When I reviewed 12 Years A Slave, which is based on the true story of a free black man who was kidnapped and brought to the Deep South as a slave in 1841, I said that it might help America come to grips with the horrors of slavery and our nation's racist roots if slavery was addressed more often in film -- our most powerful storytelling medium -- the same way World War II, the Holocaust, and Nazism have been portrayed in popular entertainment over the decades, leaving little doubt amongst generations of Germans and the rest of the world (regardless of one's interest in history) that the Nazis' goals, beliefs, and methods were an absolute wrong and a crime against humanity. That said, with seemingly every aspect of this tragedy examined exhaustively, is it possible that all the lessons of World War II have been learned and there are no new stories left to tell? And does this explain why would-be Oscar bait like The Book Thief, which follows an orphaned girl in a World War II-era German village, feels so mawkish and unnecessary?
Watch the trailer for The Book Thief below.
Based on Markus Zusak's best-selling novel, The Book Thief is about an illiterate nine-year-old girl named Liesel (played by a plucky, big-eyed Sophie Nélisse) whose communist mother seeks to protect Liesel by sending her to live in an otherwise idyllic, snowy German village. Her foster parents are Hans, a kind and playful housepainter played by Geoffrey Rush, and Rosa, a mean, brusque laundress played by Emily Watson. With Liesel heartbroken over her absent mother and the death of her younger brother, Hans consoles her by teaching her to read from a book she had stolen.
Books, as you'd imagine, wind their way throughout The Book Thief, as Liesel goes on to steal another book from a book burning rally and more books from the mayor's wife (played by Barbara Auer), who alleviates her sadness over her dead son by giving Liesel access to her personal library. From what I've gathered from the novel's Wikipedia page, the redemptive and destructive power of words is the book's main theme. Unfortunately, this gets lost among the film's several subplots, which often makes The Book Thief feel like a curiously sanitized take on Holocaust movies' greatest clichés.
There's the subplot of Hans' refusal to join the Nazi party and the pressure and scrutiny that draws to his family. To further prove Hans' bonafides as a "good German," Hans risks his family's safety by harboring a war buddy's Jewish son (played by Ben Schnetzer) in the basement, who befriends Liesel as he's nursed back to health. Then there's also the friendship between Liesel and Rudy, an angelic boy next door (played by Nico Liersch) who has a crush on Liesel, though Rudy's athletic prowess and Aryan looks draws the interest of the Nazis, who choose him to attend a special academy that would separate him from Liesel. There's also the townspeople's frequent retreats to underground shelters as Allied bombs land on the town, with Liesel comforting people by telling stories. And did I mention that The Book Thief is narrated by Death? That's right, Death himself (voiced by Roger Allam) as a gentle and bemused Reaper who takes a special interest in Liesel, which is a drag on the story and seems strangely insensitive considering that other thing going on in Germany at the time.
That thing being the Holocaust, whose horrors only figure lightly and fairly bloodlessly in the film when a group of Jews wearing yellow Stars of David are marched through the town. But the biggest problem with The Book Thief is its complete lack of anything new, informative, or insightful, making it feel like it was written by someone who knew nothing about World War II other than what they'd seen in a handful of movies, but really wanted to make sure you knew that some Germans during Nazi rule were actually pretty nice, which has also been duly covered.
But maybe the bigger issue is that, after decades and hundreds of movies, maybe there really isn't anything new to be said about World War II, the Nazis, and the Holocaust that hasn't been said (and said very well) before, unlike with slavery and the comparatively scant number of dramatic films on the topic. While it's important to make sure the Holocaust isn't forgotten, I don't feel the need to keep watching movies belaboring its lessons. Maybe that's why a film like 12 Years A Slave feels so important and needed while The Book Thief, while technically solid, just feels like unnecessary, boilerplate Oscar bait.