I think I am World War II-ed out.
I have no doubt that the makers behind The Book Thief had the best of intentions in their adaption of the Young Adult book for the big screen. And obviously World War II and the Holocaust were defining moments in our history. However, there is not a single original idea in The Book Thief; it’s just a collection of things that we’ve already seen in other movies and done better. If you are going to cover this well-worn swath of American History, you had better being bringing something new to the table to justify your existence. The Book Thief isn’t a bad movie, just a really boring one.
The film tells the story of young Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) as she joins her new foster parents (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) in Nazi Germany. The only prized possession that she arrives with is a book that she’s unable to read; she slowly becomes literate after working with her new father and by reading to the Max (Ben Schnetzer), the Jewish family friend that they are hiding in their house. Upset by the destruction of books (and, one would assume, the eradication of a race of people), Liesel begins stealing books and using them to forget her increasingly complicated and dangerous life. Plus, she decides she hates Hitler.
One of the first words that came to mind after watching The Book Thief was Spieldbergian; if you know me you know that isn’t a compliment. In my opinion, the movie relies too much on sentimentality and schmaltz. For a movie about Nazi Germany, it really didn’t seem like such a bad place to live. This is a very sanitized version of history, where everything looks very pretty and almost all the hard edges of life have been sanded off. The John Williams score didn’t help matters either. It is a very family friendly view of the world and while I don’t think that the film necessarily had to be dark and gritty, it was just too Disneyfied a look at the world. With just a little bit more dirt and mess in this movie, it might have been compelling or at least more interesting; as presented, there weren’t a lot of stakes in this film. Being upset about the burning of books and being upset about the government trying to execute your friend should not have been given the same emotional weight. The film Life is Beautiful did a much better job of making a movie about this time period that was mostly sweet, but never forgot what the movie was ultimately about. Because everything was so soft and bland in The Book Thief, it felt like I spent a lot of time waiting for something of interest to happen. For a two hour movie, it felt a lot closer to four.
This is not to say that The Book Thief is completely without charm; I thought that Geoffrey Rush in particular was great. Whenever he was on the screen the movie crackled and he had great chemistry with the little girl who played Liesel. The child actors were basically very effective – I liked Nico Liersch, who played Liesel’s friend Rudy, in particular. He was pretty sweet and endearing. The movie was well acted in general; my major issue with the film was its story, not the actors telling it.
As a book reader, I can also appreciate the message that books can be an escape from reality. Getting lost in a book can be a transformative process. I’m just not sure that it works against this backdrop as presented in the film. Perhaps the book was much more nuanced and layered, but the story in the film is so simple as portrayed that it just didn’t capture my attention or imagination. If the film had delved a little deeper into this theme it might have made for a more compelling contrast, but even this central idea was so weighed down with saccharine that it never really took off.
Some other thoughts:
- Perhaps this worked better in the book (I haven’t read it), but the narration by Death in the beginning and end of the movie seemed like a misfire to me. If you are going to hear Death’s thoughts on things, I’d hope that he had something more poignant to say. As portrayed in the film, Death wasn’t all that insightful. You’d think that guy would have some more interesting stories.
- Given that this film is directed by a guy who made his bones on Downton Abbey, it probably isn’t all that surprising that this is a very stylized – if somewhat empty -film.
- The Nazis must have had quite the budget for decorating – there were Nazi flags everywhere in this movie. Ironically, these flags were the only real tip off that there was some bad stuff going on in this village.
- There is a very clear disconnect with this movie between critics and regular movie goers; on Rotten Tomatoes, 48% of the former liked the film while audience members gave the film an 80% approval rating. I am proud to throw my lot in with the critics.
- I even found a weird disconnect in the trailers for this film – I remember thinking “Wait? There’s Nazis in this?” That doesn’t seem to fit.”
This may very well be a case of a movie that just isn’t for me; I tend to like my stories a little messier and realer than a lot of people. Perhaps I am just a Grinch, but this movie was too fluffy and sugary for me to enjoy. While I fully admit that I tend toward the more violent and grittier end of the spectrum, I don’t think that this movie had to go full Inglourious Basterds to work. If they had just cut back on the mawkishness by just a third and defined some of the story better, I think this would have worked more effectively. The actors were up to the challenge, but they just weren’t given much to work with. Geoffrey Rush is really fun to watch, but beyond that the cast wasn’t able to draw me in to the story at all. That being said, I won’t be surprised if a lot of people dig this movie; Spielberg movies do well because a lot of people generally like his vibe of storytelling. I’m just not one of them. This may be an appealing alternative for families; it is certainly a film that is appropriate for both your children and your grandmother. This is a film that is in no means controversial or inappropriate. The Book Thief was just too slow and full of schlock for me to enjoy. If that makes me heartless, I’m totally cool with that.