The Book Thief


Sophie Nelisse tries to get Ben Schnetezer to rehearse their lines with her but he's too tired.

Sophie Nelisse tries to get Ben Schnetzer to rehearse their lines with her but he’s too tired.

(2013) Drama (20th Century Fox) Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watkins, Roger Allam (voice), Nico Liersch, Ben Schnetzer, Oliver Stokowski, Carina Wiese, Rainier Bock, Barbara Auer, Kirsten Block, Heike Makatsch, Julian Lehmann, Hildegard Schroedter, Levin Liam, Sandra Nedeleff, Carl Heinz Choynski, Sebastian Hulk, Beata Lehmann. Directed by Brian Percival

The power of words can be transformative. The description of the day can bring someone trapped indoors into the world even for just a few moments. They can transport us to faraway places, transfer us into heroic beings and leave us like we can do anything.

In 1938 Germany, young Liesel (Nelisse) is being taken by train to meet her new foster parents by her mother (Makatsch) who is no longer able to keep her. Unfortunately before they can get there, her younger brother (Lehmann) dies suddenly and is buried by the tracks. At the graveside Liesel finds a book and even though she can neither read nor write, she impulsively takes it with her.

She is brought to a small German town where her new parents are waiting for her – kindly Hans (Rush), an out of work housepainter whose business has suffered because he hasn’t joined the Nazi party, and his harpy-esque wife Rosa (Watkins). She attracts the attention of Rudy Steiner (Liersch), the blonde young boy next door who happens to be the fastest runner in the neighborhood and who idolized Jesse Owens although that’s not exactly looked upon with favor by the Nazi regime.

Liesel’s illiteracy has caught the attention of the kids in school, particularly school bully Franz (Liam). Hans determines to teach Liesel how to read and write and turns their basement into a kind of living dictionary where Liesel writes new words she learns from various books she picks up.

Rosa takes in laundry to help make ends meet and one of her clients is the Buergmeister Hermann (Bock) and his wife Ilsa (Auer). At a book burning, Ilsa had noticed Liesel picking up a slightly charred copy of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man but tells no-one about it. Instead, she introduces Liesel to her library, a kind of homage to her son who had been killed. Laundry day becomes reading day for Ilsa and Liesel until the Buergmeister discovers what’s going on and puts a stop to it – and Rosa’s laundry.

In the meantime, following the infamous Kristallnacht of November 10, 1938 a young Jew named Max Vandenburg (Schnetzer) shows up at Hans and Rosa’s door, needing to be hidden. Max’s father had saved Hans’ life during the First World War at the cost of his own so Hans feels honor-bound to save his son. For two years, Max lives in their basement and becomes fast friends with Liesel.

However as World War II begins and things start to go badly in Germany, things go from bad to worse for Liesel’s new family. While Liesel defiantly “borrows” books from Ilsa’s library, the war begins to turn against the Nazi’s and Hans’ refusal to join the party begins to get him viewed with further suspicion. What can good people do to survive such evil and such horror in their midst?

Based on the award winning bestseller by Marcus Zusak, this is brilliantly realized by Percival, best known for his work on Downton Abbey so he is at least experienced with the period. The German village (filmed in picturesque Gorlitz in Saxony) is bucolic and lovely but the ugliness hidden within is at times shocking. Not everyone in the village is a Nazi nor are most of them heroes; they are simply trying to live their lives as peacefully as possible and turn away when things get ugly, hoping that the ugliness won’t touch them directly. This is human nature, like it or not.

Nelisse, who was impressive in Monsieur Lazhar last year positively shines here. It is not an easy thing for an actress her age to carry a motion picture but Nelisse manages without being overly cute while being completely believable. It doesn’t hurt that she has actors the caliber of Rush and Watson to play off of. Rush, who won an Oscar for Shine may actually be more memorable here. He brings incredible humanity to the role of Hans without making him too good to be true. Hans simply put has a warm heart and a poet’s soul. Watson has a more difficult role with the prickly Rosa and manages to keep Rosa’s heart well buried beneath her gruff exterior. I think she has a good shot at a Best Supporting Actress nomination when the Oscars come around.

Some critics have groused over the narration which is done by Death himself, in the guise of Roger Allam. The book was also so narrated and part of the book’s message requires Death to be involved because Death is a part of life. We are reminded of our mortality in the movie early and often and we are also reminded how precious life is and how easily we can lose it. Those who are complaining about Death’s narration may well have missed the point.

The movie is extremely moving and while there are elements of fantasy involved – not just Death’s narration but a scene in which the bodies of unfortunates caught in a bombing are lined up next to each other, beautifully untouched and looking mostly asleep (whereas if they had been in a bombing raid of the sort depicted they would have been charred and battered beyond recognition) – that’s fantasy. That’s death through a child’s eye (and perhaps through Death’s eye as well) in which death is a peaceful naptime, a transition from wakefulness to slumber.

Chances are the Academy is going to ignore this one – it simply hasn’t generated the buzz that American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave both have (haven’t seen the former and the latter is certainly justified). That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing. While this is based on a young adult novel, the subject matter may be a little too much for smaller kids. Do exercise parental caution is determining whether or not your kids are ready to see this. However if you feel they can handle it, it is well worth a family movie outing and is definitely one of the best movies this year.

REASONS TO GO: Moving and occasionally beautiful. Fine performances by Nelisse, Rush and Watson.

REASONS TO STAY: Blend of fantasy and reality doesn’t always work.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence and some scenes that may be too intense for the very impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The writer of the book this is based on, Marcus Zusak, is actually Australian.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Nebraska

Advertisements

Lore


Lore's future looks bittersweet.

Lore’s future looks bittersweet.

(2012) Drama (Music Box) Saskia Rosendahl, Nele Trebs, Andre Frid, Mika Seidel, Kai-Peter Malina, Nick Holaschke, Ursina Lardi, Hans-Jochen Wagner, Sven Pippig, Philip Wiegratz, Katrin Pollitt, Hendrik Arnst, Claudia Geisler. Directed by Cate Shortland   

 Offshoring

Florida Film Festival 2013

 

The Second World War left millions of refugees at its end, many traversing shattered lands as survivors tried to find some semblance of family, often with roughly the same odd of finding a needle in a haystack.

Lore (Rosendahl) is a beautiful young German girl just entering her mid-teens. Her parents are important people and they live in a beautiful home near Buchenwald. She has a younger sister, younger twin brothers and a baby brother. Life is good.

Except that this isn’t modern Germany but Nazi Germany and the war is grinding to a conclusion. Her father (Wagner) and mother (Lardi) are fleeing their home and headed to a rural cabin to hide, hoping for the best but fearing that if the Americans win the war that they’ll be arrested. In fact, that’s what actually happens. Alone, Lore knows she must take the children to her grandmother’s house 900km away. Without any choice, she hits the road.

Once there they are followed by a mysterious young man in black. Lore frets. At a schoolhouse where many have taken refuge, the American soldiers have posted pictures of the concentration camps. Lore is shocked at the horror depicted. Some disbelieve it completely – “they’re actors,” is the general thought. Lore knows better – one of the “actors” peering down at a pit of dead emaciated bodies is her father.

When Lore and the kids are stopped on the road by American soldiers demanding travel papers, she is terrified but the young man, who calls himself Thomas (Malina) and has the necessary papers (not to mention a Star of David identifying him as a concentration camp survivor) intervenes and gets them  a ride for at least part of the distance.

Lore is drawn into a love-hate relationship with Thomas. There’s no doubt that the kids love him and that he is looking out for them as he would his own family, but he is also everything her parents warned her against and was the object of their scorn and hatred. She doesn’t know what to think about him – nor of her own burgeoning sexuality which is beginning to emerge. It’s a long, long road to Hamburg and they’ll have to get through plenty of obstacles to get there.

This is a movie that looks at the other side and not necessarily with sympathy. Lore’s parents are monsters, and the more we see of them the more we realize that they had full knowledge of what was happening in regards to the Final Solution.

The problem I had is with Lore herself. One moment she’s sympathetic, the next intolerable, the following plucky, and the moment after that sensual. Her emotions are like a pachinko machine, bouncing from here to there without any real rhyme or reason. Part of that is endemic to being a hormonal teenage girl, another part is inconceivable stress. Either way, it makes it very difficult for an audience to identify with Lore.

That’s not necessarily Rosendahl’s fault. She seems to be a very capable young actress with a great deal of promise – she’s just given a character to play who isn’t an easy one to pull together and she does the very best she can. I’m not sure that any actress, even a Meryl Streep, could have pulled off this part any better.

Lore is beautifully photographed as we see pristine German woodlands and bucolic country villages which makes the heinous deeds we see even more wrenching. There are unburied bodies everywhere, some dead by their own hand. A misguided old woman who takes Lore’s family in temporarily wails at a portrait of Der Fuhrer “We let him down. He loved us all so.”  It’s disquieting to say the least.

These aren’t perfect kids and the world they inhabit is chaotic and unpredictable. There are no real rules and surviving is not an easy task – just procuring food isn’t a given. Survival isn’t a given. The baby give them a bit of an advantage and Lore knows it but she also realizes that she is becoming a woman and that can be an advantage with certain kinds of men.

Lore grows from being something of a spoiled brat at the beginning of the movie into a cynical woman who is in bare-bones survival mode. Her last actions in the film are of defiance and transformation as she realizes that what she has been through has changed her forever – nothing will ever be the same again. It’s a powerful message.

And yet I didn’t connect with the film the way I think I should have. Perhaps it’s the pacing which is very slow. Perhaps it is the emotional pinball machine that is Lore. Or perhaps it’s just the wrong day and the wrong time for me to see a movie like this. It certainly requires a good deal of commitment from the viewer. It’s a movie whose skill and technique I admire, and whose story I think is one that should be told. I just didn’t fall under its spell the way I would have liked.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed. Gripping material.

REASONS TO STAY: Lore’s character is all over the map and gives us nothing to hold on to emotionally.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, some sexuality, a bit of foul language and some adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The family photographs in Thomas’ wallet actually belong to Shortland’s husband, who is of German Jewish descent and whose family fled Nazi Germany in 1936.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100; this is a critical hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Way Back

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring, Day 3

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days


Sophie Scholl: The Final Days

Sophie Scholl's trial was stacked slightly against her.

(2005) Historical Drama (Zeitgeist) Julia Jentsch, Gerald Alexander Held, Fabian Hinrichs, Johanna Gastdorf, Andre Hennicke, Florian Stetter, Johannes Suhm, Maximillian Bruckner, Jorg Hube, Petra Kelling, Franz Staber, Lilli Jung. Directed by Marc Rothemund

When confronted by absolute evil, people of good conscience are required to act. In reality, we know that’s seldom the case and when it does happen it rarely ends well for the person who acted.

It is Nazi Germany, February 1943. In Munich, a young woman named Sophie Scholl (Jentsch) and her brother Hans (Hinrichs) are distributing anti-Nazi leaflets at the University there. They are members of an underground group called The White Rose who stood against the government and were hoping to urge the students to rise up against the Nazis.

The two are just finishing up their task when Sophie accidentally knocks a pile of the leaflets off a balcony where a janitor sees her. He turns them in to the authorities – not so much because he’s a Nazi toady but because he was irritated at having to clean up the mess.

The two are brought to the police station, where Sophie is interrogated by Robert Mohr (Held), a police inspector who while a member of the Nazi party is also a somewhat compassionate man who views Sophie as more of a misguided youth rather than as a dangerous dissenter. Most of the interrogation is a foregone conclusion; the police know that Sophie and Hans did it.

Justice, or what passes for it, works swiftly in Nazi Germany and their trial takes place within a few days. There an outspoken and shrill judge (Hennicke) tries the two Scholls as well as Christoph Probst (Stetter).Sophie is repeatedly offered chances at clemency if she gives names to the tribunal; she refuses, protecting the other members of The White Rose. The trial soon reaches its inevitable conclusion and Sophie, her brother and Probst would pay the ultimate price for their dissention.

Sophie Scholl is a national heroine in Germany, particularly in Bavaria where she lived and died. The filmmakers used actual transcripts of her interrogation and trial, recently unearthed from the former East Germany, to supply the dialogue. Survivors of the period, including members of The White Rose (few as they are; most of the organization was wiped out by the Nazis) who knew Scholl well, contributed to creating the character of Scholl for the movie.

There is an authenticity to the movie that rings true. Sophie’s interrogation contains few grand gestures, few political statements; for the most part, it’s all police procedural – where were you, why were you carrying a suitcase, are you a member of a subversive organization and so on. The very mundane nature of the interrogation makes it all the more sinister and tragic. Mohr, by all accounts a decent man who was horrified by what happened to Scholl and her co-conspirators, is persistent and certain in the justness of his cause. He can’t understand why Scholl, whom he considers privileged and spoiled, would speak out against a system that was responsible for getting him to a position he might never have obtained otherwise. Held gives a note perfect performance of the role.

Jentsch is astonishing and makes Scholl very human. She is no martyr, no Joan of Arc looking heavenward with soulful eyes (although Scholl, a devout Catholic, prayed regularly) but certain of her beliefs. She is terrified of what is to come but refuses to endanger others no matter what the cost. There is a scene near the end where she is allowed to meet with her parents one final time that is absolutely sparkling. The parents are heartbroken that their children are about to die, but justifiably proud at the same time.

Hinrichs didn’t get the acclaim that Jentsch and Held got but in his own right does a terrific job. Hans Scholl has taken a backseat in the hearts of Germans in many ways but he was as brave and suffered the same fate as his sister. He doesn’t get the kind of screen time that Jentsch gets (we see none of his interrogation) but he makes the most of his.

In an era when young people in Egypt, Libya and Wisconsin are rising up to say “no” to tyranny, the movie is particularly poignant. While perhaps the protesters in Madison face mere jail time for their demonstration, the students elsewhere are confronted by the very real possibility that they may get shot and killed.

This isn’t a movie that’s flashy or histrionic. We do not see Scholl’s execution; we only hear it against a black screen. The movie proceeds at a slow, inexorable pace that some may find off-putting but the effect is powerful nonetheless. The movie received a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2006 Oscars and while it didn’t win, it certainly was good enough to. The movie hasn’t received a good deal of attention over here but if you’re looking for a compelling drama and you’re willing to look outside the box a little, this is a perfect choice for your DVD viewing.

WHY RENT THIS: Captures a little known element of the war (for Americans). Outstanding performances by Jentsch, Held and Hinrichs. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie proceeds at a somewhat slow pace.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images and some smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot in chronological order to help the actors feel what Sophie and Hans Scholl felt in their ordeal.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a feature that contains interviews with people who knew Sophie Scholl and members of the White Rose and captures their commentary on how accurate the movie was in depicting her. It offers some amazing insights.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.2M on an unreported production budget; the film almost certainly was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Adjustment Bureau