The Book Thief

Art & Culture

There have been many bad films set in WW2 involving children, with Life Is Beautiful heading the Hideous List. The Boy In Striped Pyjamas was pretty bad, but this new adaptation of a best selling book, makes it look halfway decent. This is a shocker of a film.

Of course the script is mainly to blame – it always is – but the faults go further back, to the original novel. Markus Zusak's book was published in 2005, and has been a best seller ever since, which goes to show that there's about 100 suckers born every nano-second. It's the story of Liesel Meminger, a young German adolescent girl who is fostered by an older couple shortly before WW2 starts. She has a friend called Rudy, and her foster parents hide a Jewish guy called Max once the Nazis start persecuting the Jews. Oh yes, and Death is the narrator of the story. It's an affection that is slightly annoying in the book, but the filmmakers decided to keep it. First mistake. 

There are plenty more. But perhaps the most bonkers decision is the accent thing. English language films seem to get their knickers in a twist when they set films in non-English speaking countries. So here we have a film set in Germany, and what do they do? They have the actors speak English with a slight German accent, though they also say 'Nein" and 'Ja", and every now and then, for no good reason, someone speaks in German and we see subtitles. How hard would it be simply to have everyone speaking English (as they do in the book)? We know the characters are German, and it just sounds silly having them all speak with a Germanic intonation.

Next problem: Liesel's age. We gather that she and Rudy are 12 at the beginning of the story (in 1938). Yet by the end of the film, 7 years later, when they should be 19, they are both being played by the same actors and have apparently not aged by one minute in the intervening period. Worse still, neither of the actors is very good, a situation not helped by their having to speak in fake accents (see above). :Liesel is a doll-faced moppet with flowing tresses that survive years of a bad diet and an absence of top quality hairdressing facilities (as well as aging).

Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson do their best with the roles of the parents, but it's slim pickings. She has to pretend to be grumpier than she really is, while he winks at Liesel and plays the accordion. It's all very Joe Gargery in Great Expectations. As for the direction, well, if I tell you that Brian Percival cut his teeth on Downton Abbey then you'll know that his skills are somewhat less than non existent. The film looks phoney from start to finish, and not just because the children talk about 'soccer' when playing football (fussball in German btw), but because there is a complete lack of drama and tension throughout. 

I have literally no idea who the film is aimed at – except these who read the book, perhaps – but book readers are not a reliable cinema audience and never have been. It's not cool enough to appeal to teenagers, not edgy enough to appeal to an older audience, and not good enough to appeal to people who like good films. It's hard to find a positive thing to say about it, so I'll simply recommend a Czech film called Divided We Fall, which deals with hiding a Jewish refugee during WW2, as an example of how to do it properly.