- Written by
- Michael Petroni
- Directed by
- Brian Percival
- Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and Sophie Nélisse
"I hate Hitler!" yell Liesel and Rudy, two German adolescents in Second World War Germany, who scream their frustration with the Fuhrer to the pine trees outside of town.
The sentiment is easy to get behind, but most of the rest of The Book Thief, a young-adult story of German life under Nazi rule, adapted from Australian writer Marus Zusak's 2005 international bestseller, feels coy and self-congratulatory in its child's-eye view of life in Nazi Germany, with the atrocities of the Holocaust just out of sight.
Directed by Brian Percival, best known for his work on Downton Abbey, the film has the similar quality of a well-appointed historical soap opera.
Set in the fictional town of Molching (standing in for Munich, near the Dachau concentration camp) and narrated with ponderous whimsy, by Death himself (the voice of Roger Allam) it's the story of 11-year-old Liesel Meminger (solemn-eyed Quebec actress, Sophie Nélisse, of Monsieur Lazhar).
We first meet her on a train, travelling with her fatally ill younger brother and mother, who we later learn was a rumoured communist, sent either to exile or prison. Following the brother's funeral, Liesel is delivered to the home of foster parents, jolly house-painter Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his ill-tempered wife, Rosa (Emily Watson). Hans, who plays accordion, calls her "Your Majesty," and when he discovers Liesel is, for some reason, illiterate, teaches her to read.
Later, the sharp-tongued Rosa proves she has a good heart when she agrees to help a young Jewish refugee, Max (Ben Schnetzer), whose father saved Hans's life in the First World War. Max moves into the basement, where Liesel reads to him through a long convalescence. Otherwise, Liesel plays with and shares secrets with her friend, Rudy (Nico Liersch), a young athlete who annoys the local Nazi brass with his dedication to the black American runner, Jesse Owens.
As Janet Maslin noted in her 2006 New York Times review of Zusak's novel, it is "loaded with librarian appeal" in its emphasis on the inspirational message about the power of books. At times, the movie feels more like morbid biblio-fetishism. When Liesel is spotted stealing a book from a Nazi bonfire by Ilsa (Barbara Auer), the middle-aged wife of the local Nazi mayor, the woman invites her to her home to borrow books from her dead son's collection. Later, when the mayor puts an end to the arrangement, Liesel continues to sneak through a window to take books to read to Max. In repayment, Max covers the pages of Hitler's Mein Kampf with white paint, repurposing it as a journal for Liesel's cause. That act proves instrumental to Liesel's development as, we learn in the denouement, in her postwar life she becomes a rich and famous writer with a New York apartment overseeing Central Park, which seems an awfully literal demonstration of the consolations of literature.