‘The Book Thief’: Stars and cinematography overcome cheapening of Holocaust setting
Call me a curmudgeon about all these flimsy, quick-read books hitting on one or two hot issues and built around a slightly-more-than two-dimensional hero or heroine that become template fodder for profitable spins into film. “Twilight” may be the most egregious example, but “Fifty Shades of Grey,” itself notoriously birthed from the “Twilight” franchise, is in the making. Then there’s the “Hunger Games.”
Why is a book about the Holocaust lumped in with this phenomenon? Because Markus Zusak’s novel, which the movie “The Book Thief” is based on, is little more than a safe, PG-rated watering down of the horrific events that took place in Germany leading up to and during World War II. It’s more young adult than dramatic literature or historical record. And, as a matter of fact, it’s not history at all, but historical fiction, a genre that like YA is fertile ground for studio execs seeking a ready-made and willing-to-pay audience.
It’s a lazy and vacant process, but also good business.
That said, the film adaptation of “Thief” has much in its corner. Brian Percival, who’s done several episodes of the hit PBS series “Downton Abbey,” directs, and Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush and nominee Emily Watson head the cast. Unfortunately, the material, while earnest, is beneath them, and Percival at times seems a bit befuddled by the bombast going on in the bigger world. It doesn’t help that his ability to string together tight, cloistered moments of intimacy, which worked so well in the smaller medium, gets compromised in the grander, more urgent framework.
In his “Thief,” Western Europe could be Middle Earth and the Nazis orcs, as all are essentially grotesque minions performing bloody tasks sans remorse and often with a trace of glee. The imperiled heroine driving the plot is the pint-sized Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), a young, curly-locked waif embossed with wide wondrous eyes who, on the run with her mother – an accused communist under scrutiny – is turned over to the tart-tongued Rosa (Watson) and her reserved husband, Hans (Rush) for rearing.
Much of what we learn about Liesel is told to us in ominous voiceovers by Death, who admits he is smitten with the girl as he pays a visit to the fleeing family aboard a train to claim her younger brother. Why Death is so infatuated with Liesel is unclear, but our notorious and unseen narrator speaks with avuncular charm as if this were a Christmas tale (the voice is Roger Allam) and assures us calmly with his sagacious omniscience that all is as he says is so, and it’s easily and wholly believable despite the troubling the nature of the source.
The film’s title stems from Liesel’s penchant for pinching bound tomes – ironic initially, because she can’t read and is chided routinely at school for her developmental inadequacy. Early on she nips a gravedigger’s manual, and later pilfers books from the library of a Nazi commandant whose wife has taken a liking to Liesel. Hans catches onto Liesel’s activity and the pair forge a palpable bond during covert candlelight reading sessions. Rosa too begins to soften, but the nascent familial unit is challenged when they take in Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jewish refugee whose father saved Hans’ life during the first wold war.
Nélisse, who looks something like Emma Watson from her Harry Potter years, handles the burden of the focus well. She’s solidified by Emily Watson and Rush, who go a long way toward overcoming over the maudlin airbrushing, and the film does well to give Liesel complex affections for the older Max and her towheaded classmate, Rudy (Nico Liersch).
In the fantastical distillation of events and atrocities, much of the outside pressure comes from basement sweeps for Jews by friends and neighbors now serving the fuehrer and Brownshirts who bully the fleet-footed Rudy for idolizing Jesse Owens. The cinematography by Florian Ballhaus (“The Devil Wears Prada”) is artistic and opulent, especially the stunningly stark opening sequence as a black train (and later, a black limousine) travels through the snow-covered countryside, endlessly pristine and crystalline. The metaphor for innocence and darkness is conspicuously there, but rapturous to behold no matter.
For what it is – a foot in the door of Anne Frank’s world – “Thief” may pay dividends if it sends young viewers to review history and fact. Other films that have played loose with the record, such as “Life is Beautiful” and “Inglorious Basterds,” have done well by deepening an understanding of the horror and inhumanity. “Thief,” unfortunately, is a heartstring-pulling yarn spun for the marketplace that employs the world-changing war as a plot-driving backdrop. It’s shameless artifice, and in that true meaning is lost.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Film Threat and Open Windows. Tom is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow Tom on Twitter @TBMeek3 and read more at TBMeek3.wordpress.com.