The Book Thief
The Book Thief opens with the voice of Death, providing a casual reminder that everyone will, eventually, die. Provided by Roger Allam, the voice appears several times throughout the film to philosophize and narrate, much like Death does in the novel by Markus Zusak. Fans of the novel will most likely find this a comforting sign of the faithful adaptation about to unfurl before them, but it's hard not to see the voice of Death as a clunky addition to the film. However, this is practically the only part of the film that doesn't make a successful transition from page to screen, as The Book Thief is just as compelling and enchanting a story as it ever was.
That story is about Leisel Meminger, played beautifully by Sophie Nèlisse, a young girl who is taken in by the Hubermanns, a poor foster family, at the start of World War II. Rosa Hubermann (Emily Watson) is a stern, cold woman who supports the family with her laundry business and seems more interested in the allowance they will get for taking care of Liesel than in the girl herself. Liesel warms more quickly to her new foster father Hans (Geoffrey Rush), a friendly, eccentric, and mostly out-of-work house painter who takes an instant liking to his new charge. The makeshift family becomes closer once they agree to shelter Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), a Jewish man, whose father once saved Hans' life. The film does a great job of showcasing the stakes of such an action, by quietly showing the building presence of the Nazi party, and intercutting scenes of a demonstration with scenes of Kristallnacht and Max escaping towards the Hubermanns and their home on Himmel Street, where they live.
Liesel and Max bond over their new circumstances and their love of books. Leisel has only just learned to read and write, using a book she stole from her younger brother's funeral. However, once the world of literature has been opened to her, she can't get enough, stealing books from the bonfire of a Nazi Party rally and a library belonging to the Burgermeister's wife. This act of rebellion helps Leisel and Max find hope and courage in the face of the growing threat of the war and the Holocaust, leading up to the film's most touching scene, where Liesel tells the other townspeople sheltered underground stories to distract them from the bombs going off above them.
Nèlisse is truly the star of the film, effortlessly bringing Liesel to life with a performance that is charming and compelling. It's no easy task to steal scenes from such respected and talented actors like Rush and Watson, but Nèlisse does so while simultaneously playing off of them wonderfully. She also does a great job of depicting Leisel's slow understanding of the events of the war and the effects of the Nazis' rise to power as it overwhelms her small town. It is through this slow realization that the audience really gets an understanding of the passage of time, rather than through the events of the film itself.
It's clear that Watson is enjoying playing Rosa's harsher side, but it's the moments when her walls crack and the love she has for her family show through that Rosa really becomes a compelling character. Watson's performance in incredibly understated, which means that she tends to be overshadowed by Rush, who, like Liesel, the audience finds it much easier to connect with. Unlike his wife, Hans wears his affection for his family clearly, and Rush's performance gives the film some much needed warmth and light. Schnetzer also gives a touching performance, despite his German accent dropping in and out, and his character's relationship with Liesel is the heart of the film. It's clear that the two actors had a strong bond, as their friendship radiates through the characters. However, when Schnetzer is on his own, he doesn't manage to capture your attention in the same way that he does when he has another actor to play off of.
The Book Thief's main triumph is its portrayal of how ordinary Germans were affected by the rise of Hitler and the war, which it does primarily through Leisel and her friend Rudy (the very charming Nico Liersch), and their conflicts with the new regime. Leisel doesn't understand why anyone would want to hurt Max, or even take her from her mother, who is a Communist. Rudy is confused by the anger and fear he inspires by covering himself in coal so that he better resembles his hero, Jesse Owens. Through their eyes, the audience sees the influence of the Nazi party, and the way that anyone who defies them like Hans does by defending a Jewish neighbor leads to terrible, often tragic consequences.
Audiences should not approach The Book Thief expecting a story about the full-scale horrors of the Holocaust. This is the story of one girl, one family, and one small village. With this grand tragedy as the backdrop, the film focuses on the small actions, the small rebellions and the small changes that affect ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, and highlights how there can always be hope and light found in the darkest of times.