The Book Thief removes all the horrors from the Holocaust and Nazi Germany to tell the story of a little girl who loves to read. It all seems a little too superficial, like a sanitized, simplistic version of the Holocaust. There are German children wearing swastikas and singing Hitler Youth songs, and Jews are marched through the street assumedly being taken to concentration camps (though the words are never uttered). But, the brutal war is mostly a backdrop to the story.
On the positive side, good casting, especially Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and the little girl Liesel, played by 13-year-old Sophie Nélisse, help make up a believable family and make this movie watchable. And Nélisse’s expressive, big, blue eyes go a long way to helping tell the story. Written by Michael Petroni and directed by Brian Percival (Downton Abbey), The Book Thief is slow at times, but never boring thanks to the chemistry of the cast.
The narrator, Death (voiced by Roger Allam), tells the audience that Young Liesel and her brother have been sent to live with foster parents. The reasons for this are somewhat unexplained (something about the mother being a Communist). Liesel’s brother dies en route, and she arrives at the home of Rosa (Watson) and Hans (Rush) Hubermann, timid and uncertain of what the future holds.
Rosa is like a hard candy with a chewy center. She’s stern and doesn’t play around much, but her softer side makes an appearance as time goes on. Hans is fun and playful from the get-go. When Hans discovers a book Liesel took from her brother’s gravedigger, he realizes she can’t read and proceeds to spend time every day teaching her. Liesel also befriends a neighbor boy Rudy (Nico Liersch). Rudy’s got a cute little crush on Liesel and wants to kiss her, but she keeps him at arm’s length. Rudy also admires and aspires to be African-American Olympic runner Jesse Owens, a big no-no in Nazi Germany.
One evening, a young Jewish man on the run, Max (Ben Schnetzer), arrives at the Hubermann’s doorstep looking for refuge. Apparently, Hans promised Max’s father he’d take care of his son after the father saved Hans’ life. As Max struggles to stay alive while hiding from the Nazis in the Hubermann’s cold, dark basement, Liesel reads to him. She steals, no make that borrows, books from a wealthy customer of Rosa’s laundry service. I didn’t have the highest expectations of The Book Thief. Based on the previews, it didn’t look that interesting to me. I learned that it was based on a bestselling book by Markus Zusak, which, admittedly, I had never heard of. I think this is one of many cases where the book is probably better than the movie.
Ultimately, the setting for The Book Thief is too pretty and picturesque like a Hallmark card, which seems like the antithesis of what Nazi Germany and World War II were about. The Book Thief attempts to tug at the heartstrings of audiences (and likely, Academy Award voters), but doesn’t come close to stealing my heart.
Movie Grade: B- ••