A film that’s wor­thy

The Church of England - - FRONT PAGE - Steve Par­ish

It’s very rare that in the mid­dle of a film I think “This is bor­ing”. Slow, maybe; ram­bling, of­ten; but bor­ing means I’ve just not re­ally en­gaged with a film.

The Book Thief seems to be a good book – an award-win­ning best­seller – by Markus Zusak but the film (cert. 12A) loses its way in dodgy Ger­man ac­cents, a fa­mil­iar plot line (kind Ger­mans hid­ing a Jew prov­ing they’re not Nazi bad­dies), and the book’s bizarre nar­ra­tion by Death (Roger Al­lam), who ends up “haunted by hu­mans”. The open­ing through-the-clouds scene per­haps de­rives from A Mat­ter of Life and Death (1946) but as the cam­era swoops down on a steam train and into the com­part­ment even the drama of the death of a child seems muted.

That child is the younger brother of Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), aged around 10, be­ing brought by her com­mu­nist mother to be forcibly adopted by a child­less cou­ple (who have adult chil­dren in the book). Hav­ing dis­rupted the jour­ney for the burial of her brother, Liesel next faces the wrath and dis­ap­point­ment of Rosa Hu­ber­mann (Emily Wat­son) who ex­pected two chil­dren, and her more kindly but hen-pecked hus­band Hans (Ge­of­frey Rush).

The book may ex­plain some things – in­clud­ing why Liesel can’t read – but the prob­lem is that her not be­ing able to read didn’t seem cred­i­ble, nor how she learns to read. In fact a lot didn’t seem cred­i­ble, start­ing with those Ger­man ac­cents.

Sophie Nélisse (Cana­dian) is rea­son­ably con­vinc­ing but not even bril­liant ac­tors Ge­of­frey Rush (Aus­tralian) and Emily Wat­son (English) sound right – and it doesn’t help that Yes is ren­dered Ja and No as Nein in the midst of all the “ve have vays” English. There are plenty of Ger­man ac­tors who speak English and might have brought dif­fer­ent shades to the roles – see most of the rest of the cast.

Ap­par­ently a book-burn­ing scene was filmed with mostly a Ger­man film crew, and was awk­ward and emo­tional to film. The scene cap­tures some of the ten­sions of the time, but doesn’t re­ally con­vey why the Deutsche Volk were taken in.

In one scene Hans in­ter­venes as a Jewish shop­keeper is taken away – in the book Hans is whipped for his trou­ble – but it means that their hid­den Jew must leave. Max (Ben Sch­net­zer) is the twenty-some­thing son of a for­mer army com- rade of Hans, who saved his life (so obli­ga­tion mixes with not­ing that Jews fought for Ger­many in 191418).

Se­creted in the base­ment for a cou­ple of years, there’s only one scene where Max’s dis­cov­ery seems likely, and how he hides when the base­ment is searched is al­most a joke. Com­pare and con­trast the scene in Tarantino’s In­glou­ri­ous Bas­terds, where Christo­pher Waltz is look­ing for Jews un­der floor­boards and is both cruel and cred­i­ble.

A large part of the story is Liesel’s re­la­tion­ship with class­mate Rudy (Nico Lier­sch), with its sort of ado­les­cent love story edge – but this is al­most an in­ter­lude to the hor­ror around them. Liesel’s steal­ing books from the Bürg­er­meis­ter’s wife (Bar­bara Auer) – per­haps with her con­nivance – also seems in­ci­den­tal de­spite the ti­tle.

Vis­ually, the fic­tional town of Molch­ing and the houses on “Heaven Street” (Him­mel­strasse) are well pre­sented; two of the set de­sign­ers even give their names to swatches in the tai­lor’s shop. The cine­matog­ra­phy by Flo­rian Ballhaus is ex­cel­lent, and the score by John Wil­liams is good though with­out any par­tic­u­larly memo- rable theme, the mu­si­cal high­light be­ing a Hitler Youth choir singing songs now long banned.

So it may be that get­ting the di­rec­tor of Down­ton Abbey, Brian Per­ci­val, to in­ter­pret this adap­ta­tion by Michael Petroni, is what gives a some­what strange treat­ment of the book. If it feels unau­then­tic, at least there was a lot of ef­fort in the pro­duc­tion de­sign; quoted as look­ing for a Ger­man 1930s equiv­a­lent of his home town of Garston in Liver­pool, Per­ci­val even­tu­ally set­tled on build­ing what he needed as a set, only to de­stroy it in an air raid.

That takes us back to the thou­sand-bomber raid at the start of A Mat­ter of Life and Death. There the ef­fects are seen from the heav­ens as a firestorm but now it is Heaven Street turn­ing to hell on the ground.

Maybe it was lit­tle things that put me off – mis­trans­la­tion of some of the few sub­ti­tles, and an out­ra­geous bit of prod­uct place­ment at the end – or maybe it was the con­stant look­ing for some­thing cheery to hap­pen. This is not The Boy in the Striped Pa­ja­mas, it is a Third Re­ich fairy­tale.

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