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. 

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