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Non-Review Review: The Book Thief

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2014.

Any film set in Germany between 1938 and 1945 narrated by death itself is going to feel a little… surreal. As wonderful as Roger Allam’s tones might be, there’s something decidedly unwholesome about the narration of the story told from the perspective of the Grim Reaper, particularly as he recounts a story from his “best of” collection.

The implication is that the life of the eponymous booklifter has touched the Death itself, which feels rather uncomfortable in the context of Nazi Germany. One would imagine that there would be quite a lot of moving and affecting stories to hold our narrator’s attention, without a need to single out one particular story as especially moving.

This is, in essence, the heart of the problem with The Book Thief, an efficient and well-produced – if condescending and tone-deaf – family film exploring the story of one family living in the shadow of Hitler’s Germany. It spends far too long telling us why these protagonists are unique, when the crux of the story seems to be that they are not.

Book her, boys!

She has no shelf-control…

There is something fascinating about using a story aimed at children to explore the horrors of the Third Reich. Violence and outright brutality are not possible within the framework of The Book Thief. Indeed, the movie features the cleanest bombing raid that I have seen depicted on film in quite some time – while buildings are demolished, most of the occupants look like they simply need a shower to get back into the swing of things.

And yet, despite these commercial and tasteful limitations on the storytelling tools available to document the horror of Nazi Germany, it’s often very effective to glimpse these atrocities through the eyes of a person not fully capable of comprehending what is going on. It’s great to have socio-economic and historical context, but these actions and events appear particularly horrible when viewed through the eyes of somebody who can’t rationalise the rise of National Socialist against the history of Germany in the twentieth century.

The world accordian to Hans...

The world accordian to Hans…

There are moments in The Book Thief that work, grasping the simplicity of these horrors seen through the eyes of innocent children. There’s the ease with which Nazism infiltrates communities and education systems, the cult-like power of book burnings held to celebrate the Führer’s birthday, the casualness with which a life can be destroyed. A local Jew is identified through his birth certificate, which spelt his last name “with one n, not two.”

Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush lend the movie a sense of dramatic credibility, playing the adoptive parents of the eponymous thief. Both elevate the material that they are given, trying their damnedest to fashion the movie into an emotive prestige piece. Both actors make valiant efforts, but there’s a sense that they are struggling against the inevitable. The problems with The Book Thief are far too profound for even Watson and Rush to successfully combat.

Stepping up in the world...

Stepping up in the world…

Most obviously, there’s a sense that the whole thing is rather tone-deaf. Death narrates the story like an incorporeal version of Hannibal Lecter. He talks about the inevitability of death with an absolute certainty, and his interest in the people walking the earth he curates seems more like scientific curiosity than any emotional investment. He describes taking souls as if he’s harvesting ripe crops. He offers insights about the relative weight of the souls that he collects in purple prose, talking about how some souls were light as a feather, while others “rolled into [his] arms.”

It’s a rather creepy narration, despite the movie’s attempt to play it as some wry wit. “In a way, I suppose I was Hitler’s most faithful soldier,” Death reflects in one moment of bizarre profundity. “Young men often think they’re running at the enemy,” he suggests at one point. “Instead they’re running to me.” This is a rather surreal version of Death who seems to have time to pen over-written narration, while only fleetingly alluding to the attempted genocide being conducted on German soil contemporaneously. It’s indicative of broader problems with movie’s tone.

The Reader...

The Reader…

The film seems intent on being as broadly crowd-pleasing as possible, which means that everything feels just a little bit too rote and familiar. Indeed, the movie’s climax seems like it could be a gutsy moment until the film decides to overplay it. “I lo— ugh!” one character actually delivers towards the end of the film, in a rather uncomfortable attempt to tug at the audience’s heartstrings. John Williams’ score is just as overblown as you might expect.

At the same time, there are some good ideas here. They are just buried a little too deep. Like The Monuments Men, The Book Thief seems to want to be a story about the importance of preserving culture in the face of totalitarian oppression. While the film never hits that theme as well as it might, it is still a great deal better at exploring it than The Monuments Men was. In fact, The Book Thief gets bonus points for tying the idea of the importance of culture and language back to the Jewish belief in the power of words to shape and define life.

Don't (Geoffrey) Rush out to see it...

Don’t (Geoffrey) Rush out to see it…

The production on The Book Thief is lavish and the sets look absolutely beautiful. It’s just a shame that film itself is so muddled and confused, so awkward and tone-deaf.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 2

2 Responses

  1. It looks pretty good.

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