The movie is narrated by Death (Roger Allam), a literary affectation the purpose of which becomes clear only at the end, and one which probably should have been left out of the film altogether. The main character, however, is a cherubic German tween named Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse), whose single mother sends her away for adoption by the working-class Hubermans, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). Hans teaches Liesel to read, unlocking in her an insatiable appetite for books the family cannot afford. Meanwhile, Liesel is befriended by Rudy (Nico Liersch), a sweet, lemon-haired boy who lives next door. But their lives are forever changed when the Hubermans agree to shelter Max (Ben Schnetzer), the Jewish son of an old friend, from the Nazis…
The Book Thief is a movie in which the Good Germans are very, very good (generous, anti-Hitler, eager to risk their lives for others), the Bad Germans are awful, and there is virtually no one in between. Ambivalent characters (e.g., the Huberman’s grown, pro-Nazi son) and plot twists (Liesel and Rudy’s habit of non-bibliophilic theft) that appeared in the novel have been edited out. Arguably the largest moral dilemma the film has to offer revolves around the question of whether or not it is a good idea to build a snowman by the bedside of a young man known to be prone to illness.
The novel on which the film is based has been marketed in the U.S. as a “young adult” book, and I suppose one could make the case that its muffled simplifications offer younger viewers a suitable introduction to the horrors of the Holocaust. For my part, I thought it missed this difficult balance in both directions: too frightening for kids (in particular—be forewarned—the semi-tragic conclusion), and too childish for grownups.
Rush and Watson are both as good as one could reasonably hope—which is to say, too good for this sort of trite, treacly fare. (By contrast, the mawkish, holiday-movie score by John Williams is exactly apt.) As Liesel, Nelisse appears to have the requisite cinematic presence, but assessing her performance is tricky given how aggressively the movie beatifies her character. It’s hard, too, to envision any young actor overcoming material as cringe-inducing as the scene in which Liesel and Rudy stand by a sun-dappled lake and take turns shouting “I hate Hitler!” and giggling.
A final observation: I can’t think of any film I’ve ever seen that is less consistent in its approach to language. Everyone in the film is meant to be speaking German, and for the most part this is represented by the characters speaking English with almost comically exaggerated accents and occasional German words (“nein,” “danke schoen,” “dummkopf”) thrown into the mix. But now and then—often, but not exclusively, in the case of songs or public pronouncements—the film switches to German with English subtitles. In at least one scene, a character is asked a question in German (with subtitles) and responds in English. This confusion extends to the printed word as well, which is sometimes presented in English and sometimes in German. It is an especially peculiar oversight given the moral of this particular story. The Book Thief is a movie about the transformative power of words that can’t even decide what language it speaks.