The Book Thief is based on the award-winning book by Australian author Markus Zusak. The book is written from an unusual perspective, for the narrator of the story is Death. One of the strengths of the movie is that it keeps that conceit, but uses it sparingly for effect. Death’s voice is provided by Roger Allam (The Queen, V for Vendetta), with a nice blend of knowing irony and wonder.
In 1938 Germany, Liesel (Sophie Neliesse) and her brother are being taken to a new adoptive family after her mother is no longer able to provide for them. As they travel on a train with the representative of the social services, Liesel’s brother dies, necessitating a stop to bury him. While at the gravesite, one of the attendants drops a book, and Liesel hides it away in her coat, the first but not the last book she will steal.
She comes to live with Hans and Rosa Huberman (Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson) on Himmelstrasse (Heaven Street) in a small town near Stuttgart. Rosa has a gruff, hard manner, but Hans is a sweet charmer. When he discovers Liesel hasn’t learned to read, he helps tutor her by reading the book she stole, a guide to the gravedigger’s profession. During a rally for the Fuhrer’s birthday, stacks of books are burned, but while others joyfully sing as the fires consume the pyre, Liesel is devastated. Later she returns and finds a copy of “The Invisible Man” that is only singed. It becomes the second book she steals.
As the movie progresses, we meet other characters: Rudy (Nico Liersch), the blond boy next door who becomes Liesel’s best friend; Max (Ben Schnetzer), the Jewish son of a man to whom Hans owes his life; and Ilsa Herman (Barbara Auer), the mayor’s wife who opens her library to Liesel. But as the country moves into and through WWII, the shadow of the narrator looms larger.
The movie was filmed in Germany which lends authenticity to the settings, and a portion of the dialogue is in Germany with subtitles. Screenwriter Michael Petroni (The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader) has done a remarkable job translating Zusak’s book to the screen while still capturing the lyrical literary quality of the story. Director Brian Percival has mostly worked in television, including several episodes of “Downton Abbey,” but he handles the movie with a sure, gentle hand. The film also benefits from a score by John Williams.
Sophie Neliesse is incredible as Liesel, especially with her blue eyes that seem so much older than her physical age in the role. One can understand how Death could become fascinated with her. She holds her own with Rush and Watson, who are outstanding as Hans and Rosa, especially as they reveal the deeper levels of the characters.
This is a beautiful and haunting film that will stay with you long after the lights come up in the theater. As Death says in the narration, “The only truth I truly know is that I am haunted by humans.” With The Book Thief, that’s perfectly understandable.