In 1938, at the age of 11, Liesel is sent to live with foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann in Molching, Germany, near Munich. She has been given up by her mother following her brother’s death. At first, life in the small town seems carefree to her. However the Nazi presence gradually grows increasingly oppressive. Liesel begins acquiring books that the party has deemed forbidden. At one point, the couple also take in a Jewish refugee named Max. She shares her books with Max and they develop a deep friendship not unlike an older brother to a younger sister.
At its most basic genre, The Book Thief is a war drama, but it’s oh so much more. Little Liesel is played by extraordinary French-Canadian Sophie Nélisse. I took note of her movie debut back in 2011’s Monsieur Lazhar. Here the young actress is given the lead and she is outstanding. In addition to the relationship with her foster parents, Liesel also makes friendships with the young man in hiding, a neighbor boy her own age and the Bürgermeister’s wife. These richly detailed connections provide a way for the script to detail the horrors of the Nazi party. It is Liesel through which these interactions occur. Nélisse is positively hypnotic in the role and I would follow her on any adventure. A large part of why the chronicle succeeds is because of her charisma.
The Book Thief is beautifully adapted from Marcus Zusak’s beloved 2006 best seller. A majority of the action takes place within the narrow world of Himmel Street, the road on which she lives. That serves the plot a unique focus to explore themes that affect a specific time and place. The movie doesn’t shy away from the truth: book burnings, air raids, and violent deaths all contribute to the narrative. It would have been very easy to ratchet up thrills by showing lots of atrocities. Yet the PG-13 family film takes the creative route by portraying the action with a alternative point of view. The portrait examines Nazi Germany through a child’s eyes and what they encounter.
The Book Thief is a real throwback to classic Hollywood filmmaking for the entire family. It becomes more powerful for its handling of a difficult subject in an innovative way. There are moments where the production lags a bit, but the majority of wonderful characters makes up for the occasional lull. These include people like blonde haired Rudy, the 10 year old boy whose Olympic idol is Jesse Owens or Max who paints over the pages of Mein Kampf to create a blank book in which Liesel can write. Sometimes an innocent sees the beauty of their surroundings first and slowly becomes aware of the ugliness underneath. In time, Liesel realizes the Nazi are in fact responsible for her brother’s death and mother’s disappearance. She doesn’t necessarily understand the reasons why, but just that it has happened. She comes to the same conclusions as an adult, but from a different perspective. The Book Thief is an important drama that celebrates freedom of thought and love of humanity from the refreshing viewpoint of a child.