If you see only one movie this year… you’re in the target demographic for The Book Thief, a film that looks and sounds very important but offers no greater insight into the human condition than the typical Transformers sequel.
Michael Bay gets a lot of flack for simple messaging like “the military is cool” and “evil robots are bad,” but The Book Thief sure seems to think it’s a big deal for presenting similar trite messages like “reading is magical” and “Nazis sucked.” There’s nothing daring, original or wondrous in The Book Thief. It repackages old messages that no one in their right mind could possibly argue with and re-gifts them like it’s doing you a favor.
Credit where credit is due, though: The Book Thief is wrapped in fancy paper. Directed by Brian Percival (“Downton Abbey”) and shot by Florian Ballhaus, The Book Thief lovingly recreates an impoverished street in the heart of Nazi Germany. The Nazi uniforms look great, and book burnings have never been prettier. To a one, the cast turns in a collectively sweet, unremarkable performance, generating an air of heartwarming reassurance that everything’s going to be okay, even when World War II and the Holocaust seem dead set on insisting otherwise.
Adding to that enormous rubbish pile of reassurance is a voice-over by Death. Yes, Death himself narrates The Book Thief. The calm, comforting tones of Death (uncredited, presumably playing himself) are here to take the edge off The Book Thief’s many victims, assuring us that their demise may have been sad, but it’s nothing for your kids to cry about. Thanks, Death, for making World War II more palatable, and for lending the film an unbelievably pretentious conceit: for we are only watching The Book Thief because Death itself, who has viewed the entirety of human existence, says this is one of the most fascinating events that he has ever witnessed.
Meanwhile, audiences – who have by definition experienced only an infinitesimal fraction of life’s wonders – are left rolling their eyes at the trite story of a little girl named Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), who learns how to read. Oh, stop those presses. She’ll also endure the slander of a comically over the top young Nazi bully, help save a Jewish refugee in the family’s basement, and read him books “borrowed” from a kindly old rich lady who never even misses them. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson play her adopted parents; he’s a kindhearted patriarch, she’s a stonehearted matriarch who in what is clearly intended to be the film’s standout scene, shows that she has a heart after all.
Why are we watching this? Do you really need a reminder that Nazis sucked? Do you really need a movie to take a stand in favor of learning how to read? Do you really need a movie that dares to take the next step and say that not only is reading magical, but writing is also good too? Assuming that we’re all willing to accept that these messages are just the byproduct of the story being told, could that story have perhaps not been contemptuously familiar? In the future, when movie producers think audiences have forgotten that “the military is cool” and “evil robots are bad,” will they really force us to endure another Transformers, trumped up only with a pompous narrator who claims to be the voice of a broad concept like death, pretension or the living embodiment of cliché?
The Nazis did suck, and reading is great. But just because someone says something you agree with doesn’t mean that they should be rewarded for it. If I wrote an article declaring that “Ice Cream is Tasty!” I don’t expect I’ll get much in the way of argument, but I sure as hell won’t expect to be on the short list for a Pulitzer Prize. The Book Thief on the other hand expects your mind to be blown by the most obvious ideas and plot points imaginable. All the pretty cinematography, lush production design and impressive casting in the world can't disguise the cheap, gooey and forgettable melodrama at its center.