Nov 22 2013

ReThink Reviews: The Book Thief

Rethink Reviews | Published 22 Nov 2013, 10:44 am | Comments Off on ReThink Reviews: The Book Thief -

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Rethink ReviewsTaking a deeper look at current and past films and how they relate to the world today.

Jonathan Kim is an independent film critic who writes and produces film reviews for Uprising and other outlets. He is a former co-producer at Brave New Films.

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When I reviewed ‘12 Years A Slave’, I said that it might help America come to grips with the horrors of slavery and our nation’s racist roots if slavery was addressed more often in film the way the Holocaust and Nazism have been portrayed in popular entertainment. Those films left little doubt amongst a worldwide audience, regardless of one’s interest in history, that the Nazis’ goals, beliefs, and methods were an absolute wrong and a crime against humanity. That said, with seemingly every aspect of this tragedy examined exhaustively, is it possible that all the lessons of World War II have been presented and there are no new stories left to tell? And does this explain why would-be Oscar bait like ‘The Book Thief’, which follows an orphaned girl in a World War II-era German village, feels so mawkish and unnecessary?

Based on Markus Zusak’s best-selling novel, ‘The Book Thief’ is about an illiterate 9-year-old girl named Liesel (played by a plucky, big-eyed Sophie Nélisse) whose communist mother seeks to protect Liesel by sending her to live in an idyllic German village. Her foster parents are Hans, a kind and playful housepainter played by Geoffrey Rush, and Rosa, a mean, brusque laundress played by Emily Watson. With Liesel heartbroken over her absent mother and the death of her younger brother, Hans consoles her by teaching her to read from a book she had stolen.

Books, as you’d imagine, wind their way throughout ‘The Book Thief’, as Liesel goes on to steal another book from a book burning rally and more books from the mayor’s wife (played by Barbara Auer), who soothes her sadness over her dead son by giving Liesel access to her personal library. From what I’ve gathered from the novel’s Wikipedia page, the redemptive and destructive power of words is the book’s main theme. Unfortunately, this gets lost among the film’s several subplots, which often makes ‘The Book Thief’ feel like a curiously sanitized take on some of Holocaust movies’ biggest clichés.

There’s the subplot of Hans’ refusal to join the Nazi party and the pressure and scrutiny that draws to his family. To further prove Hans’ bona fides as a “good German”, Hans risks his family’s safety by harboring a war buddy’s Jewish son (played by Ben Schnetzer) in the basement, who befriends Liesel as he’s nursed back to health. Then there’s also the friendship between Liesel and Rudy, a boy next door (played by Nico Liersch) who has a crush on Liesel, though Rudy’s athletic prowess and Aryan looks draw the interest of the Nazis, who select him to attend a special academy that would separate him from Liesel. There’s also the townspeople’s frequent retreats to underground shelters as Allied bombs land on the town, with Liesel comforting people by telling stories. And did I mention that ‘The Book Thief’ is narrated by Death? That’s right, Death himself (voiced by Roger Allam) as a gentle and bemused Reaper who takes a special interest in Liesel, which is a drag on the story and seems strangely insensitive considering that other thing going on in Germany at the time.

That thing being the Holocaust, whose horrors only figure lightly and fairly bloodlessly in the film when a group of Jews are marched through the town. But the biggest problem with ‘The Book Thief’ is it’s complete lack of anything new, informative, or insightful, making it feel like it was written by someone who knew nothing about World War II other than what they’d seen in a handful of movies but really wanted you to know that some Germans during Nazi rule were actually pretty nice — which has also been covered.

But maybe the bigger issue is that, after decades and hundreds of movies, maybe there really isn’t anything new to be said about World War II, the Nazis, and the Holocaust that hasn’t been said (and said very well) before, unlike with slavery and the comparatively scant number of dramatic films on the topic. While it’s important to make sure the Holocaust isn’t forgotten, I don’t feel the need to keep watching movies belaboring its lessons to the point of obsession or morbidity. Maybe that’s why a film like ‘12 Years A Slave’ feels so important and needed, while ‘The Book Thief’, while technically solid, just feels like unnecessary, boilerplate Oscar bait.

‘The Book Thief’ is rated PG-13 and is in select theaters now.

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