A film that’s worthy
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.