The Book Thief: The Holocaust as Afterschool Special

Reading is good. Nazis are bad.
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20th Century Fox

“I don’t think we really need another film about the Holocaust, do we? It’s like, how many have there been?” Thus lamented Kate Winslet in the U.S. debut of the Ricky Gervais series Extras in late 2005. Winslet was playing herself, and she was in the process of explaining why she’d accepted the role of a nun in a Holocaust movie. She continued: “I’m doing this this because I’ve noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust you’re guaranteed an Oscar…. Schindler’s bloody List, The Pianist—Oscars coming out their ass.”

It was a cunning bit of snark at the time, and it only became more so three years later when—life imitating satire—the Academy voted to grant Winslet her first Oscar for her performance in, yes, a Holocaust movie, The Reader. It was a particular irony given that this was a subpar performance in a mediocre film, and that Winslet actually deserved the award for another performance the same year, in Revolutionary Road, for which she was not nominated. Suffice it to say that the whole episode did not exactly put to rest the calculated gamble that Holocaust movies beget Oscar gold.

And so another awards season brings another film (adapted from another international bestseller) offering up the unrelated and uncontroversial lessons that reading is good and Nazis are bad. The Book Thief, directed by Brian Percival and based on the novel by Markus Zusak, is essentially The Reader reimagined as an Afterschool Special: similarly earnest and plodding, but with the sex and moral ambiguity removed.

The movie is narrated by Death (Roger Allam), a literary affectation the purpose of which becomes clear only at the end, and one which probably should have been left out of the film altogether. The main character, however, is a cherubic German tween named Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse), whose single mother sends her away for adoption by the working-class Hubermans, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). Hans teaches Liesel to read, unlocking in her an insatiable appetite for books the family cannot afford. Meanwhile, Liesel is befriended by Rudy (Nico Liersch), a sweet, lemon-haired boy who lives next door. But their lives are forever changed when the Hubermans agree to shelter Max (Ben Schnetzer), the Jewish son of an old friend, from the Nazis…

The Book Thief is a movie in which the Good Germans are very, very good (generous, anti-Hitler, eager to risk their lives for others), the Bad Germans are awful, and there is virtually no one in between. Ambivalent characters (e.g., the Huberman’s grown, pro-Nazi son) and plot twists (Liesel and Rudy’s habit of non-bibliophilic theft) that appeared in the novel have been edited out. Arguably the largest moral dilemma the film has to offer revolves around the question of whether or not it is a good idea to build a snowman by the bedside of a young man known to be prone to illness.

The novel on which the film is based has been marketed in the U.S. as a “young adult” book, and I suppose one could make the case that its muffled simplifications offer younger viewers a suitable introduction to the horrors of the Holocaust. For my part, I thought it missed this difficult balance in both directions: too frightening for kids (in particular—be forewarned—the semi-tragic conclusion), and too childish for grownups.

Rush and Watson are both as good as one could reasonably hope—which is to say, too good for this sort of trite, treacly fare. (By contrast, the mawkish, holiday-movie score by John Williams is exactly apt.) As Liesel, Nelisse appears to have the requisite cinematic presence, but assessing her performance is tricky given how aggressively the movie beatifies her character. It’s hard, too, to envision any young actor overcoming material as cringe-inducing as the scene in which Liesel and Rudy stand by a sun-dappled lake and take turns shouting “I hate Hitler!” and giggling.

A final observation: I can’t think of any film I’ve ever seen that is less consistent in its approach to language. Everyone in the film is meant to be speaking German, and for the most part this is represented by the characters speaking English with almost comically exaggerated accents and occasional German words (“nein,” “danke schoen,” “dummkopf”) thrown into the mix. But now and then—often, but not exclusively, in the case of songs or public pronouncements—the film switches to German with English subtitles. In at least one scene, a character is asked a question in German (with subtitles) and responds in English. This confusion extends to the printed word as well, which is sometimes presented in English and sometimes in German. It is an especially peculiar oversight given the moral of this particular story. The Book Thief is a movie about the transformative power of words that can’t even decide what language it speaks.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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