The Book Thief
Directed by Brian Percival
Based on the novel by Marcus Zusak
Screenplay by Michael Petroni
Music by John Williams
Sophie Nélisse as Liesel Messinger
Geoffrey Rush as Hans Hubermann
Emily Watson as Rosa Hubermann
Nico Liersch as Rudy Steiner
Ben Schnetzer as Max Vanderberg
Barbara Auer as Ilsa Hermann (wife of the burgomaster)
Roger Allam (voice) as Death / The Narrator
I haven’t read the book, but I thought the film better than the book … explain that. We had heard the complete and unabridged recording of the book in the car, read by Allan Corduner, and there’s fourteen hours of it, which made several journeys speed by. We first met One Day the same way. And in both cases we then enjoyed the film without carping about the novel. Maybe there’s a difference in an audio experience and a print experience, even when the audio is word-for-word. The book is a justly-acclaimed work, but not having a print copy, I can’t easily confirm my suspicions that there were radical changes at the end, though the shift of present day from Sydney to New York is insignificant (Marcus Zusak is Australian). I’ll address the reviews at the end, but I thought it significant that most reviewers state they had not read the book. Knowing the full story must enrich the film subliminally. It’s a work with strong aspects of magic realism (the production company had made Life of Pi), and there are strong fairy tale references in the characterization too.
It’s extremely moving and we left the cinema sniffing and dabbing our eyes.
Liesel and Rudi racing in the snow
I thought the adaptation, with its ruthless excision of subplots and asides, was well pitched. You do lose a great deal of wartime detail. I wondered what they were going to do about the narrator, who is Death in a Milton sense with a capital D. I think I might have dropped it altogether. What they did was use Death’s narrative and commenting voice (brilliantly voiced as it was) very sparingly, cutting most of it, thus retaining Zusak’s concept as well as the moving central story. That’s a bold move and a risky one.
The opening sets out the beauty of the filming, as the train rushes across the snow-covered landscape, seen from high above … clouds are Death’s hallmark. The detail of Germany between 1938 and 1942 is meticulously created, and it was filmed in Saxony and Berlin. The Hubermann’s humble house is rich in detail. The costumes are superbly detailed too. It all looks so real. The world that the filmmakers create has the mood of the book, which puts us on the unaccustomed “other side” of World War II between 1938 and 1943. It’s a recognizable Western European country, not that long ago, yet we can feel the fear of the knock on the door; the terror of living in a totalitarian state. The Hubbermans are the good people, rescuing the Jewish Max (we lose all the back story about Max’s father and Hans in World War I and we lose the back-story about Max’s prowess as a boxer), and they’re surrounded by neighbours who will not intervene, who are either participants in the evil or cowed by the evil. The Nazi book burning rally is a tour de force (and done in German). The kids having to sing the Nazi anthem with the foul words on the subtitles in English is another powerful moment.
Liesel at the book burning rally
The acting talent on display is incredible. Sophie Nélisse was eleven. Nico Liersch was thirteen when they made this film. I can’t get over the fact that its major nominations (Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA) were only for John Williams’ score, though Sophie Nélisse did win three lesser awards for a young actor / first major feature. She has to go from approximately nine to sixteen, allowing for the brief 1945 coda. I thought the original story went up to 1944 or 1945, but knocking a year or two off (while missing the main carpet bombing of 1944) was probably necessary … you couldn’t expect an eleven year old to play fifteen years old for more than a quick shot with careful make up and hair styling. The casting and costume helps … I assume both her screen adoptive parents are tall. I’m amazed there weren’t nominations for all the main roles. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson play the adoptive parents, The Hubermanns, exactly as I’d imagined them.
Leisel (Sophie Nélisse), Rosa (Emily Watson), Hans (Geoffrey Rush)
Accent is an issue, and they must have discussed this at length. When your five leading actors are Canadian (Nélisse), Australian (Rush), British (Watson), American (Schnetzer) and German (Liersch) everybody has to work. The decision was that everybody spoke German-accented English, peppered with Ja, Nein, und, sorry and, und. The Ja and Nein was a major problem for me for the first twenty minutes. Then other characters, like the priest who buries Leisel’s younger brother, the speaker at the Nazi torchlight book burning and a few other minor instances speak German with subtitles. As no speakers of languages other than German appear in the film, it’s hard to rationalize this, and it might not have worked with any other languages, where the effect tends to be comic because basically an accent is accentuated by having them speak English badly. We accept that lots of Germans speak English well but with an accent, but really it’s all down to us having seen so many war films, that a man with an upturned coal scuttle on his head and a swastika on his arm can only speak German-accented English. Donner und blitzen! Achtung schweinhund! and all the other stuff of War Comics Illustrated.
Geoffrey Rush: a perfect Hans for me
Reviews were more negative than I expected. Mark Kermode in The Observer thought Brian Percival’s Downton Abbey directorial pedigree showed in the cosiness. Most of the critics hold Downton Abbey against Percival, so much so that I think he was on a hiding to nothing. The plot does eliminate a lot of the horror, and tones down the threat of the Hitler Youth kids, eliminates Death and the crashed Allied plane as well as skipping the scenes where Hans is conscripted to clear dead bodies from the ruins after air raids and any mention at all of Rosa and Hans own sons. The book really builds the tension of imminent discovery, and privation and lack of food inexorably. The film has to move through that quickly. Kermode gave it 2 stars. Sister paper The Guardian knocked one of those off, and called it ‘lite-historical tosh… smothered in feelgood tragi-sentimental slush’ (Peter Bradshaw had not read the book.) The Telegraph didn’t like it either (2 stars) calling it a ‘vapid depiction of Nazi Germany.’ Reviews seem agreed it was designed to win Oscars, and sneer at the paucity of nominations … that single music one.
I reckon it was hampered in the Oscars because it wisely eschewed A-list stars, and the five principles are two great character actors, Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, an unknown, Ben Schnetzer, and two children. i.e. there was no one suitable for going on a late night talk show and pushing it. The kids were too young, the adults too low profile for the chat show hosts. It got very little UK promotion. Having seen six or seven films in the month before it came out, I never saw a trailer for it. I suspect it bombed in the USA, and in preview perhaps, and its UK promotion budget was curtailed severely.
Max and Liesel in the cellar
I thought The Daily Mail got it right. You shouldn’t expect Schindler’s List. We do lose a lot from the book: the Hubermann’s fears about children away at the front, as well as the back story of the death of the burgomaster and his wife’s son in Russia. The Burgomaster and his wife, Ilsa, are important characters, owning the library from which Leisel steals books. The time compression from a 1945 end to a 1942/43 end, is made necessary because of the age of Sophie Nélisse. It makes a death at the Russian front before Liesel meets Ilsa less likely. The film closes in on a restricted human story, outside the main theatres of war. We are in a picturesque Bavarian town, with everyone living on Heaven Street (they could have left the original Himmelstrasse). This gives a fresh perspective. When you have Death wandering along Heaven Street you should not be anticipating gritty realism, and critics seem to have blanked out the magical realism aspect of both book and film. There is an element of cosiness, but that makes the threat of the imminent knock on the door from a Nazi neighbour more impactful: it’s not a whole load of Nazis marching up the street with machine guns. There’s no shooting, no battle scenes, though we see enough sudden intense brutality, as the Jewish shop owner is taken away and Hans tries to reason with the Nazis. Then as Liesel tries to find Max as a march of Jews with stars sewn on their ragged clothes are marched through the town on their way to a concentration camp. Then there’s just the air raid at the end. It’s a different reality of war, and the domesticity makes it more telling.
OK, it’s an Anne Frank story, but we have to assume there was more than just the one Anne Frank story.
I’ll give it four stars, verging on five. And my purchase rating (see other reviews) is “Buy the Blu ray.”
Nearly a year later, having watched the blu-ray twice, I selected it as my “Best film of 2014” (see Best of 2014) so better make that a full five stars.