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson!) contrasting against the darkness of the times, even if they were only subtly alluded to – that really got under her skin. So from my perspective, I’m relieved it wasn’t any more Schindler’s List-y than it was!

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Fionna
Sat, Mar 01, 2014 10:30am

There are so few movies for kids at this precarious age, specificially *about* this precarious age. And the problems with the film won’t impact their enjoyment and appreciation of it.

Aaron Jones
Aaron Jones
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Thu, Apr 03, 2014 6:31pm

Those problems didn’t impact my enjoyment and appreciation of it, either. I’ve been recommending it to teens, tweens & their parents.

Sat, Mar 01, 2014 1:27am

I agree that the movie is the flawed, but I felt it worked pretty well. Yes, maybe there were too many “nice” Germans in this movie. However, it was a good example of people not making waves in a bad situation, of going along to get along.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  LaurieMann
Sat, Mar 01, 2014 10:29am

It wasn’t nice Germans that bothered me, it was the voiceover. Removing it would vastly improve the film, and it would lose nothing without it.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sat, Mar 01, 2014 11:22pm

I’m probably a party of one – I generally enjoy voiceovers. Agree it got a little tedious here and there in The Book Thief.