Dramas about the Holocaust must walk a delicate line between detachment, which can come across as uncaring, and strident emotionalism, which can easily slip into abject sentimentality. Brian Percival’s adaptation of Markus Zusak’s best-seller “The Book Thief” has some sterling qualities, but it veers too often toward the latter extreme, frequently winding up in tearjerker mode. And frankly its ultimate celebration of the written word—a clichéd message delivered by movies as varied as the reading-is-fundamental, kid-friendly “The Neverending Story” and the piously platitudinous melodrama “The Words”—is getting rather long in the tooth, especially when reiterated in a medium that itself emphasizes pictures over pages. And the device—taken from the book—of having the story narrated by Death (Roger Allam) doesn’t give the film the profundity it’s meant to, coming across as more risible than powerful.
Still, there are affecting moments in Zusak’s tale of Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) an orphan girl in late 1930s Germany who finds a home with adoptive parents and learns life lessons from them. After her younger brother dies in the arms of their mother, apparently a leftist who’s taken off by the Nazis, she’s deposited with Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) in a small town near Munich. Hans is a tender-hearted sign painter who’s resisted joining the party and has suffered financially as a result, while Rosa is his long-suffering, sharp-tongued but supportive wife. The newly-minted father finds a book that Liesel appropriated at her brother’s funeral—The Gravedigger’s Handbook—and proceeds to begin teaching the illiterate girl to read. She’ll eventually become devoted to the practice as well as to writing, composing a journal while developing a secret relationship with the mayor’s wife (Barbara Auer), who’s still grieving the death of her son and allows the girl to borrow books from his beloved library, at least until her officious husband intervenes.
There are two other important men in Liesel’s life. One is the exuberant boy next door, tousle-haired Rudy (Nico Liersch), who immediately takes it upon himself to become her protector and boyfriend, taking out time only to show off his speed in local track meets and pretend that he’s his hero, Jesse Owens. The other is a fugitive Jew named Max (Ben Schnetzer), the son of a man who saved Hans’s life in World War I; he shows up on the Hubermann doorstep and becomes their secret guest, leading to some predictable close calls with the authorities while the family continues to pay lip service to the regime they despise.
Obviously the primary narrative thrust of “The Book Thief” is to insist that goodness can survive even in a barbarous environment, amid air raids, book burnings and anti-Semitic brutality. That explains why the film has been done up in a visual style that’s probably best described as magical realist, with the grittiness given an air-brushing that endows it with something akin to a fairy-tale feel. Of course, that’s also of a piece with the conceit of omnipresent Death looking down on human affairs and viewing them from his lordly perspective—and the notion that they’re made transcendent by the fact of Liesel’s later writing about them. From a purely technical viewpoint, the result is impressive, with the production design (Simon Elliott), art direction (Bill Crutcher, Anja Muller and Jens Lockmann), set decoration (Mark Rosinski) and costume design (Anna B. Sheppard) all contributing to the mixture of authenticity and artsy exaggeration while Florian Ballhaus’ cinematography gives the compositions an elegant glow, accentuated by John Williams’ score, which is fine even if not among his most distinctive.
But the surfeit of plots and subplots haven’t been very expertly juggled by adapter Michael Petroni. He abbreviates the book, of course, jettisoning characters and incident to keep the script within feature-length. But he’s retained elements that would probably have been better off omitted—such as Hans’s being drafted for military duty after standing up for a Jewish neighbor being carted off to the camps, or Liesel’s emotional reaction at seeing a troupe of emaciated Jewish men being herded off to them under strict guard—and can’t always manage the transitions back and forth from the Hubermann family’s difficulties to Max’s ordeal and the Rudy subplot very smoothly. Then there’s the periodic return of Death’s narration, which seems an effortful mechanism of spelling out what the tale means, and which ties in too comfortably with the overarching theme of literature as a means of transcending the cruelties of actual events. It’s no wonder that Percival’s direction comes across as cautious and a bit enervated and John Wilson’s editing as somewhat unsteady, though together they manage to hold one’s interest.
A further problem lies in Nelisse, who looks the part of Liesel but doesn’t convey the heartbreaking quality it demands. Rush goes far to compensate with a performance that doesn’t avoid overstatement but certainly exudes warm-heartedness, and Watson draws a marvelous portrait of hard-headed practicality concealing a heart of gold. Liesel’s two male friends are also winners. Schnetzer provides an attractive presence as Max, who shares her passion for books, and Liersch is even more likable as Rudy, whose puppy-dog infatuation can lead to trouble but whose devotion proves boundless.
“The Book Thief” is undoubtedly high-minded and well-intentioned, but it’s also overplotted and sentimentalized. Still, if you can stand a dose of treacle, you might well find that its virtues outweigh its flaws.