Sophie Nélisse as Liesel Meminger
Geoffrey Rush as Hans Hubermann
Emily Watson as Rosa Hubermann
Ben Schnetzer as Max Vandenburg
Nico Liersch as Rudy Steinner
Sandra Nedeleff as Sarah
Hildegard Schroedter as Frau Becker
Rafael Gareisen as Walter Kugler
Barbara Auer as Ilsa Hermann
Roger Allam as Death
Directed by Brian Percival
The big screen adaptation of “The Book Thief” wants to put a human face on war and remind us that there are innocents and collateral damage on all sides, specifically young Liesel Meminger (Nélisse) who watches World War II unfold from the confines of a street in Germany. But it does so in such a guileless, heavy-handed way it’s difficult to take the point seriously however much you may want to.
Adapted from Makus Zusak’s best-seller, “Thief” follows the life of a young refugee and her foster family in Stuttgart during the years running up to and following from the start of World War II as Nazi Germany and the fight against it slowly–really, really, really slowly–encroach onto their daily lives.
It’s certainly not the casts’ fault as, to a tee, they deliver compelling performances and nuanced emotions–particularly Nélisse who has to cover the entire range of adolescence along with the war–it’s just that they’re smothered in light-heartedness. And that’s in a movie narrated by the embodiment of Death (Allam). Granted, that’s an embodiment of Death who comes across more like a dark Santa Claus than anything else. Actually most everyone comes across that way, even cold-hearted, yelling, arguing mama bear Rosa (Emily Watson) who initially only takes Liesel in for the money. But none moreso than Geoffrey Rush’s Hans Hubermann, who even sounds like he escaped from a child’s picture book somewhere.
That’s not an accident. Somehow the filmmakers have managed to squeeze all but the narratively-needed elements of Nazism out of Sophie’s world, which has been imagined as a sort of fable-like village more at home in the Von Trapp’s version of World War II than in the real one. Granted, much of the point of the “The Book Thief” is viewing the war through a child’s eyes, and when it works, it works. Watching your heroine and her friends from school going out in their Hitler Youth uniforms to sing hymns to the Fatherland and “heil Hitler” because that’s what their parents have told them to do is truly unnerving. Director Brian Percival often goes too far on the cloying side, segregating Liesel’s world into some sort of fairytale land where you have snowball fights with the Jewish refugee hiding from the SS in your basement.
Which weaken the frequent good parts of “The Book Thief” as British director Brian Percival frequently contrasts each piece of real drama with an underdone payoff, keeping tension from ever rising above a low simmer. It’s all just a bit to pat to really stick with you. Adapting a film story from a book already presents the problem of creating an episodic narrative, which doesn’t always work on the big screen, but Percival has grabbed onto that with both hands, creating a start and stop feel as Liesel finds herself frequently presented with a problem quickly solved before moving onto the next one.
It makes for an interminable film which frequently stops moving just as it seemed to be building a head of steam before finally stumbling into a totally unearned ‘gotcha’ ending. It’s not bad so much as disappointing for all the talent on display; for all the burning books and bombs the posters may adorn themselves with, there’s no fire here–only smoke.
The Book Thief has been playing in limited release since November 8 and will expand nationwide on Wednesday, November 27