By Dan Metcalf, Jr.
Clipper Film Correspondent
The Book Thief (Twentieth Century Fox)
Rated PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material.
Starring Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Ben Schnetzer, Nico Liersch, Joachim Paul Assböck, Sandra Nedeleff, Hildegard Schroedter, Rafael Gareisen, Roger Allam, Barbara Auer, Heike Makatsch.
Written by Michael Petroni, based on the novel by Markus Zusak.
Directed by Brian Percival.
The trouble with wars is - they are very R-rated affairs, and it would be difficult to tell the truth about such things while providing content that is suitable for children. However you feel about how much your kids can or should handle concerning such atrocities, it's always a tough choice to make. The Book Thief is one such film (based on the novel by Markus Zusak) that walks this fine line.
The film is narrated by “Death” (Roger Allam) – who tells of all the work he must do in the face of the coming war. French-Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse plays Liesel, a young woman who is placed in a German foster home just prior to the outbreak of World War II. Her foster parents are Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson). Hans is a sweet fellow, and often the butt of Rosa's sarcastic jokes. Liesel immediately learns to love Hans, who teaches her to read. Leisel simply endures Rosa's strict household while making friends with Rudy (Nico Liersch), a sweet neighbor boy who is constantly trying to trick her into giving him a kiss.
Life gets more complicated for the Hubermanns and Liesel when Max (Ben Schnetzer), a young Jewish man and son of an old family friend takes refuge in their basement. As the Nazi party tightens its grip on the citizenry, The Hubermanns must take extra precaution to protect Max.
Liesel also befriends Ilsa (Barbara Auer) the wife of the town Bürgermeister and Nazi Party leader. Ilsa allows Liesel to read books from her extensive library – even after a public book-burning event. Ilsa's good nature derives from the loss of her son on the front lines of Russia. After the Bürgermeister discovers what's going on, he bans Liesel from the home – forcing her to sneak into the library and “borrow” more books from time to time. Liesel begins to write and tell her own stories, much to the delight of her friends and family.
As the war escalates, Max must decide whether to stay on with the Hubermanns or strike out on his own. Hans is conscripted into the German army over defending a man accused of being Jewish, as Allied bombings begin.
As the war rages on, “Death” becomes very busy in his profession – while Liesel and her loved ones try to survive.
The Book Thief is at times a wonderful and touching story of a young woman discovering her humanity in the face of extreme atrocities. Nélisse has great potential to become a star with her beauty and camera presence, and her performance in The Book Thief may be the start of a great career. Geoffrey Rush gives another solid performance, but Emily Watson steals the movie. Other notable performances come from Liersch (as the adorable Rudy) and Schnetzer (as Max) who comprise part of a great ensemble.
The trouble with The Book Thief is that while you watch it, you know you're only getting a watered-down version of World War II. After Schindler's List, The Pianist and other more graphic films, The Book Thief looks feels like a watching the war through rose-colored glasses. That may be okay for kids, but feels a little less honest for adults.
One other qualm I had with The Book Thief is the accents used for the dialogue in the movie. With the key actors being of British (Rush, Watson), American (Schnetzer) and French-Canadian dialects – it makes for a melting pot of fake German accents (with the exception of Auer). It might have made more sense to make the film in German with subtitles rather than try a little too hard to make an English movie that ends up sounding a little too much like dinner theater.
Dialects aside, The Book Thief is a film that will leave most audiences with a positive outlook on life – even as “Death” stays busy.