Historian at the Movies: The Book Thief

As part of our Historian at the Movies series, Dr Paul Moore from the University of Leicester reviews The Book Thief – a film about a young girl sent to live with a foster family in Second World War Germany

© 20th Century Fox

Q: Did you enjoy the film?

A: I did. The film is closely based on Markus Zusak’s 2005 novel of the same name, and tells the fictional story of a young girl in Nazi Germany.

Liesel Meminger (well played by Sophie Nélisse) is taken in as a foster child by a middle-aged couple, played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. Thereafter, the two also shelter a young Jew, Max Vandenburg, who arrives in the aftermath of Kristallnacht and ultimately lives in hiding in their basement for three years.

In common with the book, the film is narrated by Death, voiced here in a rather avuncular manner by Roger Allam. This coming-of-age tale largely plays out in the period from February 1938 to November 1942, during which time Liesel’s emotional awakening parallels her increasing political maturity.

While Liesel’s changing attitudes are well handled, she is the sole protagonist to undergo such a transformation, and the other characters are rather one-dimensionally good or evil.

There is a slightly syrupy, TV-movie feel at times, not least in the jarringly upbeat ending, in which a rather implausible reunion with Max is followed by a last scene reassuring the viewer of Liesel’s subsequent long and happy life. The latter manages to include some rather tacky product placement for Apple.

The film also follows the rather irritating convention, common to American and British films set in Nazi Germany, whereby minor characters speak in subtitled German, yet the principal actors speak English with German accents 95 per cent of the time, while also uttering selected curses in untranslated German.

 

Q: Was the film historically accurate?

A: The film is set in the fictional small town of Molching, which the book places outside Munich (though this is not clear from the film).

One scene – a depiction of Kristallnacht culminating in Max deciding to flee – takes place in Stuttgart. A well-rendered depiction of a public book-burning presided over by invective-spouting Nazi officials, invoking some of the most familiar images of the first year of the Nazi dictatorship, is set instead in 1938.

In this striking instance, the needs of the narrative – a key moment in Liesel’s increasing questioning of Nazism – have taken precedence over strict historical accuracy. Other major events in the history of the Nazi regime are either referred to retrospectively (for example, the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and Jesse Owens’ triumphs in particular), or presented as part of the narrative, albeit briefly (such as the beginning of the Second World War, and the later deportation of Germany’s remaining Jews).

The makers of the film have made sure to cover the streets of ‘Molching’ with replicas of some of the propaganda posters most frequently displayed during the dictatorship, though some minor errors have crept in in this regard. The striking wartime poster, admonishing so-called ‘hamsters’ for hoarding scarce groceries at the expense of the ‘national community’, is in evidence even in scenes set in the pre-war years. (The poster seems in fact to have become commonplace only in around 1942.)

 

 

Q: What did the film get right?

A: Such nit-picking aside, the imagery of the regime was well replicated. Personally, this reviewer felt the look and feel of a small town in 1930s Germany was only superficially achieved – most of these scenes were shot at the famous Babelsberg studios near Potsdam, west of Berlin, and I could not quite shake the knowledge that I was watching a film set.

It is perhaps no accident that one of the most dramatically successful scenes – the book-burning ceremony – was apparently filmed instead in the real town square of eastern Görlitz. The locals consented, after some persuasion, to the temporary profusion of swastika flags and banners.

 

Q: What did it miss?

A: The film has been criticised for a certain lack of gritty realism, though its origins in a ‘young adult’ novel and 12A certificate necessarily precludes much of this.

More problematically, the film gives little sense of the everyday complicity and compromise with the regime in small communities  – there are very few ‘real’ Nazis in Molching, and the few adult Nazis depicted are typically uniformed outsiders, sweeping into town in their limousines before sweeping out again.

Few characters, likewise, are required to give voice to Nazi views. An opportunity has been missed here to show the complexity of individual reactions to Nazism, and the grey areas between conformity and resistance. The book-burning scene is one of the few occasions in which Nazism is seen to impact the community as a whole, but again most of the crowd remains a nameless, chanting mass.

The major ‘Nazi’ character is a schoolboy – the suggestively-named Franz Deutscher (ie ‘German’) – whose malevolence is mostly that of a standard-issue school bully with some ideological zeal thrown in.

Expressions of anti-Semitism are all but absent; if anything, racism towards black people is more often and more overtly expressed by the people of Molching, via the running (no pun intended) Jesse Owens theme.

It will be interesting to see the reaction to the film in Germany. The two young stars of the film were apparently taken to the Anne Frank Centre in Berlin on the day of the premiere, suggesting that the producers are sensitive to perceptions of the film’s take on this subject matter.

 

How many stars (out of 5) would you award the film in terms of a) your enjoyment and b) its historical accuracy?

For enjoyment: ***
For historical accuracy: **

 

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