“The Book Thief” is an unexpectedly rewarding trip to Germany during WWII. For those of you who feared, like me, schmaltz and tears in large doses, fear no more. “The Book Thief” takes a look at what life was like for everyday Germans living under the Nazi regime.
Directed by Brian Percival, based on the novel by Markus Zusak with screenplay by Michael Petroni, “The Book Thief” is the story of young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse). As the film begins in 1938 Germany, Liesel and her brother, escorted by their mother, are making their way by train to the home of Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson), who are going to raise the two. Because their mother is a Communist, her life is in danger and she thinks it be best for her children to live with the Hubermanns. While enroute, Liesel’s brother gets sick and dies. After his burial, Liesel’s mother decides to let Liesel make the rest of the journey on her own. Upon her arrival in the small town, Hans is there to meet the frightened Liesel and quickly puts her at ease. Hans and Rosa are an interesting, if stereotypical couple. Hans is all charm and fun—able to easily express love. Rosa is dour, gruff and cold. However, looks can be deceiving in both cases.
Almost immediately Liesel is befriended by adorable Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch), her next door neighbor. The two become best friends and their relationship is fun to watch as it develops and deepens. Taunted at her new school because she can’t read or write, Liesel is protected by Rudy, but it is Hans who takes matters into his own hands and quickly remedies the situation. Liesel shows a great interest in reading and Hans is a born teacher. Liesel becomes a voracious reader and when the Nazis enforce book burnings, finds a risky way to continue her reading. Entering the mix is Max (Ben Schnetzer), a German Jew, who arrives malnourished and exhausted on the Hubermann’s doorstep, seeking refuge from them. Because Max’s father had saved his life in WWI, Hans and Rosa don’t hesitate to take him in and hide him. To tell much more would give away the film’s intricacies and gems.
Sophie Nélisse is amazing as Liesel…able to portray all the emotions of a young girl, as well as one wise beyond her years. Her work with each of her co-stars is uniquely wonderful with each. Geoffrey Rush is terrific as the loving, delightful father. Emily Watson has a thankless role as the seemingly cold-hearted wife and mother, but she is great in the part. And when she warms up, watch out. Nico Liersch is astoningshly adorable as the blue-eyed blonde Rudy with some unexpected surprises up his sleeve. Ben Schnetzer is very good as the resilient Jew, Max, who also helps Liesel with her studies.
It’s rare to have a movie that portrays what it was like for ordinary Germans to live under the Nazis. Yes, the Nazis could insist that the Swastika flags fly and badges be worn everywhere, but they couldn’t necessarily rule the German people’s hearts. “The Book Thief” illustrates that many died for a cause in which they didn’t entirely believe. In Germany the Nazis did more than burn books—they scorched many lives and stole many souls.
Not necessarily sad, but definitely sobering, “The Book Thief” is now available On Demand and worth seeking out.