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“The Book Thief” Sugarcoats Reality

“The Book Thief” Sugarcoats Reality
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A popular novel. Two Oscar-beloved actors. And a historical setting. It should all add up to cinematic magic. But unfortunately Brian Percival’s adaptation of Markus Zusak’s best-seller “The Book Thief” falls short in every way, except perhaps the picture-postcard photography by Florian Ballhaus.

It might be a good film to introduce child viewers to the nightmare that was World War II without traumatizing them with the horrors. But for anyone out of high school, this simplistic tale about a young girl whose foster parents hide a Jew in their basement from the Nazis, will feel like sugarcoating reality. There’s an air of magical realism about the project that doesn’t quite gel, from the intermittent narration from Death (maybe this worked better in the book) to the gingerbread house that young Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) lives in. Her ad hoc father Hans (Geoffrey Rush) encourages her love of reading by painting the letters of the alphabet artistically on the basement walls. It just looks like a creative art department at work.

Everyone here speaks English but with the kind of heavy German accent that sounds like a parody. Nelisse especially struggles to make her dialogue sound natural. Emily Watson and Rush fare better but then they are seasoned pros. Every now and then, a Nazi yells in actual German … as if to underline their evil intent?  To add authenticity?  The voice of Death which pops ups intrusively from time to time is of course British (voice of Roger Allam), oozing maleficent charm like a 1930s film villain. Nothing struck me as authentic in this production, from the sets, to the dialogue or the costumes. Nazi banners drape the buildings, shiny period cars pepper the streets, Kristallnacht is recreated but it all looks as if the actors are just dressed up for a dramatic reenactment.

Liesel, whose real mother entrusts her to Rosa (Watson) and Hans Meminger at the beginning of the film, cannot read. But with her new father’s help, and by sneaking into the well-stocked library of the Fascist mayor’s wife, she uses books to get through the darkening days of the war. She reads to Max (Ben Schnetzer), the Jew that the Memingers hide. Words become her escape, and a way to share life with Max who is unable to leave the basement. I love the concept, but the blend of whimsy (the family brings snow inside to build a snowman for Max, their house is on Heaven Street) with the harsh wartime setting rings false and twee.

Where the film does succeed is in exploring the difficult relationship between an abandoned child and her new foster parents. Scenes with Rush and Nelisse are touching. Watson’s Rosa is tough and withholding with Liesel. Their eventual rapprochement is credible and moving. But a film about a child enduring 1940s Germany needs to feel more urgent, have more at stake. Only one scene in the whole film provokes any real tension and it is quickly dissipated.

I haven’t read Zusak’s novel and I’m sure much was lost in the journey to the big screen. I find it interesting that the encomiums on the film’s trailer  (“Breathtaking”, “Brilliant”) refer to the book and not the movie. Where are all the praiseful quotes from admiring critics? I am instantly suspicious.  Caveat emptor!



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