Such a Nice Little Holocaust Movie...

The Book Thief
(USA/Germany, 131 min.)
Dir. Brian Percival, Writ. Michael Petroni
Starring: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson
The Book Thief is such a nice little Holocaust film. That sounds terrible. The Book Thief, however, provides a warm, cheery tearjerker for anytime in the mood for a feel-good film about WW2. The plodding, misdirected Book Thief shows that there truly is an art to what Roberto Benigni did with Life is Beautiful in devising a buoyant, life-affirming comedy set amidst the Holocaust.

The sugary schmaltz of The Book Thief is tailored perfectly for anyone who loved the saccharinity of Steven Spielberg’s 2011 dog War Horse (from which Cinemablographer.com truly hopes the director soon recovers). The Book Thief doesn’t drown in the same overdose of cheesy lame sauce that made War Horse so unpalatable, but it’s just as much a disappointment given the talent (and dubious Oscar buzz) involved.

The Book Thief, for one, is based on the beloved teen novel by Markus Zusak that has been flying off the shelves since 2005. The book gained some attention for the literary pedigree of teen fiction, since it’s told from the perspective of Death as he watches over Liesel as she grows up in Nazi Germany. Liesel, played by young Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse of Monsieur Lazhar fame, finds herself on a journey that is punctuated by Death and his cackling voiceover at every turn.

Her brother dies en route while the kids are being delivered to a new foster family. (Their mother, a communist, is presumably being sent away to the camps.) During the trackside burial of Liesel’s brother, Liesel nabs a book that falls from the undertaker’s pocket and rests beside the grave. Hence, the book thief, which becomes Death’s term of endearment for the blonde little heroine as she skips and frolics throughout the Holocaust.

It turns out that Liesel is a) illiterate and b) carrying an instruction book for grave digging. The two facts charm her new father (Geoffrey Rush) and irk her new mother (Emily Watson), but the former undertakes a mission to teach Liesel to read. The latter just stomps about the house with crotchety hardened sternness.

As Liesel adjusts to life in this village that swathes itself in Swastikas, her cozy friendship with her new papa leaves her considerably more open-minded than the kids at school who are being primed as minions for the Hitler youth. Liesel has a critical eye for the Führer’s extermination of culture: book burning is bad. She learns the full gravity of the situation when a young Jewish man named Max (Ben Schnetzer) takes refuge in the family basement.

Max becomes Liesel’s true confidant in the hellish scenario. He finds the key to her friendships and becomes her inspiration when he gives her the greatest gift of all: a book. It’s not just any book, though. It’s a copy of Mein Kampf, the pages of which are defiantly rendered blank with white paint. Inscribed in the book is Max’s one-word dedication, “Write.” To write is to speak the truth, Max tells Liesel, and to grant life in the face of Death.

A provocative message underlies The Book Thief, but it is largely muted by the innocuous sentimentality favoured by director Brian Percival and screenwriter Michael Petroni. There’s a good film somewhere in The Book Thief. It just doesn’t come to life in this maudlin affair. The Book Thief is unbearably slow and prone to false endings. Percival, who has directed some of the best episodes of Downton Abbey, doesn’t deliver the balance of melodrama and historical fiction that makes the Masterpiece series such a winner in spite of all its soap opera tangents. If Downton Abbey uses crowd-pleasing theatrics to pull the audience into a greater history, The Book Thief uses them as catchall devices to make history digestible and disposable for Cheap Tuesday escapism.

This kid-friendly tale of the Holocaust seems outdated considering that 12 Years a Slave is currently in theatres. Imagine if 12 Years a Slave took a note from The Book Thief and offered a warm message that said that in spite of all the whippings and other hardships of slavery, Solomon and Patsey found joy on the plantation by playing the fiddle and dancing. Granted, it might seem wholly unfair to compare the two films given their disparate sources and target audiences, but making a shameless weepy narrated by Death just seems beyond tasteless.

The irony of having Death narrate the film is that Liesel and Max’s relationship tells all about how words give life to things. The lumbering, out of place voiceover, however, takes a deadly toll on The Book Thief. The convention of having Death as the narrator of The Book Thief betrays its literary origins. The Reaper’s grim narration, voiced with playful ominousness by Roger Allam, makes The Book Thief a tonal mess of epic proportions. Death as the chief storyteller sees The Book Thief play like a twee YA José Saramago adaptation run amok.

There’s a lot for even the most cynical of viewers to admire, though, in The Book Thief’s sparkly-eyed affair. The touching score by John Williams, for one, is far less assaultive than some of his most recent cinematic orchestrations are (re: War Horse). The Book Thief actually has a very fine score, which Williams uses sparingly as he tinkers with the ivories only when needed. Equally good is the film’s meticulous production value, especially the cinematography by Florian Ballhaus and the costumes by Anna B. Sheppard (although they’re not quite as inspired as the threads of Inglourious Basterds.) The performances by Rush and Watson are good turns that handle the safe-but-socially-conscious air of The Book Thief’s charm. Rush, as always, is very likable playing the ham as Papa tries to keep Liesel’s spirits alive, while Watson seems to have a lot of fun stomping around and dropping zingers at every turn. Nélisse, while not quite delivering on the expectations precipitated by her Genie-winning turn in Monsieur Lazhar, is nevertheless impressive as Liesel, for The Book Thief is both her first lead performance and her first English-language role. It couldn’t have been easy to carry a film at such a young age and with a German(ish) accent, no less!

Liesel’s death-laden yarn, for all its faults, is forgivably touching. The Book Thief is bound to move more viewers to tears than it is destined to have filmgoers rolling their eyes. Either one is a fan of this kind of movie or one is not.

 Rating: ★★½  (out of ★★★★★)

The Book Thief is now playing in limited release.
(Ottawa release: November 22nd.)