November 8, 2013

SHOWBUZZDAILY Film Review: “The Book Thief”


THE BOOK THIEF:  Watch It At Home – A Nazi Germany Fairy Tale

THE BOOK THIEF is about as heartwarming and easygoing as any story could be that’s narrated by Death and touched by the Holocaust.  That’s its strength and also its weakness; it’s history’s abyss as a singalong.

Based on the acclaimed bestselling novel by Markus Zusak (which I haven’t read, so no comparisons here), Book Thief was adapted by Michael Petroni, a writer whose eclectic previous work encompasses horror movies (Queen of the Damned, Possession, The Rite) and children’s fantasy (the third Narnia installment), while its director Brian Percival comes from the world of prestige British TV, having recently directed several episodes of Downton Abbey.  All those influences are evident here, not always to the film’s benefit.

The title refers to Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), who we meet shortly before the start of World War II when she’s perhaps 11 years old.  Although the circumstances aren’t entirely clear, she’s already in the midst of tragedy, as her Communist mother, apparently on the run from the Nazi authorities, leaves Liesel with foster parents in a picturesque small German town; Liesel’s little brother doesn’t survive the trip.  Liesel’s new mother Rosa (Emily Watson) is introduced as a sharp-tongued, impatient dragon of a woman, but her sign-painter husband Hans (Geoffrey Rush) is a sweetheart, who immediately starts calling Liesel “Princess” and sets out to teach her to read, initially with a gravediggers’ handbook that Liesel had stolen from a cemetery.

Although the war starts soon enough, Liesel’s existence is mostly idyllic.  Her next-door neighbor Rudy (Nico Liersch) instantly becomes her best friend, she buries herself in the wonders of the books she’s constantly reading, and even Rosa’s waspish exterior turns out to mask a loving, sentimental heart.  Things become more dangerous when Rosa and Hans take in the young Jew Max (Ben Schnetzer) and hide him in the basement, but Max, too, is nothing but caring and sweet to Liesel, encouraging her not only to read but to express herself as a nascent writer.

The family suffers the travails of war, with hunger, sickness and forced conscription coming into play, and of course there’s constant tension that Max might be discovered.  Eventually, as one would expect from a story narrated by Death (Roger Allam, sounding very Ralph Fiennes-ish), there is a body count.  But it all feels remarkably weightless–even the deaths, when they come, are as gentle as wartime snow.  The Nazis in town are meanies, but no worse than the bullies in any American small-town story, and indefatigable Liesel stands up to anyone who gets in her way.

The Book Thief is very nicely done; it’ll put a lump in your throat.  It’s certainly not off-putting in the way some of us found the concentration camp Wonderland of Life Is Beautiful to be.  No one would suggest that an audience of tweeners and younger, who appear to be the intended viewers for Book Thief, should be put through something as relentlessly brutal as, say, 12 Years A Slave.  And yet there are some subjects that require more than restrained gentility from their storytellers, and life in World War II Germany may be one of them.  It’s a time and place where mild, resolvable conflicts and a succession of mostly happy plot developments (Liesel is a girl who, given lemons, quickly and cheerfully makes first-class lemonade) feel too easy.

Working on a clearly limited budget, director Percival doesn’t try for much visual scale, concentrating instead on the fine cast.  Nelisse, who had barely acted before (she was in the ensemble of the French-Canadian film Monsieur Lazhar), has a natural brightness and spunk, and she does a superb job at the very difficult technical challenge of aging from prepubescent to teenager.  (Her Rudy fares less well.)  Watson and Rush turn Rosa and Hans into Dickensian characters, richly imagined, and Schnetzer, another relative newcomer, has a strong presence as Max.  Florian Ballhaus’s cinematography contributes a handsome palette, and the score is by John Williams, his first non-Spielberg feature since Memoirs of a Geisha 8 years ago.  Williams’ music is surprisingly delicate for such a broadly dramatic story, which makes it all the more effective.

Many people will adore The Book Thief, which carries the imprimatur of a serious subject yet goes down with the ease of comfort food.  Beware, though:  it’s so smooth it might give you indigestion.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."