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Les Choristes

The French confection Les Choristes is now available on a skimpy, movie-only DVD —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

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It’s not often that a movie gets just about everything wrong, but that’s the case — at least in my view — with The Book Thief, an adaptation of a popular 2006 young-adult novel by Australian author Markus Zusak.

World War II Holocaust makes for a bad fairy tale
World War II Holocaust makes for a bad fairy tale

Director Brian Percival, known for directing six episodes of Downton Abbey, turns a World War II Holocaust story into a kind of fairy tale that also wants to celebrate the power of the written word.

This resultant tone — radically misguided, I think — turns The Book Thief into a preposterously sanitized portrait of hardship and war, all built around an achingly pretentious gimmick: The story is narrated by Death (the off-screen voice of actor Roger Allam).

Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse) provides the story with its center. Liesel’s mother, a leftist threatened by the rise of Nazism, allows her daughter to be adopted by a German couple: Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). Rush’s character is a kindly older man who soon begins teaching Liesel how to read; Watson’s Rosa is a gruff woman whose good heart gradually is exposed.

Liesel’s best friend is Rudy (Nico Liersch), a boy who looks as if he could serve as a poster child for Aryan supremacy, but who is good-natured, loyal and infectiously likable.

A pivotal plot twist kicks in when Hans and Rosa decide to hide a young Jewish man named Max (Ben Schnetzer) from the Nazis. Hans feels he must give Max shelter because the boy’s father saved Hans’s life during World War I.

As Liesel becomes an increasingly voracious reader, the movie seems to be proclaiming the saving power of words, the transcendental elevation that literature often promises. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway) no words saved the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust and who received little support from their neighbors. Of course, that’s not the stuff of fairy tales.)

Steeped in faux German accents and making haphazard use of subtitles, The Book Thief has an accomplished enough look, but still stands as a big-screen misstep. To buy into this movie, you have to believe that it’s possible for people to be in a building that suffers a direct hit by Allied bombs, and, moments later, be displayed in the streets, their dead bodies totally unmutilated.

I can’t say that The Book Thief represents a case of good intentions that simply didn’t pan out; for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out exactly what the movie’s intentions were.

Perhaps The Book Thief worked as a novel; as a movie, it tends to be as guileless as a grade-school primer — and no more revealing.

The Book Thief occasionally has its English-speaking cast spouting a few German words. I’ll add to the multi-lingual babble by saying, “Nein.” “Nein.” And, “nein” again.

  • Giselle Pezoa: I haven't seen the movie yet, but i recently read the book and loved it. And I have to point something out.
    "As Liesel becomes an increasingly voracious reader, the movie seems to be proclaiming the saving power of words, the transcendental elevation that literature often promises. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway) no words saved the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust and who received little support from their neighbors. Of course, that’s not the stuff of fairy tales.)"
    You say no words saved the Jews, and that's truth. But this story explores the power of words in both senses good and bad. How they can be used to comfort someone or to create beautiful stories that will inspire others. And there's also a "bad" use for words, like those words Hitler used to convince the people, his charisma and convincing power, it's by words that he convinced most of germans that they were the superior breed and all that, and there comes a moment in the book in which Liesel realises of this and hate the words, because words started it all in the end. December 10, 2013 reply
  • caroline mcilwaine: This reviewer obviously hasn't read the book. The book is truly astonishing and was, I am fairly sure, written for a young adult audience. The movie begins here in Australia tomorrow and while forewarned is forearmed and I will be on my guard against allowing the faux german accents to spoil the effect for me, I still have great hope of the movie doing some justice to the novel. Death as the narrator is definitely unsettling at first, but not at all gimmicky. The way Death describes receiving the holocaust victims is chilling and his parting 'I am haunted by humans" is a clear message that Death had seen it all but this extermination was something extraordinary and terrible even by his reckoning. I am heartened by the "guileless" comment even though the reviewer uses the tag as a negative. If this review - harsher than others I have read - is accurate I will be among legions of fans to weep within. The book is remarkable and deserved careful portrayal. January 7, 2014 reply
    • Sean Kay: So, I read the book back in 06. It was easily my favourite out of nowhere book for the time. The narrative had a great sense of humour. The story telling may have been for young adults I suppose but having been exposed to a bigger variety of world war 2 history the picture in my head and what the movie is are very different. Now, I know many will say yes, that's just how books to movies are but in this instance it's much different. It's hard to actually feel any sense of hardship when the reality of a moment is being destroyed by music and the main actress is constantly wearing make up. At the beginning of the movie Emily Watson says that Sophie is filthy. The kid is sitting in the car like a doll nice and neat. It's ridiculous the lengths of stark contrast they went to make the main actress stand out from everyone else that it feels like this movie is a Rebecca Black music video. The book put an overlay of beauty over what was a desolate situation but they prettied it all up and didn't let the viewer try to see for themselves. The film wears as much make up as the main actress and loses the beauty of the book and it's sad. It really is sad. Anyone entrapped, enthralled by this movie's acting falls for the Denzel Washington acting technique where a simple violin makes you feel something and makes you think wow that's great acting. January 11, 2014 reply
  • Matt: I agree with the reviewer, Death really didn't narrate enough in the movie to be much of a presence. It was like, oh yeah it's that Death guy talking again, I forgot he was still here.

    I won't say it's bad movie, it just didn't really move me that much. Some stories on paper just don't translate that well to motion picture or must be handled in a certain way to really pull it off.

    Matt January 12, 2014 reply
  • Paul Miles: Dear Reviewer
    If you'd read the book you would know that "The Book Thief" IS in fact "a kind of fairy tale". I would have thought that Death doing the voice over-narration was a bit of a clue to that!
    The book is simply not about the full brutality of a "World War II Holocaust story", nor should the film be. The focus of the story is the fascination the Deathly Narrator has for the nature of this one child. The whole story is seen through her eyes, the point of view formed through her still childish innocence, and with her perspective of events. It is a microcosm of Liesel's little world of Papa, Mama, Max, Rudi and her immediate surroundings.
    There is already a deal of unpleasant goings-on re Jews, Kristallnacht, book burnings, threats from Nazi thugs etc.. But since it's this child's story, you can hardly expect cutaways to life inside Dachau KZ or the Gestapo torture cells under the Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse or the Death camps in Poland. That is appropriate for other media at other times. Not every film about World War II has to feature this. Indeed it is quite refreshing to see it from a fairly closely focused German point of view for a change. (And yes, I do know that Zusak is a young Australian author of German/Austrian descent.)
    While I agree that the remarkably undamaged bodies after the bombing raid are totally unrealistic, and the faux German accents and interchangeable 'neins' and ' nos' seem clunky at times in the context of lengthy subtitled German on occasions, everything else from the look of the streets and houses, through the school experience to the general experience of life under the Nazis and the ways of thinking portrayed by a variety of the characters was well-researched and accurate.
    And while, as you say, most Jews received precious little support from most of their neighbours, there were quite a few who did exactly what Liesel's family did, and risked their lives to do it. This is the representation of one family that did.
    So, while I agree the film is not perfect and does have flaws, I was actually pleasantly surprised how well they transposed this rather complicated and fantastical story into the medium of film. Sometimes, dear Reviewer, it's not the facts that have the impact, but the particular STORY being told. And this story is of "The Book Thief", not the History of the Holocaust.
    January 16, 2014 reply
    • Reader: But if you've read the book, you know how much better it is. I'm not sure what it is, but the book is more complex, more interesting.
      Part of it is the prose, the metaphors, the colours. Part of it is Death's narration -- which does include gas chambers. January 16, 2014 reply
  • Robin Mawson : The comment about the display of the bodies being unrealistic in that none are mutilated is somewhat naive. The are many documented instances of such happening. I think it comes down to ones interpretation of a direct hit. High explosive bombs were designed to inflict maximum damage in a radius and did not necessarily have to hit their target to completely destroy / collapse houses. I suggest do some research on the effects of HE. January 25, 2014 reply
    • Savannah: Yes, I researched that just before I made this comment. That happened quite often actually, but if you really watched the movie carefully you'll see that when the people are found buried under rubble or however they're found, the search parties would lay them out flat. I couldn't find the reason WHY they did that,maybe for an easier I.D. Or head count, but nevertheless, they did lay the victims out in the movie once they were found, then moved on to continue searching March 3, 2015 reply