Chemistry of cast makes The Book Thief worthwhile

The Book Thief

The Book Thief re­moves all the hor­rors from the Holo­caust and Nazi Ger­many to tell the story of a little girl who loves to read. It all seems a little too su­per­fi­cial, like a san­it­ized, simplist­ic ver­sion of the Holo­caust. There are Ger­man chil­dren wear­ing swastikas and singing Hitler Youth songs, and Jews are marched through the street as­sumedly be­ing taken to con­cen­tra­tion camps (though the words are nev­er uttered). But, the bru­tal war is mostly a back­drop to the story.

On the pos­it­ive side, good cast­ing, es­pe­cially Geof­frey Rush, Emily Wat­son and the little girl Lies­el, played by 13-year-old Soph­ie N&ea­cute;lisse, help make up a be­liev­able fam­ily and make this movie watch­able. And N&ea­cute;lisse’s ex­press­ive, big, blue eyes go a long way to help­ing tell the story. Writ­ten by Mi­chael Pet­roni and dir­ec­ted by Bri­an Per­civ­al (Down­ton Ab­bey), The Book Thief is slow at times, but nev­er bor­ing thanks to the chem­istry of the cast.

The nar­rat­or, Death (voiced by Ro­ger Al­lam), tells the audi­ence that Young Lies­el and her broth­er have been sent to live with foster par­ents. The reas­ons for this are some­what un­ex­plained (something about the moth­er be­ing a Com­mun­ist). Lies­el’s broth­er dies en route, and she ar­rives at the home of Rosa (Wat­son) and Hans (Rush) Huber­mann, tim­id and un­cer­tain of what the fu­ture holds.

Rosa is like a hard candy with a chewy cen­ter. She’s stern and doesn’t play around much, but her softer side makes an ap­pear­ance as time goes on. Hans is fun and play­ful from the get-go. When Hans dis­cov­ers a book Lies­el took from her broth­er’s gravedig­ger, he real­izes she can’t read and pro­ceeds to spend time every day teach­ing her. Lies­el also be­friends a neigh­bor boy Rudy (Nico Li­er­sch). Rudy’s got a cute little crush on Lies­el and wants to kiss her, but she keeps him at arm’s length. Rudy also ad­mires and as­pires to be Afric­an-Amer­ic­an Olympic run­ner Jesse Owens, a big no-no in Nazi Ger­many.

One even­ing, a young Jew­ish man on the run, Max (Ben Schnet­zer), ar­rives at the Huber­mann’s door­step look­ing for refuge. Ap­par­ently, Hans prom­ised Max’s fath­er he’d take care of his son after the fath­er saved Hans’ life. As Max struggles to stay alive while hid­ing from the Nazis in the Huber­mann’s cold, dark base­ment, Lies­el reads to him. She steals, no make that bor­rows, books from a wealthy cus­tom­er of Rosa’s laun­dry ser­vice. I didn’t have the highest ex­pect­a­tions of The Book Thief. Based on the pre­views, it didn’t look that in­ter­est­ing to me. I learned that it was based on a best­selling book by Markus Zu­sak, which, ad­mit­tedly, I had nev­er heard of. I think this is one of many cases where the book is prob­ably bet­ter than the movie.

Ul­ti­mately, the set­ting for The Book Th­ief is too pretty and pic­tur­esque like a Hall­mark card, which seems like the an­ti­thes­is of what Nazi Ger­many and World War II were about. The Book Thief at­tempts to tug at the heartstrings of audi­ences (and likely, Academy Award voters), but doesn’t come close to steal­ing my heart.

Movie Grade: B- ••

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