Notes on ‘The Book Thief’

Floating German accents and the occasional cinematic cliché poke holes in the imperfect fabric of this film. I saw The Book Thief last evening; despite its flaws the performances are outstanding, and the narrative is powerful.

I should first admit that I haven’t read the book. Shocking, I know, but whenever I finish a novel five more spring up to replace it on my ‘to read’ list. And then, I often ignore the carefully weighed priorities of my list and seize whatever commands my attention in any given moment. That being the case I could start The Book Thief this afternoon, or in five years, or quite possibly never, so forgive me the offence of seeing and reviewing the film sans reading the original text.

Sophie Nélisse, the Canadian actress in the role of Liesel Meminger, plays her part with so much innocence and sincerity, that her minor wobbles with the German accent – and the slightly wooden quality this causes – is entirely irrelevant. She builds a deep and lasting emotional connection with the viewer; is a well balanced negotiator of the sympathy tightrope, and though she does sway in places she never falls. 

Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, well cast as Hans and Rosa Huberman, also struggle at times with keeping the German accent consistent. But on this point I have to say that I don’t mind in the least, since it has been common in the past to use the British accent almost exclusively in western WWII films (think Valkyrie). Not going so far as using full on German, I am more than satisfied to pay lip service to authenticity and go for the English-with-Germanic-sounds compromise. Rush is a superb supporting actor, the genial father figure that balances and deepens the outer harshness of Watson’s Rosa. 

Unlike many supporting parents, Hans and Rosa are believable as a couple, and the rather formulaic nature of their narrative presence does not (for the most part) feel tired and hackneyed. There is a moment where Hans boards a military truck as a conscript in the German army, and in a very familiar ‘Geoffrey Rush’ way, he asks, “How we all doing, lads?” The snide rebuke given by the young soldiers, “Have they started conscripting Grandads?” The expression on Rush’s weathered face, and the look of restrained dignity in his eyes, reminded me that he is one of the finest actors active at present.

The stand out performance for me was Liesal’s best friend Rudy, played by Nico Liersch. Bold, energetic, and confident just as his character, Liersch gives the film a lift every time he appears on screen. The tenacious quality of his character opens up a further avenue for analysis of German social history. The drive for physical prowess and success, respect for such quality in others, and fierce loyalty are all positive traits in Rudy, and are taken to their negative extreme in the Nazi’s – who Rudy comes to despise. This makes Rudy (in my view) indispensable, and fuels my annoyance at his demise being poorly engineered. But in this case my criticism is pointed at the screenwriter and the director, Michael Petroni and Brian Percival.

A word on cliché. Cinematic conventions, formulaic narrative devices, and character clichés function to convey ideas and meanings quickly and effectively. They are a part of cinematic language, and when used properly they enhance the viewers experience by effortlessly transmitting information. Often an obvious convention is deployed for the purpose of undermining and criticising something – this is always admirable. But the clichés that injure a film are ones like the action hero fighting to rescue someone (usually a damsel but not always) and going through an extended sequence of violence and quick cuts, only to finish at the feet of the (now saved) person, perspiring and breathing heavily, only for them to say, “What took you so long?” Just writing that makes me feel decidedly unoriginal. So when they are done right clichés are very good at quickly getting through exposition, introducing characters, and acting as trojan horses to carry subversive seeds that germinate later. At worst they are cheap tropes, evaporating a films lifeblood, leaving shallow characters and little meaning. As cinema is dogged by criticism that it has a ‘crisis of originality’, with the plethora of remakes and adaptations of earlier films and other media, it cannot afford to reduce the quality of its art with bad clichés.     

Death narrates the film with Rodger Allam’s sardonic tones. A different method of dealing with what is quite sensitive material, life in the centre of zealous Nazi Germany, but one which is refreshing. I felt a keen sense of inter textual separation, WWII while remaining a fascinating vault of drama and intrigue, is now able to be viewed from many perspectives. I am not claiming that The Book Thief takes a definitely new approach, merely that its social commentary is more nuanced than it appears. However, for every moment of subtle originality, there was at least one other of blunt submission to the orthodox. Even the score is revealing (though beautiful nonetheless), composed by John Williams – like Schindler’s list, and Saving Private Ryan – it provides continuity. The Book Thief, a worthy successor in a long hereditary line. 

Rhyme for the home boozer.

Mix a concoction of spirits,

Throw back a beaker or two.

Discard the ruinous ice bits,

They’ll send you straight to the loo.

Pawn off a tipple to Granny,

She’s off to a sonorous nap.

Old Pop prefers old sherry,

So sugar it till it’s a sweet sap.

Keep some in the fridge for the morrow,

Comes in handy for polishing shoes.

With the rest it is best to drown your sorrow,

And be happy you’ve run out of booze.

Blue is the Warmest Colour: Seek the Uncomfortabe

Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, as Adele and Emma

I was mesmerised by the bold honesty in this critically acclaimed film. Since its début at Cannes last year, Blue is the Warmest Colour has collected controversy over the working conditions on set, and as many negative reviews as positive ones.

Aliza Polkes, who tore at Blue in her review on the Huffington Post website said:

“When I first started hearing Blue buzz I was wildly excited. I couldn’t wait to experience another movie which presented me with complicated sexual realities that are always overlooked or censored in American cinema.”

 She goes on to say that she was disappointed, and the film instead was – “clumsy, horribly edited, directorially [sic] indulgent, cheaply pornographic, and, above all, a straight man’s lesbian fever dream.”

I believe Polkes missed the point. She also reaffirms the American terror of the uncensored sexual act. If there is no music, the scene lasts more than a few minutes, and position after position is shown – ragged breathing and peals of pleasure cutting through it all – it must be pornography. And therefore it must be denied. As if there can be no other function but audience gratification in sex scenes on screen. To be so wafer thin in ones perception is regrettable.

I must take issue with the characterisation that Blue is some kind of male fantasy of lesbian passion. As Kate Roger argued in her terse 3news review, the sexual orientation of the characters is almost irrelevant. It is not a film about lesbian love, but human love. And although the graphic content and three hour duration will clearly be unsuitable for some people, the love story is “universally real.”

This is not to say that gender is unimportant, quite the opposite. Womanhood is the overarching theme. Women defined by what they are themselves, not by how they are different from men. Allow me to explain. Male characters are given some attention, but they are mostly left in the background, and do not progress the narrative. Adele’s father appears in a few scenes; giving the paternalist orthodoxy its voice when he questions Emma on her boyfriend (who does not exist). A kind of lip-service is thus paid to the old world of proscribed gender roles, but since the father makes no further impact on the story the judgement is clear.

I like films that make me uncomfortable. Films that challenge and provokes me to consider thoughts and ideas which are alien, or, much too close to be seen on their own. After the tedious justification that film is first and foremost to be entertaining; giving a couple of hours reprieve from the ordinary, the function of cinema is to cloak and package a collection of ideas and themes in a stimulating form. That is certainly an influence of the French New Wave, of which Blue is the Warmest Colour is the latest in a generous oeuvre. 

I shall postpone a full critique until seeing the film a second time. If you are considering going, consider the points I raise – and go! 

Land of our Lorde?

Her single took top billing around the world, she won two Grammy’s last month, and the media is fascinated by her. Lorde has climbed to the summit of fame and fortune in New Zealand, in as little at eight months. She is now one of our tallest poppies, and with all the pride we feel as a public looking up to her, our malevolent psychosis lurks close by – anxious for the fall.
Photo By (Kirk Stauffer) (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
We, the public are a compassionate, fickle, and easy to distract bunch. We love it when someone ordinary takes wing from our ranks and briefly shows us how extraordinary we can be. We focus on them, and for a moment in time (or 15 minutes according to Andy Warhol) we indulge in their success. They either fade from view, or they get brighter, but we do not view them the same way twice. If they get brighter and more successful and famous – we start to become enraged. We feel they have violated the bargain, they showed us how great we can be, now their greatness is competing with our collective egos.
Or, if they drift to the wings as something else appears centre stage, perhaps taking Rob Brydon’s advice from The Trip, ‘Never be hot, always be warm’. That is how one could summarize the careers of many well known New Zealanders, from Dave Dobbyn to Anika Moa. Public interest in them simmers quietly, bubbling prominently at various times, but never enough to permanently injure their ability to lead a private life.
Perhaps Lorde will simmer this year, but with her scheduled performances in the USA in the next few months, and her high rate of musical output – I suspect not. 
Both Neil Finn*, and Charlotte Dawson have publicized their opinion that she should leave New Zealand; become a smaller fish in a larger pond. While I reject that there is a fundamental difference between media here and overseas, island social gigantism does affect the intensity of the public interest. I for one, hope that she doesn’t leave NZ. She clearly likes it here, this is her home, and it should remain so. But Ella Yelich-O’Connor is 17, and she has a right to her privacy. We have a duty therefore to ignore the tabloid snaps, dangled as they are like keys to distract an infant, and choke back the tide of our petty opinions – delivered from the refuge of anonymity. The nauseating chorus of social media cowardice that made the most revolting and racist comments about Ella’s boyfriend, are the result of a media and public in a conspiracy to prune the tall poppies.  
This brings me to an article in the NZ Herald two weeks ago, in which Paul Dykzeul – head of Banner Media, the publisher of Woman’s Day – defended the magazine for publishing photos of Ella and her boyfriend at the beach. ‘We care about readers, and these photos would be and are of genuine interest to our readers’, he said. Dykzeul holds up the curiosity of his readers as a trump card; the same curiosity which is in part cultivated by the magazine itself. It is a feedback loop, and it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
There is another stupid argument that says famous people cannot complain about being burnt by the intensity of the spotlight, because after all, they chose to be famous. I submit that they chose their career path, Lorde chose to make brilliant music, but we are all to blame for the height of her pedestal. It is the miserly nature of the sadist that delights in a fall after a meteoric rise, demanding that the subject is complicit in the whole enterprise. How intolerable it is for the sanctimonious to convict anyone of hypocrisy.  
The international debate on privacy, both with regards to state action and invasion by the media (take the scandal behind the fall of the News of the World) is happening because it is intolerable for the right to privacy to be violated on the whim of curiosity. By anyone.
We are curious about Lorde, but we should limit our curiosity to Lorde, leaving Ella Yelich-O’Connor to her privacy. We can attend her concerts, follow her on twitter, and enjoy her music. In short, when she is Lorde, she is a kind of public property – but as Ella, she is part of the crowd. Anonymous, and private. That is a more than reasonable compromise. May it be so.
*Subsequently, Neil Finn downplayed his comments on twitter. See here