Reading an antidote to war in beautifully acted ‘Book Thief’
You need not have read Markus Zusak’s bestselling young adult novel to be drawn to The Book Thief. Bibliophiles, in particular, will find the premise of a child who steals books because she is so addicted to reading just about irresistible. As usual with literary adaptations, there’s a lot more going on in Zusak’s 500-plus-page novel than ever makes it to the screen. But the essence of Zusak’s story about a girl whose love of books helps her to survive devastating times—the rise of the Nazis in a World War II-era German town—retains its power.
Scripted by Michael Petroni (who’s had a hand in adapting authors as diverse as Anne Rice and C.S. Lewis for the screen), The Book Thief is directed by Downton Abbey veteran Brian Percival. It’s a stately looking film that wisely concentrates on personal dynamics, while the escalating horrors of the war are kept mostly off-screen. And it finally succeeds on an ensemble of absolutely lovely performances led by Geoffrey Rush as the girl’s warm-hearted foster father, Emily Watson as his crusty-seeming wife, and beguiling 13-year-old French-Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse in the title role.
The story begins in 1938, with young Liesel (Nélisse) riding in a train with her mother and sickly little brother. But the boy dies and is buried in a snowy graveyard near the tracks. Soon, Liesel has been turned over to the authorities by her mother (an alleged Communist), and is being delivered to her new foster parents, Hans (Rush) and Rosa (Watson) Hubermann, in a town outside of Munich. Rosa fumes that they were expecting two children, and the extra government subsidy that would come with them, but Hans has a care for the frightened girl’s feelings and steadily earns her affection with his gentleness and good humor.
Liesel quickly gains a new best friend in smitten next-door neighbor, Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch), and she beats up the class bully in a fury for mocking her when her new schoolmates find out she can’t read or write. When Hans, a semi-employed sign painter, discovers a book in Liesel’s possession—”The Gravedigger’s Handbook,” which she found dropped at her brother’s graveside—he suggests they read it together; he also creates a “dictionary” in chalk on the walls of the basement to help her learn new words.
As Liesel awakens to the wonder of words, the Nazis come to power with their campaign of moral and intellectual “cleansing.” When books are burned in the square, she can’t resist smuggling a smoking volume home. Delivering a basket of laundry Rosa has washed to the buergmeister’s house, Liesel bonds with the buergmeister’s wife (Barbara Auer), who invites her to make use of the family library. Even after the buergmeister stops sending his laundry to Rosa, Liesel starts sneaking into the library to “borrow” books.
But Liesel’s petty crimes pale next to the war encroaching steadily into the town: neighbors are conscripted into the army, Jews are dragged out of their homes for an unknown fate, and terrifying air raids disrupt everything. Tensions mount when the Hubermanns shelter Jewish refugee, Max (Ben Schnetzer), in their basement—a young man who also loves words and encourages Liesel to tell her own story.
There is probably more book thievery in the novel than the film; the filmmakers focus more on character relationships. And, like the book, the film is narrated intermittently by Death (voice of Roger Allam), a device that sometimes feels precious and distancing, but also turns up some wry observations. (“When the time comes, don’t panic,” Death advises us humans. “It doesn’t seem to help.”) It also keeps the audience on edge throughout, knowing that in any story involving Nazis, Death will play a big part, sooner or later.
That the worst of war’s brutality is kept off-screen fits with the viewpoint of children who can’t really comprehend what’s happening in the larger world. (It seems odd in one scene that bombing victims’ bodies are stretched out peacefully intact on the ground after the buildings are reduced to rubble.) But the emotional connection between the characters—especially the moving relationship between humble Hans, struggling to retain his humanity, and his devoted Liesel—gives the film its validity and grace.
THE BOOK THIEF ★ ★ ★ (out of four) With Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, and Ben Schnetzer. Written by Michael Petroni. From the novel by Markus Zusak. Directed by Brian Percival. A 20th Century Fox release. Rated PG-13. 131 minutes.