Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Book Thief (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Book Thief

Although Markus Zusak's The Book Thief rushes to the screen with more than a bit of Spielbergian sentimentality, the film makes amends with its solid performances by Ben Schnetzer, Emily Watson and Sophie Nelisse (Monsieur  Lazhar).

Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) directs this adaptation  with a provocative premise: here is Germany on the eve of war in the mid thirties from the perspective of the German people. This is one of the few mainstream films with that exclusive point of  view, not to mention the other unconventional trait of having the specter of Death as the narrator (as featured in the book).

Despite these daring touches Percival plays it a bit too lukewarm in the manner of Spielberg's "Warhorse".

Death makes a cozy pajama mate like Allistair Cooke in "Masterpiece   Theater" . The reaper is a friend rather than a villain. The train blanketed with creamy snow seems hurtling towards Christmas rather than The Third Reich. And the iconic street is gingery and warm with cobbled and sweet houses out of Thomas Kinkade.

Yet in spite of these syrupy trappings there is a beating heart. The young adorable Liesel (Nelisse) is sent to live with foster parents: the earnest, but inwardly playful Hans and the stentorian Rosa (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, respectively) Liesel avoids Rosa, but instantly takes to the quiet but quirky Hans. Liesel has been knocked mute by sadness: her brother is suddenly struck down by a sudden nosebleed and she is given up by her enigmatic mother. Illiterate, the young girl is transfixed by the mystery of words and begins to snatch books sometimes  surreptitiously, or sometimes in plain view. Liesel is badgered, teased and assaulted at school, but she holds her ground, a hellion with heart. Sinister red and black flags of the swastika blow about at every turn, but rather than comment upon it, Liesel sees books as her incline, her passage to freedom. The Nazi Party is seen realistically enough as ultra-officious arrogant and nasty. But we get precious little real interaction or drama between them and the youngsters which could have been interesting. Instead, the adult soldiers are faceless brutes, who block Liesel and her young Romeo Rudy (Nico Liersch) throwing them to the ground. Rudy has a novel and startling episode when he imagines himself the star Olympic runner, Jesse Owens. The cherubic and Aryan Rudy actually paints himself with mud in an effort of identification and the film does a masterful job in showing this young boy portraying Owens in tribute in an era of racial hatred and genocide.

It is the most stirring part of the film. But then this astonishing aspect is left behind.

Hans takes in a fugitive Max (Schnetzer) who further teaches Liesel to read and fosters her creativity. Schnetzer is gaunt and sensitive and he has an authentic rapport with Nelisse. Liesel is an expert at ferreting away books and the two begin to have literature parties with the spirit of H.G. Wells.

There is a Nazi book burning fire that is strangely half spooky and half Rockwellian  (if that's possible) with the blond curled Liesel looking with a melting earnestness at the scorched books with her overlarge eyes ala Walter Keane. There is even a bit of comedy as a singed and fiery  book is pulled from her jacket and tossed by Hans' hands.

Max is forced to vacate by the SS (no surprise) but he flees undetected.

Liesel escapes to the house of the Burgermeister which is a library for  , presided over by the kind Ilsa (Barbara Auer). Despite some violence by the SS, things progress in kid gloves with dark pathos largely ignored. Rosa softens, her warmth coming predictably to the fore while the two young scofflaws take to the meadow and shout "I hate Hitler!" Rather than focus on the earth-shattering hatred of genocide, war and what that might mean to the German children, the film focuses on imagination and the power of words in the manner of  "Fahrenheit 451". This is compelling in itself, but when it is handled with sentimentalized closeups and shadowy spaces with non expressive Nazis in technicolor, the pages appear just a fold too flat.

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