I have never really enjoyed stories about children and the Holocaust, mostly because I was flooded with them as required reading in middle school. The Diary of Anne Frank, Night, Number the Stars, and a whole lot more. Every single one of them just felt like the same story over and over again, with minor details changed. Repetition only bores me.
But The Book Thief is something different AND something new. The book came out within the last 10 years, and it is about a little German girl going through this experience, not someone sent to a concentration camp. It is a completely new point of view, with some other notable differences as well.
They hide someone below, not above. Brilliant!
You know, like the story being narrated by Death (Roger Allam). Yep, that is new!
But our main character is little Liesel (Sophie Nelisse). Her mother is giving her up for adoption for some reason, and en route, her brother dies mid trip. It is the late 1930s, she is around 12, and she is already used to death.
Her new mother, Rosa (Emily Watson), and father, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) take her on, for reasons not really ever touched on. Maybe they can’t have kids of their own? No idea.
Either way, with a new home, she has the same old problems. Hans realizes she can’t read and takes an interest in her education. Once she learns to read, she can’t stop. Not even when the Nazi party marches into town and holds a book burning event for…some reason. She likes books so much that she saves one from the pyre when no one is looking. That little thief.
Her life gets turned even more upside down when Max (Ben Schnetzer) comes knocking. Max is a Jewish man looking for a place to hide, coming to collect on a promise made by Hans during the first World War. Can Liesel keep a secret, and can she keep a low enough profile to make sure no one starts to suspect their ruse? Will she ever give in to the temptations of her very Aryan friend, Rudy (Nico Liersch)? Will the Nazis win the war? No. No they won’t.
Like. Really, really, really Aryan.
Well, it turns out just because something is new and different, it doesn’t mean it will be amazing.
One of my movie pet peeves happens when a film is set outside of America. When this happens, there are two routes movie makers can go with. They can either do the entire movie in the native language, and give us subtitles, or they can just do it in English. I always assume that when it is in English, they are obviously speaking their native language (in this case German), but we can fully understand the German.
But I hate it when they decide to do a bit of both. Usually this is English with some native language words thrown in to go for “Authenticity,” when really it just confuses my ear drums. The Book Thief goes this route, but also one step further. They have entire conversations and scenes in German with subtitles, before switching back to English which is the majority language of the movie. And honestly, it makes absolutely no sense why they keep switching to German. It is a bad directing move. To make matters worse, sometimes words are written in German, and sometimes English. No continuity whatsoever.
The Book Thief is a movie where the acting is pretty great from everyone involved, but it fails to tell a useful story. About 4/5 of the way into the film, I realized that I have no idea what this movie wanted to be about, the messages it wanted to convey, or where it wanted to go. There was some conflict, but outside of the “World War II” idea, there wasn’t a main conflict for the characters in the film to really overcome. It literally was just a story of a girl over a few years during World War II, and that was it. All of the potential major plotlines ended relatively quickly after they were brought up.
So the film lacks direction. As you could tell from the plot outline, a lot of the details seem to be missing. Throw on confusing speech patterns for the characters, and you got a lackluster film.
I feel like this could have been a great story, and it probably was in the book form, but the movie really failed to deliver. With such great acting, I am disappointed the story felt so flat. If I read the book, the movie might have been a lot better, but I shouldn’t have to read a novel first to enjoy a movie.
1 out of 4.