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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: The Book Thief

March 23rd, 2014

The Book Thief - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

I don't think it is unfair to call The Book Thief Oscar-bait. It's a costume drama that deals with the Holocaust, albeit indirectly. Unfortunately, its reviews were mixed, to be kind, so becoming an Awards Season player was out of the question. It did pick up a few nominations here and there, mostly for the score, but also a few for Sophie Nelisse's performance. In the end, it earned more than $20 million, which is amazing for a film that started in limited release. So were critics right in giving the film mixed reviews? Or is there a reason so many people saw it in theaters?

The Movie

The film takes place in Germany in the late 1930s. It begins with a voiceover by Death, who tells us everyone dies. He also tells us that he only meets us when we die, because he doesn't like interacting with the living... most of the time. We then see a train moving through the snowy landscape and aboard that train is Liesel Meminger, her mother, and her brother. They are traveling to the children's new home, as their mother can no longer care for them. However, on the way, her brother dies and has to be buried on the side of the train tracks. During the impromptu funeral, one of the men digging the grave unknowingly drops a book and Liesel steals it. When they reach their destination, Liesel sees her new family, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Rosa is not happy the boy died and seems unconcerned for Liesel, who just lost her brother, not to mention is coming to a new home. On the other hand, Hans is a lot more sympathetic.

The next day, Rudy, the son of their neighbors, comes to take Liesel to school. Rosa hates Rudy (she hates pretty much everyone) and calls him a skunk. Liesel's first day of school is about as fun as her first day in her new home. She can't write her own name and falls victim to a bully. (Although she definitely gets the upper hand when it comes to the fight.) After this, Liesel is determined to run away, but Rudy's persistence to be her friend wins her over. That night, when Hans goes to tuck her in, he notices she's clutching the book. She at first claims it's hers, then her brother's, but the owner's name is written inside the book. She also admits she can't read, but Hans agrees to help her learn.

We flash forward a little bit and Liesel has adjusted to her new life... although this isn't entirely a good thing, because she's joined the Nazi Youth. While we hear the youth choir sing, we see the events of the Kristallnacht, the night in which Jews were attacked throughout Germany and Austria in November of 1938. One of the families that are attacked is the Vandenburgs. A friend of theirs is about to get one of them out of there and Max insists it's his mother and his mother insists it's him. His mother wins out and he leaves.

The next year, Liesel has finished reading her first book and Hans rewards her by creating a dictionary on the basement wall. Shortly afterward, there is a book burning in the town square. Before they burn the books, the mayor says how Germany will fight its enemies, including the Communists and the Jews. Liesel's mother was a communist, which is why she had to leave and give up Liesel, so this sours her on the whole Nazi movement. After the book burning, Liesel finds a book at that was spared by the fire and steals it. However, the mayor's wife sees her take it. Hans agrees to keep the book a secret. They only begin to start reading the book when there is a loud banging at the door. At first they think it has to do with the stolen book. However, it is Max. In World War I, Max's father died saving Hans' life, and since then, Hans promised to help the family any way he could. Since Max is Jewish, this means hiding him from the Nazis. Of course hiding him from the Nazis puts all of their lives in danger.

A lot of negative reviews for this film complain that this film is much too clean, especially the ending, for a film that deals with the Holocaust. There's a reason for this: It is based on a novel aimed at teens and preteens. If you know this going in, that the film is a coming of age tale for teens set during the lead-up to World War II, then you won't be disappointed that this isn't as gut-wrenching as Schindler's List is. That's not to say it is perfect for what it is. It is a little schmaltzy at times. The book is 560 pages long and in the translation to the big screen, it has become episodic. It could have used more time to transition from one major event to the other. However, the movie is also over 2 hours long as it is, so I'm not sure a longer running time would be advisable. In fact, it already has pacing issues.

That said, I think there were a number of excellent performances in this movie, including Sophie Nelisse. This isn't her first role (she played one of the kids in Monsieur Lazhar) but she was not yet 13 when the filming took place. Her performance was vital to the movie and even more impressive given her age and her relative inexperience. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson also shine, although Emily Watson's character isn't as meaty as Geoffrey Rush's is. She has less to do, as for a lot of the movie, Rosa is little more than prickly.

Overall, the film is definitely better than its Tomatometer Score would indicate and it is worth checking out.

The Extras

Extras include four deleted scenes with a total running time of seven minutes. There is also a four-part, 31-minute long making of featurette. That's not a lot of extras, although it was a limited release.

The technical presentation is really strong, given the film's production budget. The film was shot digitally and the level of details is excellent. The colors are strong and natural looking, but this isn't a visually striking movie. A lot of the film takes place in dark or under-lit basements, but this is never an issue. There are no compression issues or digital artifacts. The audio is clear, but for the most part uncomplicated. There is plenty of activity in the surround sound speakers, but mostly ambient sounds and the score, while there's little in the way of dynamics. Then again, dialogue-driven dramas shouldn't get showy.

The Blu-ray costs $20, which is $5 or 33% more than the DVD. That's not a great deal, but it isn't a deal-breaker either.

The Verdict

The Book Thief was clearly made to win Oscars, but it isn't Oscar-worthy. Unfortunately, I think this left a few critics to treat it more harshly than they otherwise would have. It is a great movie and worth picking up. There are not a lot of extras on either the DVD or the Blu-ray, nor is the Blu-ray the obviously better deal over the DVD.

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Filed under: Video Review, The Book Thief, Roger Allam, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nelisse, Ben Schnetzer, Nico Liersch