Courage Beyond Words
The Book Thief chronicles the life of a young adoptive girl living in a poor German community, during World War II. Liesel Meminger [Nelisse] is transported across Germany via train with her young brother (who does not survive the journey) and taken in by the brash Rosa [Watson] and her compassionate husband Hans [Rush]. Liesel is enrolled in the local school and quickly acquires the friendship of an affable, if persistent young boy named Rudy [Nico Liersch]. The story happily carries on without much care, detailing Liesel’s inability to read, which grows into a healthy passion for books and stories. It’s not until the village is brought out to the square for a book burning ceremony, to commemorate Hitler’s birthday, that the story really begins to take off. With Nazi control of Germany through fear and intimidation spreading, Liesel’s young mind tries to comprehend the irrational actions of her representative government. Things exacerbate quickly for the family when a young man, named Max (played by Ben Schnetzer) turns up at their door. Hans explains that during the first world war, his life was saved by Max’s father and he owes his family everything. Hans and Rosa do their best to convey to Liesel the importance of keeping Max’s identity and whereabouts a secret from everyone, due to him being Jewish. As the war intensifies and Max’s health deteriorates, it is a secret which becomes increasingly difficult to keep.
This is a very difficult movie to classify or categorise. Children won’t watch it because they’ll be bored and it doesn’t touch enough on the harsher realities for adults. It’s a very pleasant (if that’s the right word) release that stirs an emotional reaction with audiences but not a great deal actually happens. At times this is a welcome relief, not all war dramas need to bombard you with blood and explosions, sometimes the simple effect on the citizens of both sides is more than enough to create tension and pull on the heart strings. In that way, it felt very reminiscent of Goodnight Mr Tom – albeit with a German setting; a personal story favouring a tamer representation than the true horrors of Nazi oppression. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Not every film about Jews hiding in basements during World War II need be Schindler’s List or Inglourious Basterds. One interesting narrative device that really separates this film from others of its ilk is the inclusion of a personification of death. The film opens with a voice-over explaining that death has no love of war but appreciates that his job is a service that simply needs to be performed. However, of the many souls that have haunted him, he is inexplicably drawn to that of Liesel Meminger. Part of me loved this element – no doubt it is played out better and to a much fuller degree in the book this film is adapted from – but as the narrated commentary is used fairly sparingly, it felt strangely out of place, as if Terry Prachett had stolen a copy of the script and started making little annotations in the margin.
I must confess, I haven’t read the book this film is based on and from what I’ve heard from its fans, my review will be better off. As with most literary-to-cinematic adaptations, the book is far superior. However, where the film thrives is the wonderful production design. The little street of Himmel Strasse isn’t as rundown and grotty as it should be but it’s obvious this is meant to be a tight-knit impoverished community. The interiors feel close and worn, the clothes feel like hand-me-downs and the hair and make-up department ensure that luxury is not a familiar word for these characters. Layered over that we have probably John Williams best score in years, predominantly because it doesn’t try to fight for attention with the on-screen action, as is his usual signature. Soft tones, foreboding swelling, tense strings, it’s an exquisitely subtle work which really speaks volumes as to what this man (whom we usually deride and take for granted) is capable of. Then there’s the delightfully mature performances. Liesel’s inability to make sense of Nazi oppression with innocent lines like, “We were just being people. That’s what people do” is just heartbreakingly honest and superbly delivered. Equally Rosa’s transition from tyrant to caring matriarch is charming, if a little obvious and Rush’s doddering old sentimental Hans is frankly beautiful.
While there are a few stumbling points, the film canters ahead boldly and the audience happily follow. All until the closing act wherein time jumps, odd pacing, uneven editing and a rushed finale rob the audience of, what should have been, a heartfelt finish. And it is here that the movie fails. A story without event, praying on slow burning tension and a forced coming of age element is all well and good, providing you can pace everything out neatly and leave the audience feeling either crushed or elated. Anything less and you’ll disappoint them on some level. Max in the basement, Hans’ conscription, Franz’s bullying, the rising persecution of the Jews, Rudy’s devotion, it all builds to a key point but after that moment has passed, the story plods on. What should be its final stride, drawing conclusions and cementing beautiful sentiments, is a limp over the finish line and the emotion fades, replaced by confusion. For anyone who has read the book this movie will be considered a let-down, for those who are expecting something with a little more resonance this movie will be a let-down and yet it’s not a bad film, it’s just a little weak in places. Which is an immense pity as the potential within is extraordinary and limitless.
26th February 2014
The Scene To Look Out For:
There are several memorable standout moments but one in particular highlights Rudy’s ignorance of his country’s political views. Much to Hitler’s chagrin, Jesse Owens has recently been crowned the fastest man alive. Naturally, as an aspiring athlete, Rudy idolises Owens, to the degree that he blacks-up with coal when sprinting around a racetrack. When he is caught by a friend of his father, he is marched home by the ear and scolded by his father. The conversation between them is one of sheer brilliance and simplicity: “You can’t go around with black skin. Why do you want to be Jesse Owens anyway?” “Because he’s the fastest man on Earth” “Well.. it’s wrong. You shouldn’t want to be black.” “Why not?” “Because I say so.”
There are several decent performances but I think it’s fairly obvious that Sophie Nelisse is an incredibly talented young lady and if she manages to escape the young actor bit without getting mauled by the press and poor roles, she will be a talent of note in coming years.
“The only thing worse than a boy you hate, is a boy you like. Right?”
In A Few Words:
“A charming and tragic story of innocence lost during wartime but sabotages its own success with silly footing and unfortunate blundering”