I'm proud to say The Book Thief couldn't pull my heartstrings

A holocaust story so determinedly inoffensive that it's almost offensive

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

The Book Thief

12A, Nationwide

The Book Thief is based on Markus Zusak’s novel of the same name which, although written for young adults, appears beloved by many, judging from the readers’ reviews on the internet, and the frequent declarations of ‘it’s the best book I’ve ever read!’, and there is our first worrying clue, right there. Over the years, of which there have been more than enough — I am quite ready to shuffle off now — I have come to learn that when anyone declares a book ‘the best book I have ever read!’ it tends to be the only book they have ever read. If you remain unconvinced, I feel I need only refer you to Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, which is basically ‘the best book I’ve ever read’ to the moon and back, even though it is such badly written trash.

So, anyway, they have made a film of ‘the best book I’ve ever read!’, which I haven’t read — after The Alchemist, I gave up on any best books that anyone had ever read — so I can’t tell you what this is like as an adaptation, but can tell you it’s not much of a film, and incredibly irritating. It’s set in Germany, from 1938 until the end of the war, and if forced to describe it in one sentence I would probably go with: a Ladybird primer on Nazism and the holocaust as presented in a pretty snow-globe. And if forced to describe it in one sentence as a Jew, I would probably go with: it’s so hell-bent on being inoffensive it is almost offensive. It steadfastly sidesteps any actual suffering and, instead, offers up a sentimental, treacly affair that wishes only to pull on your heart-strings, if they can be pulled. In this instance, I am quite proud to say, my heart-strings would not be pulled, and actually retracted. (I think I even heard them twang.)

Our heroine is a young girl, Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), who is 11 years old at the outset and whose mother, a communist threatened by the rise of Nazism, allows her daughter to be adopted by a German couple: Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). Hans is kindly and loving and teaches Liesel how to read, while Rosa is initially ill-tempered and spits ‘she’s filthy!’ when Liesel first arrives, even though Liesel isn’t at all. If anything, Liesel looks as if she’s just stepped out of a Pears soap ad. You’d think the director, Brian Percival, could have at least managed to smudge a bit of dirt on her nose, so what was being said would not contradict what we could see with our own eyes, but no. Everything has to be photogenic. Even the Swastika flags that go up around the village look Daz-tastic and freshly pressed.

There are glimpses of Jews being hounded and rounded up, as the Nazis become more visible, breaking store-front windows and burning books, but these only serve as background to the events in Liesel’s life; a life comprised of a series of heart-warming episodes, as snow gently falls. There is her growing friendship with the supremely Aryan-looking but right-thinking boy next door, and her growing friendship with Max (Ben Schnetzer), the young Jewish man whom the family hide in their basement, and who is supremely handsome, but still appears to have had his lashes thickened with mascara. Liesel steals books for Max from the Bürgermeister’s house, while he encourages her to write — ‘If your eyes could speak, what would they say?’ — but if The Book Thief is, at heart, about the saving power of the written word, whom are such words saving here? No Jew, as far as I could see.

There are other miss-steps. German-accented English is spoken along with random subtitles, and that’s just one of the language inconsistencies. (Songs are in German, for example, but books are in English.) Rosa is always complaining about how little they have to eat but no one appears hungry. Buildings destroyed by bombs produce unmutilated corpses. But, worst of all, there is a narrator, as voiced by Roger Allam, and this narrator is Death. I have always hoped Death would be a little bit exciting, somehow, and that when I do shuffle off, we’ll high-five and do drinks, but this Death speaks from beyond the clouds as if banalities are profundities — ‘Despite every effort, no one lives for ever’ — and is a trying bore. I might as well live, as they say.

And what is The Book Thief saying? Unknown. I can’t even tell you what its intentions are, or whom it is intended for, only that it lacks even a whiff of emotional heft. I also learned nothing from it although have, at least, taught you something, and that is: if anyone ever comes at you with ‘the best book I’ve ever read!’, run a mile.

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  • Jack

    I thought it was a good movie. I like it because it is was focused on her; so that is why the rounding up of the Jews is not the main story. To say a comment like that is irrelevant, not every war movie has to be about the Nazis and the Jews, they were more of a background story because it was about the little girl. The little girl who wouldn’t know about how the Jews were being treated and she would have rarely seen it other than the Nazis coming to the town and taking Jewish people away (which they did), so I am not really sure of your point in that instance. I agree about the imagery being all very pretty and nice, but what is wrong with that? It could symbolize the innocence of the girl in a horrible time like that. Everyone she grew close too was a pretty person inside and out, because that is how she viewed them. Some movies don’t have to be that literal when it comes down to peoples feelings, it wasn’t the grittiest and most graphic movie of a horrible time until the girl finally saw how bad things were, the ending was very graphic because she had finally seen the true tortures of war. Good movie, worth a viewing.

  • alex

    While I won’t say that it’s ‘the best book I’ve ever read’ (maybe because I read a lot) it is wonderfully emotive, stunningly written (and definitely heart-string pulling). The only way that I could describe it is to say that it encapsulates everything that is beautiful and everything that is tragic about the world. I probably won’t watch the film so can’t comment on it but wouldn’t want people to be put off by this review as it’s a story that should be told in whatever medium people want. Agree with Jack below though this is not a story about the holocaust, don’t be offended by this. It’s about a little German girl and her life (and the book is all the better for it). If anything it reminds us that Jews were not the only victims here (and I say that being Jewish myself). That people from all walks of life had their lives ripped apart in unspeakable ways, and yes- The book thief is about the power of the written world, but what you don’t realise is that it does save Max.

    • terregles2

      I agree with what you have written and I also am glad that I read this beautifully written book. I would not want to see the film as I wouldn’t wish any other interpretation to supersede the emotions that this powerful book has left with me.

  • Warwick

    This movie is overflowing with unbelievable banalities, mostly saccharine but sometimes ugly. To give a couple of examples.
    When the angelic-looking young girl arrives at a new school all the other kids there crowd around and abuse her – for being quiet. What garbage.

    The young heroine has an empty notebook which blows away as she and her gallant young friend are crossing a bridge. The gallant dives into the river to retrieve it. He dives underwater long enough for it to be implied that we should worry lest he fails to emerge. But he does emerge, and he brings the amazingly intact notebook to shore, and then, in spite of the fact that it is midwinter with snow lying all around, and any real human who dived into a river at this time would be shivering convulsively, he proceeds to have a relaxed conversation that embodies high-sounding platitudes.

  • gerontius

    Well, thanks for that Debs.
    I’ve promised to read the book and you’re telling me that, if the film is anything to go by, my toes will likely curl-up and fall off.
    I hope it’s short.

  • Tiger Lily

    As a Native American, i enjoyed the movie. I thought the book thief was sentimental and i sympathised with the characters. I didn’t watch the movie with a negative bias against Germans although i am well aware of the things of what happened in Germany and what the Nazis did during that time period. The German public were brainwashed to hate Jews and many did.
    Also, even the people who didn’t necessarily support Hitler or didn’t harbour a hatred towards Jews were too scared to speak out or stand up in fear of their own lives or their families well being. We would call that cowardness.
    But how can i judge someone when they had so much fear to speak up that they betrayed their own conscious on account of self preservation? Guilt and shame is their reward. Guilt probably plagued many when they saw the Jews rounded up in the middle of streets like animals to a slaughter while they stood and did nothing.

    This movie was not meant to take away the atrocities and grittiness of what happened in ww2 to the Jews or anyone else who suffered, but to focus on one girls journey. The time period she lived in was used as a backdrop, not meant to be the focal point of the movie. The focus was meant to be on one girl living in ww2 Germany who happened to be German. Overall it was a good movie. My parents also enjoyed it very much and i now intend to read the book.

    I am a girl who grew up very interested in the holocaust and as a child my mother bought me plenty of books about holocaust survivors and i read in sadness about the things that they suffered and went through. Schindlers list is one of my favorite movies and it’s those type of movies that are meant to show the true grittiness of what happened to the Jews.

    Please understand that the Book Thief is about a girl. I understand how it may be hard for someone with a bias against Germans may have trouble sympathising with the characters but i did have a lump in my throat towards Rudy.