The stories from Europe in the 1930s and 1940s are innumerable. The rise and the fall of the Third Reich created tales for everything from the greatest warriors of modern times (Patton) to the joyous moments from loved ones (Life is Beautiful) to spy games and espionage (Army of Shadows). Every survivor had a story to tell whether or not they knew it. The fatal flaw with The Book Thief–a coming-of-age tale set in Nazi Germany–is it couldn’t settle for just one story.
Director Brian Percival’s first feature since helming several episode of Downton Abbey, The Book Thief stars Sophie Nélisse as Liesel, young girl sent to live with foster parents after her mother, a Communist, is shipped of to a concentration camp. Moving in with the stern, bun-wearing Rosa (Emily Watson) and gentle soul Hans (Geoffrey Rush), it is soon discovered that Liesel is illiterate. Not being a strong reader himself, Hans joins Liesel in discovering the imaginative world of books. While improving her reading skills, Liesel begins to develop a relationship with a neighborhood boy, Rudy (Nico Liersch), who is determined to kiss her. Shortly after the Kristallnacht Hans, Rosa, and Liesel take in Max (Ben Schnetzer)–a Jew on the run whose family is owed a life debt from Hans.
Usually, this would be a sufficient story for feature–a main plot with a supporting character whose subplot exists to serve the main. But The Book Thief reaches out to every possible horrible event which could have happened to someone under the Nazi Occupation. The audience sees the family run to the town air-raid shelter; they see the tears when someone is conscripted; and they see the sorrow of the Jews marching to certain doom. Stories told in this manner are typically better suited for books–a medium on which this film is based. What is all-to-often forgotten is that just because a story is strong for literature, does not mean it would work well in a motion picture. Similarly, some films–classic though they may be–would not transfer well to a novel. It’s not necessarily a problem with the source material, it’s simply a formatting issue. (Could you imagine Casablanca as a novel?)
This isn’t to say The Book Thief is without it’s merits. Sophie Nélisse gained notoriety with her difficult yet spot-on performance as Alice in Monsieur Lazhar–a film which would have won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film had it not been competing against A Separation–and she delivers a stellar performance once more. The moments of levity are usually genuine and seem to come from the actors themselves rather than the script. What the actors can’t escape from, however, is the limited restraint to where the story takes us. All of these things (most of which can not be mentioned without risking some spoiler territory) which happened to this girl may have happened to a someone during the war. But trying to put it in a 120 minute movie makes it seem forced, disingenuous, and practically begging for awards. It’s not a “bad” film per sé, but one with so much tacked-on emotion cannot be considered “good.”