During World War II, Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) is forced to leave her mother and go and live with a foster family in Nazi Germany. She finds solace in stealing books, but she and her new family could be in danger when her foster father Hans (Geoffrey Rush) agrees to hide Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jew, from the Nazis.
Conviction. It’s something that all films need to have in order to make the audience believe in the story and care in the characters. Half-arsed or abandoned ideas do nothing but make the viewer apathetic towards the whole thing and ultimately have little interest in the story or its characters. Unfortunately, The Book Thief lacks conviction in almost every area.
The Book Thief is an adaptation of the critically acclaimed novel by Australian author Markus Zusak, but it’s perhaps the book’s biggest USP that is the film’s most obvious lack of conviction – the fact that it’s narrated by Death.
This was a really unique and clever idea that worked brilliantly on paper, but has not translated to the screen well at all. We hear the voice of Death at the beginning of the film but doesn’t show up again until about two-thirds through and then again at the end. It feels like the filmmakers didn’t want to include it but felt they couldn’t leave it out.
There’s also an issue of not really addressing the subject matter. It’s true that the film is more of a character piece than anything else but do these characters ever really develop? Only Emily Watson’s Rosa really evolves as a character, whilst the World War II setting seems strangely sanitised. Rosa’s claim that Liesel is filthy when she arrives would be more believable if she wasn’t so utterly pristine. For a more effective take on the horrors of war from a child’s perspective, then The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas might be a better bet.
The Book Thief does have some admirable qualities, however. Both Sophie Nélisse and Geoffrey Rush are excellent as Liesel and Hans respectively, and the relationship between the two is genuinely heartwarming. Nélisse balances Liesel’s headstrong, almost stubborn, attitude with vulnerability, whilst superbly bringing a naivety to the character which makes it chilling to see her acting so blithely towards the Nazis for most of the film. Rush is also excellent, giving Hans a real affection for Liesel whilst also displaying an eccentricity that makes him a very likeable character.
There are also a couple of really interesting scenes that really stand out. At one point we see Liesel and her friends dressed in Nazi Youth uniforms singing a propaganda song in a choir. This juxtaposition of ideas is really effective and horrifying to see what is essentially brainwashing of children who don’t really know better.
The Book Thief really had the potential to be better than it was, but it was ultimately let down by its inability to follow through with its ideas. From the seemingly random voiceovers from Death to the bizarre language switching from German to English throughout, it never truly finds a real identity. It has interesting moments scattered here and there but is never consistent enough to make your truly invested in it.
- Good performances from Sophie Nélisse and Geoffrey Rush
- Nice period detail
- Effective in places
- Narration by Death hugely underused
- Little character development
- Random language switching