Adapted from the best-selling, award-winning book of the same name about a young girl in Nazi Germany, the opening scene of “The Book Thief” suggests a fantastical story. We soar through a majestic blue sky, high above the clouds, and are treated to a voice-over by the angel of death, who fills us in on his relationship with humanity as the camera plummets through the clouds and we see a train in the distance.
Once the camera dips inside the train, showing us the dark, uncomfortable wooden benches and the various people from all walks of life, the film loses that fantastical veneer. It is here we meet young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse). Death tells us he has very little interest in humans, but there’s just something about Liesel. At that moment, the young girl, sitting with her mother and younger brother on Mom’s lap, notices blood coming from the nose of her brother’s suddenly lifeless body.
Cut to a cemetery in which only the mother, Liesel, a priest and a gravedigger are present. As Liesel’s grieving mother walks away from the grave, the young girl notices a book on the ground, which she takes and hides. Frankly, the lack of emotion in the scene is a bit striking. Yes, the mother cried and Liesel seemed sad, but the circumstances felt more heartbreaking than the actual scene did. An artistic choice to be sure, but also an appropriate way to describe this movie.
We learn the purpose of the aforementioned train ride was to take Liesel and her brother to foster parents Rosa (Emily Watson) and Hans (Geoffrey Rush). The mother is forced to give up her children because she’s a Communist – or at least that’s the story going around the village in which Liesel is about to reside.
Hans and Liesel grow close as he teaches the illiterate young girl to read, all while World War II progresses and Nazism spreads. During a town book-burning rally, the school bully forces Liesel to throw a book into the bonfire. After the rally, however, she sneaks back and places the still-smoldering volume under her coat — an act noticed by Frau Hermann, the wife of the town burgermeister (mayor). Frau Hermann secretly gives Liesel access to their library, feeding the young girl’s imagination and intellectual curiosity, helping Liesel develop a world view that does not jibe with the world in which she exists.
Thematically, “The Book Thief” is a wonderful story. Liesel’s plight likely represents that of many German children coming of age during that time, who were not completely indoctrinated in or susceptible to Nazi dogma. Execution of this wonderful story, is, well, a different story. Geoffrey Rush’s performance as his relationship with young Liesel blossoms is excellent, and though there are emotional moments throughout “The Book Thief,” they are, as I wrote earlier, born more of the circumstances than they are the writing, acting or directing. Loved ones dying, brutality, war, the Holocaust — they’re all here, and they all tug at the heart, but in a better movie they would grab your heart and never let go.
Three out of five stars.