On a train travelling across Germany in the winter of 1938 a young girl named Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) first glimpses Death when he claims the life of her little brother. Liesel's mother, a Communist fleeing Nazi persecution, leaves her in foster care with a poor couple in a small German town: kind-hearted Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his stern, short-tempered wife Rosa (Emily Watson). At first Liesel struggles adjusting to her new life. Her lack of schooling makes her a target for playground bullies though it turns out she can handle herself in a fight. Liesel finds an admirer in Rudy (Nico Liersch), a joyful little boy and promising athlete who becomes her devoted friend. When Hans teaches Liesel how to read he awakens in her an irrepressible love of books and storytelling. Unfortunately, in a bid to purge Germany of the corrupting influence of intellectuals the Nazis initiate mass book burning rallies across the nation, driving Liesel to 'borrow' new books in secret. Amidst this climate of fear, the Hubermanns shelter a young Jewish refugee named Max (Ben Schnetzer). He also befriends Liesel fueling her love of books as a way of keeping hope alive in the face of the ever-lurking, omniscient spectre of Death.
Adapted from the award-winning international bestseller written by Markus Zusak The Book Thief inexplicably drew a muted critical response when it is actually among the most lyrical, profound and plain heart-rending war dramas in recent years. Some felt the film was too polished, another tasteful, meticulously crafted literary adaptation glossing over the true visceral horrors of war. Yet this is clearly not the case. For one thing, the film does not lack for grit. Brian Percival, veteran of numerous British television serials including Downton Abbey, paints a painfully vivid portrayal of poverty and suffering in a world in almost literal shades of gray: Liesel joins an angelic school choir singing anti-Semitic songs, Nazi thugs brutalize Jewish shopkeepers in the streets, children cheer when war is declared, and an elderly neighbour angrily chastises Rudy for blacking himself up like his idol Olympic athletics champion Jesse Owens.
Zusak's book is a fable. In adapting it for the screen Percival and Australian screenwriter Michael Petroni, a director in his own right, adopt an appropriately lyrical, humanistic tone enabling viewers to empathize with those caught on the other side of the war. It is a rare story told not from an Allied perspective nor even those swept up the dreadful events of the Holocaust but rather ordinary, everyday Germans who at worst stood idly by or at best, like the Hubermanns, tried to make some small difference in the face of overwhelming powerlessness. The film deftly illustrates how fear breeds conformity, enabling the petty cruelty to blossom into greater evil as with the schoolyard bully who, humiliated after having his ass kicked by a girl, goes out of his way to inform on his neighbours, and reducing those with good intentions to powerless bystanders such as the Burgermeister's wife (Barbara Auer) who secretly allows Liesel to read books from her vast private library. Eventually characters we grow to love and care about are conscripted into the Nazi cause, good people caught in an impossible situation between Adolf Hitler and Allied bombs.
Although The Book Thief's measured, deliberate pacing leaves it at times reminiscent of a high quality children's serial from the BBC, in taking its own time the episodic narrative skilfully etches the multiple characters who each shape Liesel's outlook on life. The story charts Liesel's growing intellectual development as her increasing facility with words enable her to paint a verbal picture of the outside world for poor sheltered Max. For although Death (voiced by Roger Allam) serves as narrator and remains a significant theme, the story is really a love letter to the written word. As Max tells Liesel: "Words are life." The film shows how words and stories are the means by which we illuminate existence and make sense of the unfathomable. In a memorable scene during a bomb raid Liesel lifts the spirits of the sheltering townsfolk with a story. At one point her words literally give strength back to Max. Later on the very act of writing saves one character's life. The performances of the ensemble cast deserve more praise than they received, from seasoned pros Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson (who is especially good as Rosa) to stellar turns from newcomers Ben Schnetzer and Nico Liersch, but the heart of the film lies with gifted French-Canadian child actress Sophie Nélisse. Liesel is a captivating heroine, a scrappy little thing who can beat the tar out of the school bully, outrun any boy and endure injury to save a life, yet remains heartbreakingly vulnerable. Befuddled by the ugliness and beguiled by the wonder that surrounds her. In her first English speaking role Nelisse mesmerizes from the moment she first appears on screen marveling at the sudden manifestation of Death. With soulful eyes and a wonderfully expressive face, Nélisse gives a performance of tremendous heart, nuance and sensitivity.