Life would be a lot easier if “The Book Thief” were just straight-up awful. Then we could totally ignore this latest hodge-podge of war drama and children's fable. Unfortunately, “Downton Abbey” vet Brian Percival's adaptation of Markus Zusak's bestseller has the temerity to have one or two moments that are actually quite terrific. If that weren't enough, there are even some worthwhile themes stewing about in this seemingly dismissible movie. It's not enough that I'd actually recommend you go out and buy a ticket – oh, heavens no – but for airplane viewing or other such captive experiences, I'd be remiss if I didn't admit that, yet, when you tally all the pros and cons, it is slightly preferably to watching the floaters swim about in your retinas.
Little Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse, not a bad tween actress) is dropped off with new parents as her mother flees Nazi Germany. Mom's a Communist (the father is out of the picture) and the perennially broke Hans and Rosa Hubermann can use the kindergelt (government dough for taking her in.) Emily Watson's Rosa is (at first, anyway) a hard-hearted woman – bordering on wicked step-mother. Geoffrey Rush's Hans is another story – a kind, clownish man who plays the accordion and is bad with money. He and Liesel bond over an incipient love of reading and while life is tough, there's a sprinkling of magic over cobblestoned Himmelsstraße (yes, that means Heaven Street.)
Of course, Himmelsstraße is also a coded term from our side of history – one that was used to signify the “final road” in the concentration camps. As “The Book Thief” details Liesel's pre-teen years trying to fit in, the realities of the Third Reich eventually come home. The Hubermanns end up hiding a Jew in their basement, at great personal risk.
What works best about this movie – and this is made pretty clear in a downright marvelous scene at a book burning rally – is its unflinching look at just how normal it would have been to become a Nazi. It would have been the easy route. No German is born into psychotic hatred. The neighbors on Himmelsstraße, while not all saints, are just regular folk. Each of them, including the Hubermanns, hang a swastika flag on the Fuhrer's birthday. Inch by inch, everyone perpetuates the crimes of the state. Would we have done differently?
Liesel, pure and charming, sings the Nazi anthems and cheers as books are set aflame. Only because she overheard and half-remembers a description of her mother as a Communist does she allow herself pause. If it weren't for that flash, she would have been indoctrinated. Even with – and this is key – even with living under the roof of the “good German” Hans. To protect her, he would have hid his anti-Nazi feelings, and certainly would not have purposely filled her head with any troublesome, dangerous antagonism.
This is, no doubt about it, something worth thinking about. For the purposes of this movie, however, it's just a little something on the side. The rest of the movie is treacly stuff with the neighbor boy, the rich family with a big library, the basement-dwelling Jew and the absurd voice over from the Angel of Death. (Did I mention the movie is narrated by Death? Yeah, that may've worked in the book . . .but here, not so much.)
Much cred, though, goes to Geoffrey Rush, who plays Hans less like “Life Is Beautiful” and more like a toned-down Teutonic Zorba. He's very sympathetic. Indeed, it's hard to hate this movie too much. It's syrupy as all hell, and John Williams' music – very nice on an island, I'm sure – is an embarrassing gut-punch of unfiltered schmaltz, but its sympathy for the devil-style humanism is well-meaning.
But “The Book Thief” saves the final humiliation for last. This may count as a spoiler, so maybe stop reading here - but I urge you to go on, because talking about this is the best part of the movie:
So the little girl survives the war. Yay! She grows up and becomes a famous author. The final coda is present-day, a tracking shot through a gorgeous zillion dollar apartment on 5th Avenue. (We know it is 5th Avenue because we can see a CGI Central Park and the San Remo building through the magic hour windows.) The camera skirts across the signifiers on her mantle: Hans' accordion, photos of the Jew he saved, children, grand children, awards for writing. All the while Death is dishing out purple prose voiceover about FATE and KINDNESS and Williams' score is going in for the Kill! It's all building so that we're all reaching for our hankies now and JUST when we're supposed to open those tear ducts – BLAMMO! - the most absurd, front and center product placement I've seen since “Spider-Man”'s can of Dr. Pepper.
Seven seconds before the final fade to black, snuggled in between photos spanning our brave protagonist's lifetime, is the back of a computer monitor. The Apple logo is HUGE, and directly in the center of the frame JUST AS THE MOVIE IS TELLING ME ALL ABOUT THE MEANING OF LIFE. I'm supposed to be crying, but instead I am laughing. And then the movie ends.
SCORE: 5.0 / 10