When we first meet young Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), she and her younger brother are being transported by their mother to their new foster parents, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) in post World War 2 Germany. During her trip however, Liesel's younger brother passes away which only leaves her and her alone to be taken in by Hans and Rosa. When war breaks out and Germany begins its war campaign, Liesel and her foster parents must contend with life in their small town where both money and food is in short supply, which is only made more difficult when a local Jewish man is forced to live in their basement for the duration of the war.
Compelling and often times emotionally stirring but also flawed in some unique ways, director Brian Percival's new film The Book Thief is a very light and strangely romantic view of such a horrible time in history. This isn't your stereotypical romance between a man and a woman, or any two people for that matter. The romance of the film lies within the heart of a young girl and between the pages of the books she holds so near and dear. While it is never explained where Liesel's love for the written word comes from as we are never really given any back story for her whatsoever, it is nonetheless apparent that she indeed loves books and loves to read.
The setting for the film is possibly the most unique aspect to the entire story. Rarely do we get to see life behind enemy lines and the impact the war had on Germany's own people. Too often do we think of Germany at that time as the entire country being part of the Nazi regime where in fact there were a number of its citizens who wished to remain apart from any such titles and/or affiliation with Hitler's party. Liesel's parents fall on the side of those who wished to remain anonymous and went about their day as best they could without ever attracting attention to themselves.
While it is hardly ever hit upon in other films during this time, Hitler was a dictator of whom it was easy for him to prey upon the weakened Germany after its defeat during the first World War. He was, as some like to say, the right person at the wrong time or in other words he was that special kind of crazy that the majority of people of Germany wanted to rally behind. So, because of that he, like most dictators, instilled fear into anyone who would attempt to or by misfortune denounce his name and his "political" views. That is where we find Liesel and her parents, at the heart of this mad man's power and unable to do anything other than lower their heads and carry on about their business.
But they, like many during this dark time, took it upon themselves to fight back in any way possible, which their struggle began when they bring in a local Jewish boy who used to live and work down the street from them before Hitler's oppression had the entire Jewish community lifted up and sent to the camps. The young man who comes to stay with Liesel and her parents is named Max (Ben Schnetzer) and despite his intentions to lay low for only a short while, his stay gets extended far far beyond that where after a while entire years have passed as they keep Max hidden away from anyone, or risk being executed for harboring a fugitive.
There is a lot going on in The Book Thief, arguably more than the film version can juggle without stumbling a few times. There is Liesel's story, Max's story, Hans' story, the advent of World War 2 and the repercussions of Hitler's idealistically insane world order has on the youth of Germany. While some of those elements may be a little undercooked, especially the constant threat of living under someone as crazy as Hitler, the film never looses focus of our main character and her own personal journey nor of those around her, which ultimately saves the film.
The most successful element of the film is by far the relationship forged between Liesel and her new father Hans. His playful manner brings out the best in Liesel and how the two eventually bond over the books that Liesel "acquires" serve as the emotional center of the film. Sure, Liesel also has her close friend Rudy and later when Max arrives she ends up forming a close bond with him as well, but none of those relationships ever feels quite as strong Hans' connection to Liesel which can only be summed up as a deep fatherly love. Her mother Rosa gets a few moments here and there as well, but is mostly relegated to the evil stepmother role most of the time.
There is another aspect to the film that works better than it probably should have and its one that you probably wouldn't be expecting given the era the film takes place in or its content, and that is the inclusion of a third party narrator in the form of the Angel of Death. This added element brings a sort of fantasy feel to the film that at first feels out of place with the content until it's repeated use starts to feel almost essential in telling the story of Liesel's journey. The way in which the narrator gives subtle indications as to the eventual fate of certain people in Liesel's life and his explanations as to why it had to happen are much more effective than you are likely to believe and eventually becomes a presence we wish there was more of.
The weakest parts of the film are unfortunately almost everything having to do with the constant threat of detection of Liesel's family by the Nazi party for their sympathy towards the Jewish community and how that threat is seemingly diminished over time through a set of circumstances that fail to contain any sort of immediate danger. Every time their home comes under inspection or any of them come under suspicion of illegal acts, it is either swiftly swept under the rug or is never brought up again.
For instance, when Liesel and Rudy are caught discussing the man they are hiding in her basement, a loyal future Nazi youth overhears them and threatens to expose them. This predicament is then never followed through as no one is ever exposed and that kid is never seen again and no one even seems worried that he might make good on his promise. Likewise, during an inspection of their home, it never feels as though anything will be discovered despite them hiding Max from the soldiers in near plain sight or when a family member is swept up and sent off to war; we expect the worse to happen and it never does. What this does is give a false sense of security that Liesel and her family are free from harm regardless of how guilty they appear to be and that deception fails to properly convey the terror of that time.
Lastly there is the subject of Hitler's effect on the youth of Germany. Early on we get the sense that perhaps the film will delve deeper into the brainwashing that was happening to the children of Germany, but in the end it is only glossed over. There are a couple of scenes involving tests and events where the Nazi party are clearly looking for new recruits, but other than Liesel's friend Rudy becoming a possible candidate, this entire subject is also swept under the rug nice and neatly.
However, given its storybook nature, the film doesn't seem to be aiming too high in regards to perfectly replicating the horror of World War 2. Instead, the film seems to be taking this unconventional laid back approach to the material which in hindsight serves the underlying tale of Liesel's adventures during that time rather well. The through line here is, don't expect the next Schindler's List and you should come away from the film pleased and despite an unexpected turn of events at the end, fairly uplifted.
While clearly not looking to raise the bar in the realm of World War 2 films, The Book Thief does end up working rather well as a family drama that just so happens is set in the midst of World War 2 Germany. The relationships, especially the father/daughter bond built between Liesel and Hans, is works best and ultimately helps the film succeed despite some of its inherent lack of focus on all the threats surrounding them.