Well-Meaning WWII Book Adaptation Reads as Maudlin
DIRECTED BY BRIAN PERCIVAL/2013
Not that the rise of the Nazi party lends itself to much moral ambiguity, but the new pre-war literary adaptation The Book Thief (based upon Markus Zusak’s acclaimed bestseller) has about as much nuance and subtlety as this year’s Jackie Robinson biopic 42. (That film’s message: Racism is bad). 42 is a film realized with the sharpness of baseball bat, but its saccharine intentions are so darn pure, most viewers couldn’t bring themselves to toss it to the flames. Such is the case with The Book Thief (It’s message: Nazis are bad). Like 42, it sports a now-indisputable historical message, as well as a name actor here and there, and a lot of overwrought, over-decorated sets. And even though its pedigree has imbued it with an art house run (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson directed by a Downton Abbey director), The Book Thief is about as culturally challenging as Little Miss Sunshine. Like 42, it functions best as the film for school children that it doesn’t realize it is.
Its depiction of another time and place is fresh from the scenic carpentry shop, with the last minute work of the on-set painter still drying before our eyes. Since these are downtrodden people, everything in their world is earth-toned and muted. (Except for the many huge swastika flags – the red on those is hyper-saturated within an inch of the film’s life.) Interiors have that certain Hallmark period film amber hue permeating everything. The ratty clothes are somehow perfectly fitted, and our tween-age heroine never has a hair out place on her full-bodied head. The cumulative effect is a well-meaning trip down an artificial memory lane that subconsciously betrays The Book Thief’s realistic ambitions.
Young Sophie Nélisse is fine as Liesel, the cherubic youngster of the title who is adopted by the affable Rush and the hard-shelled Watson (both powerhouse actors giving themselves respectably over to parts that they could do in their sleep). Liesel, a wide-eyed, confident and adorable young girl (in spite of the fact that any of those qualities would be strained by her reality) is all about everything that Der Fuehrer hates, namely books, freedom, speaking quietly, and the obligatory Jewish guy hiding in the basement.
In her character arc, she’ll come to realize that this Nazi business that’s becoming all the rage in her country is troubling, and wearing that little swastika patch on her coat sleeve might not be the most future-proof wardrobe choice. We just know that whenever she smuggles a book to safety, Hitler loses just a little more.
Don’t mistake my dismissive tone regarding The Book Thief for a belittling of the true historical situation. Likewise, know that the idea of a child coming of age prematurely via World War II can indeed make for a great film, case in point being 2008’s Winter in Wartime, another youth-centric WWII book adaptation, but a much more poignant and heart-wrenching tale. That film vividly details the tragedy of premature loss of childhood that war’s moral conundrum brings. There is tragedy in The Book Thief as well, but it’s the telegraphed kind that carts in wooden wheelbarrows of veiled “safe” sentiment around its danger and turmoil. Even towards the end, when Germany is bombed by the Allies (history spoiler alert!), the soothingly chilled narration by Death himself (a device that never quite works) reassures us that all of this is just the way things go.
The Second World War has proven to be an endless fount of remarkable tales, and remains the flashpoint event of the twentieth century. To utilize it in a reductive manner, even via a work as well intentioned as The Book Thief, is in some way disingenuous. This film may not be the worst offender (and even a film such as Swing Kids, where they beat back the Nazis by dancing on tables, can amass an adoring following), but its depiction of the events before and around ’42 surpass even 42 in terms of boilerplate history lessons.