The Book Thief

January 11, 2014
Sophie Nélisse in 'The Book Thief', 2013
Sophie Nélisse in 'The Book Thief', 2013

Last month, for the first and only time in my experience, the author of the book behind the film was present at a preview. Markus Zusak has a German father and an Austrian mother, but he grew up in the Sydney suburbs. Zusak published his first young-adult novel, The Underdog (1999) at the age of 24, but struck gold when his fifth book, The Book Thief (2005) became a runaway best-seller in the United States.

If he hadn’t become a novelist Zusak would have made an excellent diplomat because he managed in a few cheerful sentences to disassociate himself from the film we were about to watch, without saying a negative word. He even said how good it was to see so many members of the press and encouraged us to write whatever we liked, be it positive or hostile. He understood that writing of any kind has its own creative momentum.

This obliging attitude had two major outcomes: it made me feel more sympathetic to this film than I might otherwise have been; and it provided an insight into the stoicism of the successful author who sees his carefully-crafted prose put through the mangler by Hollywood.

I haven’t read the novel but there’s no denying that The Book Thief is a horribly corny and sentimental production. Director, Brian Percival, has done most of his earlier work for TV, and it shows. Although the movie may well have been shot in some small German hamlet everything looks like a pantomime stage set. We spend much of our time looking into the eyes and faces of characters as they intone their lines in the kind of German accents that will be familiar to fans of Hogan’s Heroes.

It is a melancholy Hollywood convention zat Germans alvays haff to speak in zis funny vay, so vee vill never forget zey are German, ja? Australian director, Cate Shortland, overcame this caricatural tendency in her film Lore (2012) by having German actors speak in their native language, but this was never an option for The Book Thief.

Young Canadian actress, Sophie Nélisse plays Liesel, a poor but innocent girl sent to live with foster parents in a small town, after her mother is interned by the Nazis. These new parents, who live on Himmelstrasse (Heaven Street), turn out to have hearts of gold – not just her stepfather Hans (Geoffrey Rush), an obvious softie; but also his wife, Rosa (Emily Watson), who initially seems stern and grumpy. On her first day in town Liesel meets Rudy (Nico Liersch), a young neighbour who becomes her loyal friend and protector.

As the Nazi era goes into full swing the persecution of the Jews begins, and banned books are heaped in the streets to be burned. One night there is a knock at the door and a young Jew named Max (Ben Schnetzer) appears, asking for assistance. Hans is obliged to help out, despite the danger, because Max’s father saved his life in the Great War. For Liesel it is a lesson in simple humanity and a great secret that must be concealed from everyone.

Liesel arrives in Himmelstrasse as an illiterate but soon develops into a voracious reader. This leads to a subplot in which Ilsa (Barbara Auer), the wife of Buergmeister Hermann, watches Liesel stealing a book from the Nazi bonfire. Another German with a heart of gold, Ilsa encourages Liesel to read in her library, until Herr Hermann puts a stop to this practise. From this point Liesel sneaks in through the window to borrow books on the sly. Rudy argues she would be better off stealing food.

Zusak’s message seems to be that if we have faith in the wisdom of books we may keep even the greatest evils at bay, such as the brainwashing propaganda of the Nazi regime. He would like us to believe that people are fundamentally good, even those who had the misfortune to live under Hitler’s rule. His narrator, in both the book and the film, is the voice of Death, who speaks to us in rather a chummy, benign way – which is the exact opposite of what we might expect. Death must surely be the epitome of objectivity and indifference. We know this chatty version will have his way with the characters, but not without regrets.

Perhaps the book to read after seeing this film is not Zusak’s novel, but Daniel Goldhagen’s controversial history, Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996), if only to understand how there could ever have been a Nazi party in a country overrun with such kind, lovable people. For while the humanism of The Book Thief is to be welcomed, there is much about this portrait of a nation that feels too cosy to be true. One suspects that a large part of the problem is the attempt to make a reassuring ‘young adult’ movie out of subject matter that is fundamentally dark and brutal.

There is something old-fashioned about this film, in both the cardboard cut-out nature of the characters, and the heavy-handed score by John Williams that never leaves us uncertain about the emotional undertones of any scene. Sad-eyed Sophie Nélisse is just as appealing as she was in a much superior feature – Monsieur Lazhar (2011), but it can’t be easy to act in a movie where lines that sound as if they were lifted from a desk calendar have to be pronounced in a phoney accent. Some readers will not be surprised to learn that Geoffrey Rush is a study in exaggerated mannerisms and Emily Watson is not far behind.

In fact, there is such a whiff of ham in Hans and Rosa’s little cottage it’s a wonder any orthodox Jew would step over the threshold. It just shows what extreme and dangerous things people will do in times of crisis.

The Book Thief
USA/Germany, rated PG
131 mins
Directed by Brian Percival; screenplay by Michael Petroni, from a novel by Markus Zusak; starring Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Nico Liersch, Ben Schnetzer, Barbara Auer

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 11th  January, 2014.