Review: The Book Thief (2014)

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Director: Brian Percival
Screenwriter: Michael Petroni
Based on the novel of the same name by Markus Zusak
Cast: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Nico Liersch, Ben Schnetzer, Heike Makatsch & Roger Allam
Runtime: 131 min // Certificate: 12A


It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen a film as “safe” as this one. In fact, this might be the most average film I’ve seen so far this year. Based on the novel of the same name by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief is one of those films that conforms so rigidly to expectation that whilst it’s never a dull experience, it never once even threatens to become exciting or interesting. Clocking in at just over 2 hours, it is a film that moves from A to B with as little fuss as possible; which is a surprising and confusing approach to take when you consider that it’s set in the middle of Nazi Germany…

Seen through the ever watchful eyes of the Angel of Death (voiced by Roger Allam), the film follows Liesel Meminger (Nélisse), a schoolgirl who is given up for adoption when her Communist Mother (Makatsch) is forced to flee Hitler’s Germany. Taken in by Hans (Rush) and Rosa (Watson) Hubermann, Liesel spends the next few years of her life living in a small German village and, through her innocent eyes, we get a glimpse of Nazi Germany from the perspective of a child. As the march to war wages on, Liesel becomes friends with a young boy named Rudy (Liersch), is taught to read by Hans and helps to care for a young Jew named Max (Schnetzer), who is hiding from the Nazis in the Hubermanns’ basement.

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There’s a childish simplicity to films like this that does the subject matter a great disservice yet, at the same time, seeing things from such an innocent perspective grants the audience a way in to the harrowing tragedy which might otherwise have been absent altogether. The Book Thief attempts to combine the intense drama of war with the basic tenets of a rather generic “coming-of-age” tale of self-discovery. As a result, what we get is a film that spends so long trying to figure out what it wants to be that it ends up being nothing of any worth. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad film; it beats along nicely enough, it’s well-acted and it captures at least some of the horrors of WW2, but when push comes to shove it all feels terribly pedestrian.

What this means then is that The Book Thief comes across as a wee bit inauthentic. The glossy, domesticated approach to the awful events that drive the plot leaves a sour taste in the mouth, particularly when you compare it to the style of a film like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I’m not sure if this is a problem with the source material or if it’s exclusive to Percival’s adaptation but there is a distinct lack of horror to the drama. We’re told how awful it all is but we’re rarely shown; there’s no force or drive to the film’s crucial moments, such as the death early on or the mass book burning, so the audience is left to view events as an outsider, rather than being invited to invest properly in the story.

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Another point of contention here is one of language. Now, I totally understand why the film was made in English; it’s an English-language novel, written by an Australian author and, as such, it’s reasonable for it to be in English, despite its German setting. However, this poses a number of problems of its own. For some inexplicable reason, Percival and Petroni thought it fit to thrown random German words into the film every now and then, just in case we somehow forgot that it was set in Nazi Germany. The word “nein” is thrown around liberally, which though hardly a major concern is something I found jarring. Rather than settle on one language, the film opts for a bizarre combination of two for no real reason. It’s a minor criticism, sure, but it’s all part of that much larger problem of the aforementioned inauthenticity.