World War II has inspired thousands of films and novels, some of them veritable classics of each discipline. The better ones are based on real characters and events, an approach that adds further gravitas to one of humanity’s darkest hours.
The Book Thief is not one of them.
Based on the best seller by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief uses real referents to tell the story of an impoverished German family in the midst of WWII, but it’s not a true story. Consequently, as misfortune begins to pile up, it feels a bit disingenuous.
The film revolves around Liesel (Quebecois actress Sophie Nelisse, Monsieur Lazhar), a quiet nine year-old removed from her parents, a couple of alleged communists. Liesel lands in the home of Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson), a childless couple hoping for a boy. Nonetheless, Liesel and Hans bond and soon the girl and her foster dad are inseparable.
Encouraged by Hans, Liesel learns to read and develops a serious addiction to books. It’s a terrible time to do so. Not only is the German population submerged in poverty, but the Nazi regime has condemned most Western literature as source of misinformation.
The Book Thief uses a number of WWII frequent narrative devices: Jewish person hiding in the basement/attic? Check. Cute kid certain to die? Check. Shocking Nazi brutality? Check. Bomb shelters? Most certainly. Jesse Owens? You bet. But the ingredients feel more like a greatest hits parade as opposed to add to anything. The novelty item, Death as a narrator, feels out of place. There is nothing about this film that says magic realism. And this is not Bergman.
The message –you must honor those who have sacrificed their life by making something of yourself- was better conveyed by Saving Private Ryan. The Book Thief feels more like a run of the mill melodrama dangerously close to misery porn. At least the movie provides Sophie Nelisse a well deserved showcase. That girl is a find. Two and a half prairie dogs.
The Book Thief is now playing at Galaxy Cinemas.