Leon van Nierop
2 minute read
24 Jan 2014
6:00 am

Movie Review: The Book Thief doesn’t quite work

Leon van Nierop

"I like this human idea of the grim reaper. I like the scythe. It amuses me."

Hans (Geoffrey Rush) hugs his daughter Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) in The Book Thief.

This passage from the Markus Zusak novel on which this film is based sets the tone for this film about a girl who loses her family during World War 2 and starts stealing books – just to own something. Ironically, one of her books is Hitler’s Mein Kampf, but there are also other life-affirming books that attract her.

Death is at the heart of this adolescent Holocaust fairytale of sorts, in which the grim reaper serves as a cynical narrator who forces the viewer to confront his or her own mortality. Suddenly, Death is not only the fearsome slayer of human life (remember Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, one of his many films dealing with his obsession with death?), but a comforter who makes the passage to the afterlife more bearable.

Still of Ben Schnetzer and Sophie Nélisse in The Book Thief (2013)

Still of Ben Schnetzer and Sophie Nélisse in The Book Thief (2013)

In this film, which will appeal to both children and adults, Death has the best lines. And it seems impossible for a director to properly convey the character’s grave utterances onto film.

This may be part of the problem for Brian Percival: to put images to Death’s icy and innocently amusing observations as he collects souls during World War 2 – a kind of ironic feast. Viewers seem to lose his ominous presence during some scenes. To further serve the irony, Death keeps watch over the young girl who saves burning books, hovering like a dark angel over her, but never able to extinguish the flame that burns in her.

Still of Emily Watson, Nico Liersch and Sophie Nélisse in The Book Thief (2013)

Still of Emily Watson, Nico Liersch and Sophie Nélisse in The Book Thief (2013)

The Book Thief is not a bad film – but some critics have called it, rather scathingly, Harry Potter And The Holocaust because of its accessibility to kids, which explains the uneasy feeling an adult viewer may have while watching it.

The film falls somewhere between a meticulously constructed morality tale about a girl touched by Death, and a picture perfect portrait contrasted against the horrors of the Holocaust. At times the house in which young Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) stays with her adoptive parents, (brilliantly played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson), as well as the streets of Molching town, are just too pretty; too deliberately dressed up to actually reflect the horrors of the war.

Those who have read the book may feel that the film may not quite be able to bring across the dark, sinister and sometimes amusing tone of the written word, apart from via the occasional voice-over.