The title character in “The Book Thief” is Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), a little girl in pre-WWII Germany. We first see her on a train with her mother and dying younger brother. The children were both going to be delivered to foster parents but Liesel and her mother stop along the way to bury her brother. As the gravedigger leans over, a book falls out of his pocket. Liesel picks it up.
Her new parents are the frosty Rosa (Emily Watson) and the gentle Hans (Geoffrey Rush). At first, Liesel is so traumatized she cannot speak. But Hans hears her softly singing Brahms’ lullabye to herself at night and coaxes her into talking to him by playing the song on his accordion. When he finds that she cannot read, he uses her book to teach her. She tells him it is hers, but “it didn’t used to be.” That was not hard to guess; it is a book about digging graves.
Liesel is befriended by a friendly classmate named Rudy (Nico Liersch), an athletic kid who wants to race like Olympic champion Jesse Owens. Around them, the rise of the Nazi party is evident in omnipresent banners and badges. A school choir sweetly sings an anti-Semitic song. Hans’ skills as a house and sign painter prove useful when someone has to remove the insults painted on his Jewish neighbor’s store. Liesel becomes a book thief again when Hitler’s birthday is celebrated with a huge book burning. It is less a theft than a rescue, the book smouldering under her coat as she hides it from Hans. The book is The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells.
The impact of the Nazi regime literally hits home when Max (Ben Schnetzer) arrives. Max’s father sacrificed himself to save Hans’ life in the first World War. It is his accordion that Hans cherishes so dearly. Hans and Rosa talk about whether they are prepared to take the risk of hiding Max, but they know they have no choice. Max becomes very ill and as Liesel helps to nurse him back to health, they become very devoted to one another. She “borrows” books (without asking) from the home of the wealthiest man in town to read to him.
The young Australian author Markus Zusak was inspired to write The Book Thief by a story he heard from his mother, who emigrated from Germany following World War II. A teenage boy in her village ran to give bread to a starving man who was being herded with other Jews by Nazis delivering them to a concentration camp. Both the man and the boy who tried to help him were whipped by the Nazis. This story of the very best and worst of humanity gave him the idea of a story set in Germany during the Holocaust.
Addressing the Holocaust through fiction is a daunting challenge and this film does not always master it. An uncertain sense of its audience makes it feel off at times, too simplistic for adults and too disturbing for young audiences. An episodic structure seems meandering and unfocused. Most problematically, the choice of Death as a narrator works better on paper than on film. But Rush’s performance and some touching moments make this what is perhaps the best we can hope for in grappling with the incomprehensible — a part of a conversation, even a conversation about what does not work, that keeps us striving to honor the memory of those who suffered and to strengthen our resolve once again to conquor the fear and ignorance that caused it.
Parents should know that this film is set during the Nazi atrocities of WWII Germany. There are many sad deaths and references to the Holocaust, racist and anti-Semitic comments, fighting, and some war-time violence.
Family discussion: Is Liesel a thief? Why did she read to Max when he was ill?
If you like this, try: the book, “The Story of Anne Frank,” and “The Devil’s Arithmetic”