Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), the light-fingered heroine of The Book Thief, doesn’t really steal books, she borrows them. The first book she filches is from a gravesite—during the burial of her younger brother. It’s 1938 Germany, and Liesel’s mother, a Communist, is on the run from the Nazis. Liesel is sent to live with Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his shrewish wife (Emily Watson). Liesel is illiterate, and with Hans’ help, she eagerly learns to read. Hans is kindly and patient, and deflects his wife’s harshness with winks and rolled eyes. Also making Liesel’s adjustment to her new life easier is Rudy (Nico Liersch), an athletic and vivacious classmate who lives across the street and who becomes instantly devoted to her. Dressed, like all the other children, in her Nazi Youth uniform, Liesel is unaware of the horrors going on outside the small village, but during a speech at a book-burning rally by the local burgomeister, she begins to understand the regime’s hatred for Communists, Jews, and books.
Adapted from the best-selling novel by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief starts out strong and gradually gives way to saccharine sentiments that are perturbing in their inappropriateness. However quaint the village, it is still part of World War II—and the genocide of millions, which the film totally ignores. After a startling sequence showing the village’s own Night of Broken Glass, The Book Thief settles into a family-friendly version of how small-town Germans got by during the reign of Hitler. Hans has been impoverished by his refusal to join the Nazi party, and when asked for help, he allows Max (Ben Schnetzer), the son of a World War I comrade, to hide in their basement.
From there, the screenplay is more concerned with a quasi-mystical subtext regarding the power of words, conveyed through Liesel’s love of books. With Max’s encouragement, she finds her voice as a writer. Problem is, the person narrating the film isn’t Liesel—it’s Death (Roger Allam), a disembodied observer who proclaims himself “Hitler’s greatest ally.” Death, apparently, is obsessed with humans, and especially Liesel, and is always inserting commentary where it is least welcome. And aside from her photogenic blonde beauty, Liesel isn’t really all that remarkable. As the war causes ever-greater hardship, the film’s emphasis on her preternatural effect on others becomes a hindrance that overcomes the handsome production. There is Watson’s charming hausfrau imitation, however, and the occasional moment of real power—as when Max ventures into the deserted streets during a late-night air raid to gaze, for a few precious moments, at the starry sky.
Almost offensively innocent in its treatment of Nazism (even the fate of Liesel’s mother is swept under the rug), The Book Thief is too plodding for the youngsters it seems to be aiming for. What is misses, aside from a brisker aesthetic, is the more involving story of ordinary villagers practicing random acts of defiance.