Friday, May 9, 2014
Death Takes a Notebook
THE BOOK THIEF
Where, oh where did it all go wrong?
We have innocent children. We have Nazis. We have literary pedigree. In short, The Book Thief should have been this great film that is sweeping and epic and intimate. Instead, we see a film that went off the rails: in turns sappy and insipid, it even veers into horror. Good intentions do not a good film make.
Germany, 1938. Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse) has been left abandoned after her mother has fled (I think something to do with Communism). She is taken in by Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa Hubermann (Emily Watson). Rosa is strict, dour, and curt (in other words, Angela Merkel), while Hans is sweet, tender, and kind. Liesel immediately attracts the attention of Rudy (Nico Liersch) who tries to get her to give him a kiss. As Nazism grows, the children are brought up to love Hitler. Among those acts of love is to burn books.
As Liesel starts out as illiterate, her love of words now comes in conflict with this situation, so she steals a smoldering book. With that, she rescues The Invisible Man. This attracts the attention of the burgermeister's wife, who allows Liesel use of her vast library. Meanwhile, Max Vanderburg (Ben Schnetzer), a young Jewish man, is being hidden by the Hubermanns. Max's father had saved Hans in the first war, and Hans pledged to protect his family. The rest of the movie goes between Rudy's inability to get Liesel to kiss him (or understanding why it is wrong to admire Jesse Owens despite Rudy's love of racing) and trying to keep Max alive.
Oh, and Death narrates the film, putting in his two cents every so often.
As I understand it, The Book Thief is true to Markus Zusak's novel with Death taking a central role. That's too bad for two reasons. First, Roger Allam's narration makes Death come off as idiotically smug and pretentious. Second, it distracts from the story whenever we are reminded that he is coming.
Of course, the story itself seems to go on for far longer than its two-hour plus running time. We go through so much through Max's endless illness to where Liesel's love of literature is kind of drowned out. The growth of Nazism seems almost in the background, and while it is nice to see Rudy going through hoops to get Liesel to like him it is almost sad to know she is so utterly reluctant.
I question director Brian Percival's decision to go all-out with the German accents. I understand that it makes it all so authentic, but perhaps they went overboard with the neins and dummkopts being spread around. Even the children had to carry these Teutonic tones (begging the question, why does Death sound like an Englishman?) and it becomes a bit distracting bordering on comedy.
The performances don't help. Watson and Rush I think did what they could with the script, but not only are their accents ready-made for comedy skits but they are mostly one-note (Watson as harsh, Rush as gentle). There was later on a thawing from Watson, but by then it was too late to really be believed. Schnetzer was the lone standout in that he gave Max a believable character (his excursion during an air raid when he could leave the house without fear of being caught is a beautiful moment).
It is pretty to look at, and the music is lovely (though perhaps a bit schmaltzy for my tastes). However, the film's greatest failure is in that it tries too hard to move me emotionally. Rather than trusting us to care about the people, it pushes us and pushes us to be moved that we almost have a contrary reaction.
In short, The Book Thief tried really hard to have us care, but it goes on for far too long and it is a victim of its own ambitions.