The Book Thief (2013)

WWII occurring right outside your window? That’s okay! Get away from it all through reading!

Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) is just a young girl when her brother dies, and her mother runs-out on her. Sucks, but at least she has two foster parents, Hans and Rosa (Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush) that are more than willing to take her in, take care of her, look after her and make sure that she follows their rules, as if she was their own child. Hans takes more of a liking to Liesel than Rosa, but that’s only because the latter’s a bit of a meanie and doesn’t take anybody’s crap, but she does mean well. After much time, Liesel eventually gets used to her new surroundings where she gains a new friend, Rudy (Nico Liersch), and actually becomes quite involved with reading and stealing books, all because this was during the Nazi-Germany era, and books were considered “wrong”. And since this was Nazi-Germany, that also means that plenty of Jewish people were usually captured, taken away and put “somewhere” they had no clue of, nor did anybody else around them. This is when Liesel meets the runaway Jew that Liesel’s family is hiding (Ben Schnetzer), whom she actually strikes up a friendship with. But being that this is in and around the time of the war, things weren’t always so smooth and relaxed in Germany, and more often than not, Liesel and her foster-parents run into a bit of problems with the paranoid law.

"Ugh! Like you're so annoying, blond-haired German boy!"
“Ughz! Like you’re so annoying, blond-haired German boy!”

Oh, and before I forget to not even mention this, the whole story is somewhat narrated by what is supposed to be considered “Death”, but is also voiced by the highly-entertaining Roger Allam. I tell you this because not only is it the most appropriate usage of voice-narration I have ever heard, but it’s also one of the many reasons why this movie isn’t that good. Not meaning that it’s total and utter “Oscar-bait” , and nothing more, but do know that there is a reason why this movie was released around Thanksgiving, is about the WWII, features a lot of talk about the Holocaust and even has a score by John Williams.

I mean, come on people! It’s obvious that this just has every ingredient for the recipe that is “Oscar-bait”! However, it isn’t terrible, and here’s why:

It’s pretty clear what this movie set-out to do right from the beginning: Put a human-face on those who were on the side of the Germans during WWII. We rarely ever see this in movies, but when we do, it’s usually by a German film company, or some low-budget, independent production that wants to get their message out, clear and fair. However, this is a pretty big-budget flick, with some heavy-hitters involved with it, so you can definitely be curious about how director Brian Percival handles this material; and for the most part, he does some good things. But then again though, he also does some very bad things that truly do ruin this movie from being a little bit better in hindsight.

What I liked the most about Percival’s direction is that he definitely gets into the eyes and mind of our protagonist, Liesel. Not only does she not fully see the real, actual horrors that are going on all around her, but she refuses to really accept them for what it is that they really are. That’s why when you see little kids like her, her friend Rudy and countless others, all “heiling Hitler” because it’s what their “parents told them to do”, it’s a bit sad. Yes, it’s a no-brainer that kids are influenced by what it is that they see elders around them do and preach as “being the correct thing to do”, but it’s a bit more disconcerting when those kids in fact are from Germany, and are being influenced by elders that are, from what we usually see, Nazis.

And most of the time when Percival is getting right down to being what his movie is about and painting this little village in the heart of Nazi-Germany as something out of a fairy-tale, as if it all played inside of Liesel’s head, it’s somewhat interesting. It’s still a kids movie that has more for the adults, than it could possibly have for them, however, it’s smart in some of the directions it takes and why. But then comes the bad moments when this movie does in fact realize it’s about a war-torn Nazi-Germany, when everybody was in fear of if they were going to get suspected next of some evil, wrong-doing that would label them as a “Communist”, and have them go away for a long, long time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that seeing this so many times in countless other movies makes this seem a bit “boring”, because that’s just wrong, but I will say that it definitely didn’t have me reeling with emotions like those countless other movies have. There’s plenty of ham-handed moments in which the movie tries to make a political-statement; and then at other times, tries to discuss the reality of humanity, and what lengths one will go to ensure it stays the moral; and then, lastly, there’s always that crutch of making this a crowd-pleasing, easy-going movie for the whole family to see, despite it also being around and during one of the more disturbing periods of any country, let alone Germany. I get the fact that it’s a PG-13 movie that’s trying it’s hardest not to offend or fully scare anybody half to death with the images they could have definitely gone so far as showing, but there seemed to be too much sugar-coating here, and less actual “realism” thrown into the proceedings.

"And the cow j-j-j-jumped over the-the-the moon...."
“And the cow j-j-j-jumped over the-the-the moon….”

And on top of that, the movie just juggles too much, that by the end, when the whole “gotcha!” ending does happen, you won’t be able to find yourself caring too much. That’s not to discredit the actors in this movie at all either, especially since they are all fine with what they’re given, no matter how small or big. Geoffrey Rush feels fun, full-of-life and vibrant as Hans, the type of guy that wouldn’t quite work-out fully as a daddy, but is a nice enough guy to charm even the blackest of holes; one of those “blackest of holes”, also just so happens to be Emily Watson’s Rosa, who is a bit of a hard-ass, but still heartfelt enough to see that she really does care and support others when they need it the most; and child-actress Sophie Nélisse does a relatively nice job as Liesel, especially considering that a lot of this movie depends on her to have a wide-range in which she has to go from happy and joyful, to absolutely scared, at the drop of a hat. She’s not always good, but she’s a kid, so I’ll give her time where time is due.

Anyway, like I was saying, it’s not all their faults, because they’re all fine and dandy; it’s just that when the movie ends, there doesn’t seem to be much learned, thought-of or even point to the whole proceedings. Yes, I am sure that there were plenty of German citizens that felt awfully terrible during this time of war, but what else is there to that? Not much else, and you’ll probably be wondering if this movie ever really needed to be made, or if made, made with a stronger, more compelling heart at the center of it, cause quite frankly, a family movie isn’t going to fully cut-it when it comes to a story like this. Then again, I didn’t read the book, so what do I know? No seriously, somebody tell me. I need all the help I can get!

Consensus: Some interesting and rather compelling choices were made on the behalf of the Book Thief to give it that extra “oomph” it so clearly needs to be more than just another story about Nazi-Germany, the Holocaust and WWII, all played to the fine tuneage of Mr. John Williams himself.

5 / 10 = Rental!!

Obviously took place before the arrival of the iPad.

Photo’s Credit to:


  1. Ouch! Good review. I absolutely loved this movie was phenomenal. It made my top 10 with ease. I really didn’t have any of the problems that you did. And I thought Nelisse was incredible. A 12-year-old (at the time of filming) Canadian actress who almost perfectly sales a German accent. She has so much heart and emotion. And I really didn’t see this as Oscar bait. I found to be a stirring drama led by three of my favorite performances of the year.

    • Thanks Keith! I guess what I saw here was something that had potential, but ultimately fell-apart because it tried hard to be something it wasn’t.

  2. Looks like a certain skip. I hate sugar coating in films, as it usually leads to very boring situations instead. Reading your review was enough for me, which was very well written by the way.

    • As you say, it was a fine review.

      But it really wasn’t a case of sugar-coating those dark days. People that you do care about die, and others are beaten and dragged from their homes never to be seen again. What they’ve done here is to change the emphasis away from the Holocaust horrors. What they’ve done is to humanize some Germans. Not all – just some. And that’s fine.

      Reasons to see the film are as Dan says, the fine performances by the well as a nicely mounted production that surely cost big bucks to make.

      By the way Dan, I called the ‘Narration by Death’ more of a literary device than a filmic device. but, since, this was a adaption of a best selling book. – I didn’t down grade the film for this.

      • Fair enough, you make it sound decent. I kind of got the impression it would be all happy and jolly. You know, like children aimed movies tend to be. That is more realistic though, and does not sound as bad.

        Yes, I am interested in seeing Watson. Although, fine lead performances can still make a bad movie. I say this because I recently watched the horrid Devil’s Due.

        I may just end up giving it a shot after all. Thanks!

      • I gave it credit for at least letting us see the war from the other side. However, it didn’t always work for me. Especially that narration which yes, I knew was in the book, but sometimes what works best on paper, doesn’t work as well on film. That was my main problem with it.

  3. This was from the point of view of a child in her understanding of the horrors of WWII. It was extremely well done. It missed my Top 10 for 2013 but made the honorable mentions list. Sophie Nélisse is an extraordinary young actress.

      • I agree that this girl was great in the lead role and more than not, she actually carried the film in some of its weakest moments. However, a lot of this felt like emotional manipulation to me.

  4. Nice review Dan. It didn’t really move me, either. But I did think the young Sophie Nelisse did an excellent job as Liesel, she was only 12 or 13 years old at the time this was being filmed. But yeah, i love how you pointed out that this didn’t seem serious enough; it felt a little watered down, but then again i guess it did have to cater more to a family audience. I was more or less indifferent to this one when it came down to it.

    • I didn’t bother with this one when it originally came out, but I guess as time went on, I was slightly interested. Glad I checked it out, but I do wish it was better. Then again, I can say that about all the films I see.

  5. Nice write up Dan, I scored it just a little bit higher because of Sophie Nélisse’s performance. It was refreshing to see a WWII movie that wasn’t focused on the battlefield. The ending was sad for me but not every one sheds a tear at the movies 😛

  6. Nice review Dan. Yep, I agree the voice of Death just didn’t fit in but thought Sophie was excellent and carried the movie with Geoffrey Rush. Does seem obvious that it was clinching for Oscars, perhaps if it had punched just a little harder instead of ending up being a family movie as you say it might’ve been more successful. Despite that I still thoroughly enjoyed it. Also a lover of the book. Cant praise Sophie Nelisse highly enough.

  7. Yeah this is more of a WWII lite I suppose but I quite like it, esp. the relationship between Hans and Sophie. The characters feel under-developed, esp Max. I wish they’d explore his character a bit more. All in all not a bad flick to rent 🙂

  8. Hmmm, gotta say this is not something I was looking forward to at all and your review has done nothing to change the fact that I am still disinterested. Excellent review!

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