Twitter Plot Summary: Narrated by Death (that must be disconcerting…), a young girl learns to read and stuff during World War 2.
It always feels slightly awkward seeing, or more specifically hearing, actors putting on horrendous accents, especially when you also have the occasional moments of dialogue in the native German language. Such is the problem with The Book Thief, an adaptation of the novel by Markus Zusak. They either have accented English, or they speak native. Use one by all means, but don’t mix and match because this just doesn’t work. And that is almost exactly how to describe The Book Thief, a film that despite its hefty thematic content and otherwise solid presentation is let down by the occasional inconsistency and a lack of emotional depth.
Taking place from 1938 and into the Second World War, The Book Thief highlights the rise of the Nazi Party, their war on Europe, and their cultural deconstruction and supposed cleansing of the German people by burning books and destroying other supposed threats to the Reich. Stepping into this maelstrom of race hate is Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse), a young girl who sings in the Hitler Youth yet finds it almost impossible to comprehend the events taking place around her. So in the face of destruction she escapes into the world of books, stealing them from the home of a local rich (and sympathetic) lady who seems to be as equally trapped by events as Liesel.
In its favour, The Book Thief is gloriously shot, each frame filled with depth and subtext despite being deliberately washed out and drab in appearance. It is also filled with solid performances, from Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as the Hubermanns, adoptive parents to Sophie Nelisse’s Liesel. Rush and Watson are, of course, fantastic, but it’s Nelisse who shines in the central role. Learning to read, and then reading classic stories to Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), a Jewish man hiding in the cellar of the Hubermanns, Liesel gradually develops her understanding of the world and the war that seems to permeate every aspect of her young existence.
And there’s also the narration, provided by Death. Topping and tailing the film and also dropping in on occasion to provide his own particular take on words of wisdom, stepping in to provide an omniscient perspective on the war and to provide commentary on things that Liesel herself would not be aware of. It’s an interesting narrative device, albeit one that’s limited by a story that doesn’t translate as well to the screen as it does on the page. This is also where the lack of emotional depth kicks in. The horrors of war are there for all to see, but it’s almost as if we the audience are Death, watching events play out with a detached eye.
Liesel’s joy at discovering her childhood and finding a caring family despite the war never engages, nor do the subsequent twists and turns that occur in each of their lives. Even a key scene, where a Nazi unit inspects everyone’s basements for Jews and/or check their suitability to act as a bomb shelter, is surprisingly lacking in tension. Perhaps stepping away from Death in a narrative context would have made a world of difference. But then, you could just read the book instead.