The specter of Death (with a capital “D”) is a hovering presence in The Book Thief. The slow, deep narration from a reaper-like entity is just one upfront reminder that the story takes place in dire times. While this ploy may work better in the popular Markus Zusak novel the film is based on, off the page as vocalized flowery dialogue it becomes a more obvious emotional manipulation. Despite standout performances and a few moments of stimulating subtext, the slushy mawkishness emanating from this village in Nazi Germany – that can’t shake the look of an artificial backlot – is a little too carefully constructed to strike a raw nerve or inspire introspection.
Young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) is en route to new German foster parents when death (or Death, I suppose) first strikes by taking her younger brother. Things aren’t looking up when her new mother Rosa Hubermann (Emily Watson) is most concerned about the government assistance she’s missing out on with the boy now deceased. Luckily Rosa’s husband Hans (Geoffrey Rush) has a kind smile and is able to coax a scared Liesel into the home by calling her “your majesty.” Rosa’s hen-pecking clashing with Hans’s clownish charm is mined repeatedly for comic relief and it’s a testament to Watson and Rush that they make it work.
Assimilation to her new life on the ironically named Heaven Street gets complex for Liesel. There are the standard flirtations with neighborhood boy Rudy (Nico Liersch) and irritations from a contrived and cartoonish bully. More strange is a book burning rally in town square. Further complicating matters, the Hubermann’s harbor young Jewish man Max (Ben Schnetzer) in their basement. Hans is putting his family at risk to repay Max’s father, who once saved his life.
The Book Thief works best in its matter-of-fact portrayal of Nazi Party influence on these mostly good German citizens and how they cope with their worsening way of life. Hanging flags on Hitler’s birthday is more an obligation than a celebration. The book burning ceremony is spirited, but there’s no sense from anyone other than the local mayor that true mania exists behind the chants and salutes. Recalling the vilification of her Communist mother, Liesel is better equipped to see the hype for what it is. She takes a shine to reading and learning the power of prose, which in turn allows her to relate to the situation and form a belief system while expressing her thoughts. One of the best scenes in the film has her making up a metaphorical story while huddled in a bomb shelter during an air raid. As sirens blare, she’s able to verbally release her secret knowledge of Max’s existence without actually revealing the secret.
Unfortunately, the film is less interested in applicable allegory than it is a series of mini melodramas. What will come of Liesel and Rudy’s relationship? Will Max overcome a dismal illness? Will he be discovered? Will Hans’s resistance to join “the party” come back to bite him? And so on.
The film positing these routine issues is one thing, but how it resolves them is something else, and something much worse, entirely. I do realize that director Brian Percival and screenwriter Michael Petroni are bound by the source material, but there is a deus ex machina (or death ex machina, if you will) that wipes the narrative slate clean in order to neatly pontificate on Liesel’s lessons learned — all of it set to a sadly benign John Williams score. Again, what may work in the novelization of this story simply doesn’t fly cinematically. It’s clear there’s a reason for Death’s voiceover to continually crop up, but the reason is ultimately uninspired. What’s meant to leave us with a heavy heart comes off as too heavy-handed.