Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Book Thief

The Book Thief is an oddity. It has a split normally reserved for Christian or pro-America movies (50/80 critics/audience) and yet it's about how badly the Nazis treated communists, and communists are movie critics' favorite people!

A real puzzler, that one. We'll get back to it in a bit.

Directed by "Downton Abbey"'s Brian Percival, this is the story of young Liesel (played beautifully by Sophie NĂ©lisse) who is given up by her mother to be adopted by Hans and Rosa, who are good (or at least politically safe) Germans.

Liesel's brother dies on the way and when they stop to bury him, Liesel snatches the gravedigger's manual, as a kind of memento.

This provides her with an avenue to learn to read, which ultimately leads to future thefts. Or "thefts".

Her adoptive mother is a battle-axe (Emily Watson, looking authentic) and her new father endearing (Geoffrey Rush), who learns to read with her. I'd say he's a down-on-his-luck painter, but that's not exactly right: He's a house painter, and the war has not been good to him. Rosa berates him mercilessly for his failures, and she's not particularly generous or understanding toward Liesel either.

It's not all brownshirts and kristallnachts, though: A boy, Rudy (Nico Liersch) takes a strong interest in her and strikes up a fast friendship, as does the local burgmeister's (Rainer Bock, War Horse) wife (the striking Barbara Auer). Complicating things is the appearance of Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jewish boy whose father saved Hans in WWI.

Actually, speaking of War Horse, this is a similar film, in the sense that it's a movie about war that's targeted at a non-adult audience. Not that it's childish, exactly, but it's not as gruesome as it might be, which seems to be some critics' argument against it.

War is plenty awful even without a lot of gore, though, and there are many, many deaths in the film. Death itself is the narrator, though never a character in the story.

That's another thing critics seemed to object to a lot: The use of Death as narrator. "How dare they!" or something. It's not a big thing, though. (I understand the book is also told by Death.) The movie doesn't rely on it much.

One of the other complaints is that it doesn't show enough how badly the Jews have it. Yeah, I can't figure that one out. The whole story is centered around Liesel's love of Max, and her terror regarding his plight.

I don't know. It's not perfect, I guess. It's somewhat sprawling, since it's about Liesel primarily, and a lot of points where it could have ended, it didn't. Really, there are about half-a-dozen points in the last half-hour it might have stopped. But it didn't stop being interesting after those points, so we didn't find ourselves squirming. I could see being disappointed if you wanted a story, rather than many stories in a slice-of-life fashion.

I guess some attacked it for a lack of originality or failing to measure up to The Diary of Anne Frank. Yeah, I don't know what to make of that, either. We saw half-a-dozen WWII-based movies this year, and none were like this. It had its own voice.

It's slicker than most of them. Very polished and big-budget (guessing around $30M-$40M by the looks and actors). Lushly shot. Many moments of genuine suspense. Great score by John Williams, which surprised me. (I thought he sorta petered out in the '90s.) Nobody's criticizing the performances.

I choked up in a few parts, but it didn't rip my heart out and stomp on it. (Sort of amusingly, stories aimed at younger audiences sometimes are far less sentimental.) The Boy and I both liked it.

I did wonder if some of the critical objection came from anti-war sentiments. WWII is a problem for pacifists. And this was kind of interesting because, while the village was far removed from the front, it was a bombing target, and ultimately American bombs end up killing people in the village.

But what conclusion can you draw from that? The evil American empire shouldn't have attacked Germany? That's the popular narrative today, but this movie shows that war isn't a neat package where the righteous can avoid killing the innocent. I could see that upsetting some folks.

But mostly, I don't get it: It's a well-made film with much to commend it.

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