“You missed a very dull TV show on Auschwitz. More gruesome film clips, and more puzzled intellectuals declaring their mystification over the systematic murder of millions. The reason they can never answer the question ‘How could it possibly happen?’ is that it’s the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is ‘Why doesn’t it happen more often?’ ” says the tortured Max Von Sydow in Woody Allen‘s “Hannah & Her Sisters.” While the worldview is bleak, the quote is somewhat telling when it comes to Hollywood’s continued pursuit of Holocaust stories. That decades on, filmmakers are still telling stories based on or inspired by the true horrors endured by millions, speaks to the simple fact that the scope and scale of loss is still somewhat unfathomable. But very few films truly express and transmit the overwhelming reality of that dark chapter in human history, and unfortunately, “The Book Thief” suffers from that fate.
To be fair, the movie, for the most part, keeps it’s thematic and narrative ambitions on a small scale. Based on the bestselling novel by Marcus Zusak, the story follows the orphaned Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), who finds her way into the home of Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) just as WWII is starting. It’s a strange new world for Liesel, who isn’t sure what to make of her new makeshift family. Rosa is stern and nearly cruel, not just to Liesel but to Hans as well, seemingly more interested in the stipend she’ll receive for caring for the child than in anything more altruistic. But Hans is an accordion-playing free spirit, who immediately charms Liesel, but more importantly, opens her eyes to the world of books.That’s no small feat, as the country-raised Liesel is near illiterate, but she soon takes to books voraciously, and Hans transforms the basement of his humble home into a makeshift classroom of sorts for his adopted daughter, with new words written in chalk on the walls.
But soon, the basement goes from classroom to refuge with the arrival of Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer). The son of a Jew who saved Hans life during WWI, he goes into hiding in the Hubermann basement as the Nazis intensify their efforts. It’s not long before Liesel becomes fiercely devoted to the young man, while outside of the house, she begins “borrowing” (stealing) books from the mayor’s home — whom Rosa does the laundry for — which contains an extensive library, a rarity during a time when mass burnings become common. However as you might guess, as the war continues, schemes big and small, on all fronts, become harder to hide from the increasing presence of the Nazis.
Directed by Bryan Percival, his earnest approach often undermines the darker tones of the story, while his background as a TV veteran (most notably “Downton Abbey“) proves to be a detriment. “The Book Thief” covers a large span of time, but the film’s episodic nature, often moving from one incident to the next with little time to pause or reflect, often obscures that fact and hinders an evocation of the cumulative effect the war has on the psyche of not just the Hubermanns, but their neighbors, too. Cursory scenes of everyone ducking into air raid shelters or the sudden snatching of Jewish business people by Nazi-uniformed thugs play like checklist stops, rather than organic developments of the story. And this too is felt by the one-dimensional elements in other areas of the movie.
From the Hubermann’s living on Himmel (“Heaven”) Street, to Liesel making friends with the sweet Rudy (Nico Liersch) who wants nothing more than to kiss her, to the local zealous Nazi kid who has become consumed by propaganda and wants nothing more than to find dirt on anyone in the neighborhood, “The Book Thief” paints in nothing less than broad strokes. But it’s jarring, especially considering that Death himself narrates the story. His presence as both a spectator and participant (whenever he feels like it) to the atrocities on Earth, Death is representative of the complete arbitrary, absurd nature in which lives are lost during wartime, particularly when the story goes into the final act. And while “The Book Thief” doesn’t strive to be a necessarily authentic reflection of conditions of the era, and leans on feeling rather the verisimilitude, it doesn’t mean that thematic depth needs to be spared as well. And when you have the character Death openly engaging in the questions of life and death, one is certainly left with greater expectations than the film delivers.
But that it doesn’t veer completely into World War II Movie For Rainy, Elementary School Afternoons (though, that will likely be a popular fate for this PG-13 film) is largely thanks to the trio of lead performances. Rush and Watson make their chemistry look so easy, and that’s undoubtedly due to their veteran experience. But they still deserve praise for their portrayal of a couple who seemingly shouldn’t be together, so different they are in temperament. But it’s due to their work that it soon becomes clear they are two halves of a combined coping mechanism, and when they do share tender moments, it’s real and affecting. Meanwhile, the young Nelisse, who arrives in this movie following her turn in “Monsieur Lazhar,” reaffirms she’s a young actress to keep an eye on. She’s the lead of the movie and powering nearly every scene, you wouldn’t think this is just her third film.
However, while they keep the movie engaging, they unfortunately can’t overcome the film’s desire for narrative cleanliness over moral complexity. One comes at the expense of the other, leaving “The Book Thief” feeling like the summary of a great story, rather than a full telling. [C]