Germany. World War II. A horrible time. It’s the time where young Liesel Meminger has to grow up. She faces racism, genocide and book burnings. It’s the latter she takes a stand against, because if there’s one thing she loves, then it’s books.
So Liesel’s life has been pretty horrible, even though she’s not even a teenager. In 1938, her brother dies, her mother abandons her and she’s stuck with a family who doesn’t seem too keen on having her around. The first words she hears upon arriving in the new family are «I thought we were getting two kids», uttered by her foster mother Rosa Hubermann. While her husband Hans tries his best to make Liesel’s childhood a little bit better, her foster mother is horribly distant. School’s also no cakewalk for Liesel, because she can’t read or write. This makes Liesel a strange orphan in a world where everyone is ahead of her. She has few friends, is prone to violent outbursts and isn’t treated well at home.
But it is when Liesel learns to read that the world starts looking a lot different. In the time it takes Liesel to master the alphabet and discover her love for literature, World War II has broken out. Liesel doesn’t notice much about this, lucking out on being caught in the crossfire, she has been drafted into the Hitlerjugend. As a member of the Bund Deutscher Mädel (the girl branch of the Hitlerjugend), she is forced to sing songs of German supremacy and attend book burnings. And that’s when Liesel – in all her youthful powerlessness – decides to take a stand. She saves one book from being burnt.
Liesel realizes that this little act of defiance – with no political motive whatsoever, it was all about the love for books – has shown her foster parents that she’s not all that fond of the Nazis. Because neither are they. And one day, Max Vandenburg shows up at the Hubermann’s doorstep. The escaped young man is a Jew and has to hide. The Hubermanns take him in and with all the adversity facing the little household, the Hubermanns, Liesel and Max become something like a family.
This is merely the premise of the story by Markus Zusak. And it’s an interesting story, really. Narrated by someone you’d never expect to be a narrator and with a lot of stars as the cast, the movie is set to topple the box office. So, the question looming is this: Is the Book Thief a good movie?
The answer is not that simple. You see, when the Book Thief is good, it’s really good. Similarly, the bad parts of the movie are really bad.
Liesel’s world, the village she lives as well as the house and the school and basically everything is historically accurate to a tee. And it never looks like it’s a stage or a bunch of props thrown at a set. You really believe that this was filmed in the world of the Second World War. This comes as little surprise, really, because the director of the movie – Brian Percival – has directed episodes of the period drama Downton Abbey.
In this beautiful world, there are a lot of very good actors. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson do a fantastic job at being the Hubermanns, Sophie Nélisse is an awesome Liesel, giving a very subtle performance. But then the problems rear their ugly head.
Why the devil does everyone have to speak in horrible German accents? Seriously. We’ve got a story set in Nazi Germany about people named Meminger and Hubermann. There are Nazi flags everywhere and we have our stars marching around in Nazi uniforms. Do we really need American, British and Canadian actors doing horrible German accents? Because they’re not good. Emily Watson does hers well, so does Geoffrey Rush. Sophie Nélisse’s is neglectable and Nico Liersch, who plays Liesel’s friend Rudy, is German. But Ben Schnetzer who plays Max… blimey, his accent is awful. It comes and goes as it pleases, changes on a moment’s notice and that creates a very jarring experience. Aren’t audiences used to Germans speaking in native English or American accents by now? Because, look, it can be done. Every dialog in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is very obviously supposed to be German. But the characters speak English. Proper English. And there’s no doubt that, yes, that is German. Movie magic.
It gets even worse. So everything is in German. The coffee mill in the Hubermann’s kitchen is labelled «Kaffee». German. Every word written on walls and books and everywhere on set is also German. But every word Liesel writes on her blackboard in the cellar is in English. Why? That one’s easy, though. Pathos. Whenever we see a full shot of Liesel in front of her blackboard, there are supposedly thought-provoking words written on it.
This is another issue with the movie. It really tries to hammer the point home that Liesel is, despite all the hardship in her life, a happy child. The second she runs her first step, the glum child becomes a smiling, stereotypical child. The jarring effect this is supposed to create falls flat. All these happy scenes are just like the rest of the story, flat.
At no point during the film was there a feeling of being right in the middle of it. The characters, despite the good performances by the main actors past the German accents, are very shallow. Geoffrey Rush’s Hans Hubermann is reduced to a constantly winking man whose sole thought seems to be «Oh, you little rascals». The only character with some depth to her is Emily Watson’s Rosa Hubermann, being a worried woman who does love or at least like Liesel but doesn’t allow herself to be attached to her because none of them might survive. Ben Schnetzer’s character is nothing more than «I hide» and Nico Liersch is «I don’t like racism for arbitrary reason».
Basically, everything was good – actors, sets and performance – but the script was horribly lacking. This creates a sugared up version of World War II, inhabited by characters who are flat and bland. Everything looks good, though.
So where does that leave us. Should you go see the film? Hard to say. If you like movie-versions of books and impressive sets and believable worlds, then yes. If you don’t mind horrible accents, then yes. If you’re after some sort of immersive story, then you probably won’t get much out of this.
If you want to get a better impression of what awaits you, here’s a trailer:
The Book Thief opens in Swiss Cinemas on March 13th.