The Second World War may be the most overused historical event in modern cinema, so to tackle a film on the subject it crucially must have something new to say for it to engage audiences. Sadly, The Book Thief has very little originality, and the entire time spent watching it leaves you reminded of the better war movies you could be watching instead.
Opening in 1938, a young girl named Liesel (played by newcomer Sophie Nelisse) moves in with new foster parents in Germany (Played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, doing the most over-exaggerated German accents since 80’s sitcom ‘Allo! ‘Allo!) after the death of her brother and her mother fleeing due to accusations of communism. The main challenge she faces is learning to read, with her adopted father teaching her via a book she “borrowed” from her dying brother, and later via propaganda books she “borrowed” from Nazi book burning ceremonies.
This is barely scratching the surface of the plot, which adds up to my central problem with the film – it tries to squeeze in too much about the war, ensuring none of it’s elements are truly satisfying. In doing this, it also tones down some of the more atrocious aspects of pre-war Germany to make it suitable for a family audience, and then never mentions them again. To deal with these elements in such a way does a disservice to the children who will watch the film as their first major insight into the war, making such diabolical events seem nowhere near as bad as they were.
Another problem I had with the film was the language. Although there have been several WW2 movies where the German characters spoke English as the main language, something which didn’t exactly stop Schindler’s List from becoming an instant classic, in The Book Thief characters alternate between German and English to a point where it becomes really infuriating. This might sound like nit-picking, but hearing a group of Hitler Youths singing a song in German and then going on to speak the language of their sworn enemies, or going to a book burning rally where the speaker talks in German and the attendees all speak English, made me feel like getting up and shouting “are you all speaking the same language?” at the cinema screen.
To it’s credit, the film is never boring, due to some unintentionally funny moments. An early highlight is a badly misjudged sequence in which Rudy, Liesel’s best friend, dons black-face and pretends to be Olympic medallist Jesse Owens, a sequence which is wrong on pretty much every level. The film gets laughably silly as it reaches the end, with shoehorned in romantic subplots (that were never even hinted during the film), the realisation that the entire film had been narrated by the Angel of Death (yes, really) and a flash-forward to present day that contains ridiculous product placement for Apple computers.
All in all, the film is nothing more than a cliche, trying to introduce the subject of war to younger viewers without offering anything of interest to older ones. And if the best the filmmakers could do to show how terrible Nazism was is having the two main characters shout “I hate Hitler!” at the top of their voice, it’s pretty clear the film should be of little interest to children, who are far smarter than The Book Thief gives them credit for.