I just finished watching The Book Thief and I must admit that I am quite conflicted.
Released in 2013 with an amazing cast including Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and the mesmerizing Sophie Nélisse in the title role, The Book Thief tells the story of a young German girl adopted by aging parents in the months leading up to World War II.
Through Liesel’s eyes, we watch fascism take hold of Germany while good people try to lead simple lives. We watch her struggle to comprehend anti-Semitism through conversations with a young Jewish man her parents are hiding and at the same time, find her own gift for words through her exploration of books. We see the beauty of love and the pain of uncertainty.
All in all, the film was beautiful and heartfelt. And yet, in the end, I feel like I have witnessed a life, not heard a story.
Liesel floats through the world that moves around her. In only the rarest of instances does she actually drive the story forward. Instead, people and the fates make decisions for her at every turn. She is not the protagonist or hero of the story; rather, she is the victim of events.
Adding to my challenge is that, despite its setting in WWII Germany, there is no real conflict in the story. The ideological conflict amounts to Hitler bad, everyone else good. And even here, it’s discussed within isolated groups. There is no—or very little—confrontation between the two camps.
As our hero, Liesel has no goal and therefore nothing stands in her way. She has no need to make a plan and therefore nothing truly thwarts her.
And perhaps because of this—at least spinning out of this—there are never (NEVER) any repercussions of her actions or those around her despite the number of times the screenwriter (Michael Petroni adapting a novel by Markus Zusak) or director (Brian Percival) have set them up.
When the vicious little Brownshirt Franz threatens to expose Liesel and her little friend Rudy for keeping secrets, nothing happens. When Liesel’s friendship with the Burgermeister’s wife causes Liesel’s mother to lose her valuable laundry contract, there are no repercussions. Even her spilling the beans about a Jew hiding in the basement has no impact on the story.
As we would describe in screenwriting lingo, there were no turning points where the hero has to make a decision, and there was no crisis and therefore no climax to the story.
Thus, my conflict with the movie.
A visually interesting film, acted beautifully, and yet I was unable to invest in the story at all because I never felt anything was in doubt. Where there were the odd surprises, they were telegraphed by the narrator, who popped up so haphazardly, I could never figure out why he was even in the story. And the choice of who narrates is also very odd.
And then, one after another, the loops of the bow-tie formed as the story came to a close, everything being explained away to leave the final screen moments devoid of meaning or feeling.
Sad, really. There was so much to like about this movie.