The Book Thief feels like a literary adaptation, yet it establishes a necessity for this story in film form through masterful symbolism, intelligent direction, and a delicate approach to difficult material. The movie, adapted from the bestselling novel, centers on Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), a young girl from a Communist family who moves in with a German couple, Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson), expecting two children to arrive. Liesel’s young brother, however, is claimed by Death on the way due to a sickness; Death himself narrates the feature, primarily in the film’s opening establishing moments and the epilogue. Rosa seems discontent with the lack of brother and sister, and she’s controlling, while Hans seems like the fun-loving, accepting sort. He plays the piano accordion, which his wife finds grating, but he does it to pass the time; in one key scene, he does it to distract from the horrors of the war happening above them.
When a Jewish refuge named Max (Ben Schnetzer) shows up at their doorstep and Hans knows he must return the favor for the man’s father, things change. Liesel witnesses a book burning led by Nazi hatred, and she discovers a novel by H.G. Wells: The Invisible Man. Fitting, considering what comes next with Max being secluded in their basement, never seeing the outdoors. Liesel learns to read from these books that she begins to steal, along with visits to a wife of an SS leader that provides her with a library unlike any she’s seen. Petroni’s adaptation of Zusak’s novel feels deliberately loyal because the original work is rich and vibrant in material. The film navigates these numerous narrative and thematic paths with an ease and brisk pace. Percival’s direction can be a testament to that as well, for he’s providing the backdrop of a harrowing war with children at the forefront. Liesel’s friendship with Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch) provides a shield of innocence for the film’s content.
This is not a particularly brutal film until the film’s closing half hour. It doesn’t need to be. Rush gives Hans an emotional heft I cannot quite articulate in words, but it’s simply masterful. He allows the audience to access a father figure, a child at heart, and a conflicted man who stands by his morals at any given point in time. He protects a man he’s known all his life and faces the consequences; he refuses to join the SS despite all of his opportunities; and most importantly, he is a kind man. Watson comes off as shrill and unloving in the film’s opening moments, but her evolution works far more than it should. There’s such a dramatic change in narrative when Max arrives that it provides the movie the boost it needs dramatically; the hunt for Max in the basement, shielded by a Nazi flag, is the epitome of effective symbolism. And Nélisse is a revelation in the lead, beautiful and affecting by the film’s end that her journey somehow connects. Typically World War II films isolate the viewer; The Book Thief speaks to humanity as a whole.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)