Movies about Nazi Germany, and by extension the Holocaust, are tricky because they deal with a time and place that is loaded with so much real-life drama and historical baggage that any fictionalization can seem at best inadequate and at worst insulting.
“The Book Thief” was an inevitable undertaking given the super-mega-international-best-seller status of the novel it is based on.
The film is compelling, well-acted, and has some inspired moments, but it feels a little too measured and overtly sentimental for the weighty subject matter it has taken on.
The movie has that glossy, best-seller treatment of horrible things that just doesn’t sit right. In a lot of ways, “The Book Thief” is to the Holocaust as “The Help” was to racism.
The hero of our story is Liesel (played incredibly well by young Sophie Nelisse), a girl who moves in with a foster family in a German village on the eve of World War II.
Her new parents are Hans (the always awesome Geoffrey Rush), a kindhearted house painter, and his wife, Rosa (Emily Watson), who is icy on the outside but secretly sweet on the inside.
Liesel settles into her new life and strikes up a friendship with a neighbor boy named Rudy (Nico Liersch), another fine young performer.
Some of the movie’s strongest moments deal with the indoctrination of children, including scenes where Liesel and her classmates, wearing crisp matching uniforms adorned with swastikas, sing cheerful anthems deriding Jews and communists.
But Hans and Rosa are no Nazis, and Liesel begins to see the dark side of national patriotism crop up, especially at rallies that feature the burning of books, which are among her most treasured possessions.
Liesel turns her back on the Nazis completely with the arrival of Max (Ben Schnetzer). Max is Jewish and the son of a war compatriot of Hans, so Hans and Rosa agree to hide Max at great personal risk.
The best parts of “The Book Thief” center on Liesel and her disillusionment with the world around her, and her resolution to do the right thing no matter how great the cost.
Probably the biggest mistake the movie makes is swiping a literary device from the novel and having the personification of Death (voiced by Roger Allam) narrate the story. Not only is it completely unnecessary, but it lowers the stakes by adding a fanciful quality to the story, a lot like if the Nazis were attacking Narnia.
This isn’t helped much by the polished and precise direction of Brian Percival, a television director best known for his work on “Downton Abbey.” While his style is well suited to the stuffy, soapy exploits of British nobility, it isn’t really able to drive home the harsh realities of war-torn Nazi Germany.
“The Book Thief” is a fine movie; it just doesn’t land any of the emotional punches it so desperately wants to connect. You just can’t give the light touch to a subject that has been so thoroughly and so devastatingly covered on film and expect it to resonate with any kind of power; it would be like serving cotton candy at a state dinner.
“The Book Thief” is rated PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material.