First a confession; apart from Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Westerns and James Bond movies – well Sean Conroy skipping straight through to Daniel Craig, I loathe the violent, action genre so beloved by most blokes. Worse, I usually prefer the so-called Chic Flicks. Sob! My feminine side just keeps coming out … so to speak! The English Patient remains one of my all time favourite movies (and books) – I do seem to have a penchant for films featuring vast deserts – Lawrence of Arabia, Dune and the aforesaid English Patient. Oh yes, there is also a penchant for Vampire movies – I keep breaking the appointment with the pysc!
The Book Thief has no desert, no vampires and no Aston Martin, but something attracted me to the film (I had not read the book), though critics had not raved, indeed some were rather dismissive, so hand in hand with my very pleased fiancée, I went along for the ride.
First the accents, it’s often hard to imitate a German accent, they pronounce W as V, so any actor immediately sounds like some B-Grade spiv … “Ve have vays.” You either run with an all German cast, or if you want commercial success outside of Germany, you throw in a NAME English speaking actor or two and lightly salt the script with a German word or phrase here and there.
Geoffrey Rush is not a bad name to have for Box Office pull, I once saw him live at the Barrymore, in Exit The King, alongside Susan Sarandon, they were both magnificent, powerful and instantly gripping. But The Book Thief doesn’t instantly grab you by the throat, it takes a while to sort out what’s going on in the opening scenes – we never even see the first character, a pleasant, matter-of-fact voice-over, making occasional appearances throughout the movie.
I have no wish to act as ‘Spoiler’ and relate the storyline here, rather tell you the acting is superb, the cinematography is natural, the recreation of a pre-war (1938 onwards) German village (and life) is realistic. The story, though brutal, has a soft, gentle landing, saccharine? Perhaps, I prefer to think that rain and sunshine fall upon all of us. A touch contrived? Maybe, but I felt I was watching vignettes of believable characters, as cards fell either at random, or perhaps at the behest of Death.
I am privileged to have a reasonably intimate knowledge of German people and past lifestyles, many of us are not, we have a preconceived notion of the Germans. Some, for obvious reasons, cannot and should not let go of the hideous Nazi years and some just cannot let go. John Cleese nailed this brilliantly with his “Don’t mention the war!” skit in Fawlty Towers. We (Poms, Aussies, Kiwis) loved it, most of us completely missing the fact the joke (barb) was aimed at us. I defy anyone to be in a room with an English person and German and not hear ‘The War’ brought up (by the English person), within fifteen minutes.
And therein I believe, is the major hurdle for this film – many are not able to accept Germans in the Nazi era as ordinary decent people, this book (script), asks us to accept that premise and further, accept the possibility of ordinary Germans also being victims. One critic commenced his critique demanding to know why there was no mention of the Holocaust! Why? There was and one of the main characters is Jewish. Perhaps we saw different versions. Does he not consider the Germans have strived for almost 70 years to somehow make amends for the horrors of the Nazi period, or more telling, perhaps he just want to keep punishing them?
If you don’t harbour, or can overcome personal prejudices, this a gentle tale where even Death behaves with manners as he lays waste to both the innocent and the evil. The story of a little girl, her love and need for books and her bitter sweet journey. I loved this film, this story, the acting and left the cinema with unashamed tears falling slowly down my cheeks. It’s nothing like The Life of Pi, or indeed The English Patient, but it nestles perfectly between them.
c) Greg Ross