Film Review: The Book Thief

Beautifully produced, easy-to-take English-language World War II drama set in Germany holds interest with its story of a young girl sent to live with a foster working-class family where she learns to love books. But no new chapters written here.

Nicely directed by Brian Percival (“Downton Abbey”), The Book Thief takes a page from other works about World War II in Germany by telling its story from the inside and through the eyes of a young teen or pre-teen protagonist. Recent similar films have included Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Cate Shortland’s remarkable German-language Lore, although these were dark takes on this dark period.

The Book Thief goes lighter, maybe too light for more demanding fans of art-house fare. But the film benefits from Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson delivering fine performances. Important also is their considerable marquee value. But Canadian newcomer Sophie Nélisse as the film’s captivating young protagonist also adds value to what otherwise amounts to a middle-of-the-road entry onto the crowded content roads.

Young Liesel (Nélisse), separated from her Communist mother and grieving the recent death of her beloved brother, is sent to live in a small town with foster parents Hans (Rush), a sometime house painter, and wife Rosa (Watson), who takes in laundry. She also soon meets Rudy (Nico Liersch), a likeable young boy her age with whom she bonds.

While Rosa is harsh and scolding, Hans is a more gentle soul. He helps Liesel learn to read and build a vocabulary. The girl quickly takes advantage of a large blackboard in the house’s basement to hone her skills. As Liesel’s reading improves, her hunger for books grows. But books are in short supply, so she’ll swipe one when the occasion arises. A scene showing Nazis tossing books into a giant bonfire underscores the shortage.

When Liesel delivers clothes laundered by Rosa to the town’s burgomeister (Rainer Bock), she discovers his grand book-lined library and her appetite is further stoked. Books surreptitiously fly off the shelf, but thankfully the burgomeister’s wife Ilsa (Barbara Auer) encourages Liesel’s habit, all unbeknownst to her stern husband.

Matters take a dramatic turn when Max (Ben Schnetzer), the Jewish 20-something son of one of Hans’ closest friends from World War I combat and a person who gave his life for Hans, shows up at the household in need of shelter. Hans, fulfilling a promise, and Rosa hide him in the basement where he must sleep on the floor. Max, also a sensitive soul who loves reading, bonds with Liesel. He encourages her creativity by giving her an empty notebook to write in.

The film does not spare us some familiar aspects of the war: Kristallnacht, the invasion of Jewish homes, etc. As it nears its grim conclusion, deeper hardships afflict the town. Liesel’s foster family grows more impoverished and the town’s Nazis, including Hans’ acquaintance Wolfgang (Matthias Matschke), grow more desperate and meddlesome. Maybe sensing Max’s presense, Wolfgang takes a closer look at the household. Max disappears, bombings take a terrible toll, and much is to follow.

Another character, by way of voiceover only, contributes some welcome cynicism to the proceedings. This is the blunt, direct voice of Death (Roger Allam), commenting on the human condition, far from tip-top during this appalling period of history.

Fox boldly purchased several full-page ads in The New York Times that it left virtually blank (symbolizing the absence of words) to promote the film, suggesting there was a little more bravery in the marketing than the storytelling.