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'The Book Thief' treats Nazi Germany with kid gloves

The adaptation of Markus Zusak's bestseller "The Book Thief" takes a fascinating subject —life among Germans during WWII —and mostly gives us Oscar bait.

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.

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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.

 
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