All words: Ross Bonaime
At this point, we’ve all seen our fair share of movies set during the Holocaust, filled with the atrocities and horrors that came with Nazi occupation. This is why it’s so easy to criticize The Book Thief for not being as brutal as we’ve seen in past Holocaust films; its use of child actors gain sympathy in a time and place where it is overflowing from any viewer. The Book Thief doesn’t and isn’t trying to break any new ground on what we’ve already seen throughout cinematic history about this period. But through a compelling cast and the use of an entire community’s view of the horrible events, The Book Thief does work without treading over the line into over sentimentality that most WWII films can, although it does come extremely close.
Sophie Nélisse plays the titular book thief Liesel, whose Communist mother leaves her with a German couple after Liesel’s brother dies. Her new mother Rosa (played by Emily Watson) is harsh and tough, while father Hans (Geoffrey Rush) is playful and helps Liesel in her transition into a new family. At school, Liesel is taught the ways of Nazism and is picked on when it is discovered that she cannot read or write. Having stole a book at her brother’s funeral, Liesel decides to learn how, with the help of the also illiterate Hans. When a young Jew named Max (Ben Schnetzer) finds refuge in their house, the fear that has seeped into their small town has come into their own home.
By giving us this community, The Book Thief is able to highlight many different outlooks on the Nazi occupation, from dedicated followers to Jews in hiding. However this splintering of stories also means many of them do not have the weight that they likely contained in the book. Surviving the translation though is a narration by Death (Roger Allam), who has taken a liking to Liesel and occasionally throws in his opinion of matters and bookending the story. It’s never quite clear why Liesel has found a fan in Death, as her journey has surely had similarities to others in the past and it only serves to remind that death looms over all of the events.
The Book Thief does emphasize the fear of the unknown very well and even more so, the worry of inevitable terrors. Events occur, especially near the end, which bring panic and worry when moments ago there were none. The notion that at one moment you can be inconspicuous and in the next worrying for your life is one of the things that The Book Thief conveys quite well.
Yet all these half-hearted stories and odd narration choices are saved by some wonderful performances, particularly by Geoffrey Rush, who is a gigantic heart in a story that needs one. He never falls to the ranks of a Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful, as Hans is alway willing to discuss that guess that, well, life ain’t always so beautiful.
Watson is also great and reserved as Rosa, fulfilling the backbone that this relationship needs, yet showing just enough cracks in this facade to expose the love deep within. Nélisse is very good as Liesel and as she proved in the under seen Monsieur Lazhar, she is able to express pain and heartbreak at a extremely young age effectively.
Director Brian Percival, most notable for directing several episodes of Downton Abbey, does a fine job directing here, yet he’s not really doing much to distinguish The Book Thief from the piles of similar looking Holocaust films that have come before it. The Book Thief isn’t close to as overly sentimental as it may seem from the outside, filled with dread and great performances, but it also doesn’t try too hard to differentiate itself from the preceding Holocaust films that to which they’ll be understandably compared.