‘The Book Thief’ treats Nazi Germany with kid gloves

Geoffrey Rush comforts Sophie Nelisse in the Nazi Germany-set "The Book Thief." Credit: Jules Heath
Geoffrey Rush comforts Sophie Nelisse in the Nazi Germany-set “The Book Thief.”
Credit: Jules Heath

‘The Book Thief’
Director: Brian Perceval
Stars: Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

Germans who lived during Nazi Germany rarely, if ever, liked to talk about life under Hitler’s rule, particularly if they found themselves complicit in its horrors. Taking this aspect as its subject makes Markus Zusak’s bestseller “The Book Thief” — and the inevitable, tasteful film made of it — genuinely unique in the annals of Holocaust cinema. That it’s also narrated by a whimsical Death (Roger Allam), who sometimes sounds like his words have been written by Douglas Adams, offers the promise of something bizarre as well as top of insightful.

That promise, alas, is only minutely fulfilled. Turns out this is almost comically stereotypical Oscar bait, complete with a sickly sweet score by Steven Spielberg stalwart John Williams. Rather than get its hands dirty, it even focuses on an unusually unfailing family. Young Liesel (Sophie Nelisse, quite good) winds up the unhappy foster child of a middle-aged couple, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). Rosa is cold and mildly tyrannical — at first! — but Hans, a terminally unemployed dreamer whose smile occasionally creeps into a melancholic half-frown, takes to her immediately.

While most of their townsfolk keep their heads down, or even turn enthusiastic accomplice for their overlords, Hans and Rosa don’t even second-guess hiding a young Jewish man (Ben Schnetzer) in their dirty basement. Meanwhile, Hans shares his brilliance by teaching Liesl to read, thus fostering a love for art in the face of unimaginable ugliness.

Rush made his name with borderline animatronic mega-performances. But since “The King’s Speech,” he’s miraculously excelled at warmly human characters. He’s the main reason the film of “The Book Thief” earns the heartstring tugs, but he also serves as a key point of distraction from how it simplifies and distorts the period. Herein lies the potential to look at how evil can take over ordinary people, but the film rarely ventures outside our main characters, who are always anti-Nazi, if helpless to stop them. Meanwhile, the few rah-rah supporters are mere easily hissable bullies.

Elsewhere it simply misjudges. A scene where Liesel’s friend (Nico Liersch) channels his love of Jesse Owens by going blackface may have read better on the page — although probably not. Ditto a scene where the kids channel their anger into a round of screaming “I hate Hitler!” against triumphant music. But like M. Night Shyamalan, it knows that a sneakily affecting ending — especially a partially understated one, as here — can lead to much audience forgiveness.



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
National

US military tried, but failed to rescue journalist…

The U.S. military earlier this year tried to rescue journalist James Foley and other American hostages held in Syria ,but failed to find the captives.

National

Fate of captured beluga whales in hands of…

A Georgia aquarium went to court on Wednesday seeking federal permission to bring 18 captured beluga whales to the United States from Russia.

Local

After Eric Garner death, religious leaders meet to…

Interfaith leaders convened with city officials to discuss what the community can do to help dial down heightened tensions after Eric Garner's death.

Local

'Suspicious' Hamilton Heights fire caused by power strip:…

An extension cord overload caused the deadly fire in Hamilton Heights late Monday that killed a 15-year-old girl and injured at least 12 others.

Television

'Doctor Who' personality profile: the 4 Doctors

When the time comes for a new Doctor, there's always some anxiety over the big question: Who will he be? The series owes its longevity…

Television

Billy Crystal to commemorate late actor Robin Williams…

  Comedian Billy Crystal will pay tribute to late actor Robin Williams at television's Primetime Emmy Awards on Aug. 25, the show's organizers said on…

Going Out

Things to do this week in NYC, Aug.…

GAMES Hudson Common Open Aug. 21, 7 p.m. Hudson Common 356 W. 58 St. Free, www.hudsoncommonnyc.com The U.S. Open begins on Monday, but most of…

Movies

Review: Sadly, Matthew Weiner's 'Are You Here' is…

"Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner tries his hand at movies with "Are You Here," a misjudged Owen Wilson-Zach Galifianakis comedy that turns into a drama.

NFL

Giants expected to work Corey Washington into first-team…

The day of reckoning for the Giants' fringe players will fall upon them Friday night against the Jets.

NFL

Jalen Saunders still unsure what caused car accident…

Jets rookie wide receiver Jalen Saunders spoke to the media Wednesday for the first time since his car accident, but he didn't say a whole lot.

NFL

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL…

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL defense (DEF)

NFL

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL…

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL quarterbacks (QB)

Sex

Online dating for every generation

Frank Jackson and his mother Maggie are like lots of modern families: They have dinner together regularly, keep each other updated on their lives —…

Wellbeing

Going green could be the key to getting…

If we could just pursue the things that would actually make us happy, we could help the environment too, according to a New York researcher.…

Wellbeing

Metabolic syndrome could have a sugar link

Scientists in St. Louis may have found another culprit in metabolic syndrome, which can lead to heart disease and type 2 diabetes.  Uric acid is…

Wellbeing

Another way stress hurts your unborn baby

Mothers know to try staying calm during pregnancy, as stress has been linked to behavioral and developmental problems for their babies. But now, a new…