This movie was shot by Florian Ballhaus (he also shot “The Devil Wears Prada”) and his work here is so perfect and polished, it’s initially distracting. It’s 1939 in Germany, a time of dark desperation, growing fear, widespread unrest. Hitler is rising to power; persecutions have begun. And yet, everyone is so well-dressed, so well lit; everything seems so beautiful. The opening shot of the train making its way through the snow-covered winter wilderness is stark and majestic. The interior of the train is all blues and grays with an almost gossamer quality. The heroine, Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) has a rosy glow to her cheeks, sunny backlight on her hair.
The plain brown houses are peaceful, stoic. And the film is narrated by Death, whose voice keeps pulling us out of the story, making events seem too carefully planned and neatly wrapped up at a time in history when chance and arbitrariness were the ruling forces. It all feels a bit contrived, sanitized, even a bit bland. It will get much better, more involving, as it goes along although the production values will always seem out of sync with the realities. The characters never look emaciated or desperate; most Nazi persecution happens off screen. Seeing war through the eyes and experiences of a child adds emotional depth to the story — and this achieves that, but only occasionally. Two other recent movies – “Sarah’s Key” and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” do that much more powerfully. This is a good movie but one that feels like “World War II Lite.”