After seeing The Book Thief twice already, it’s my favorite film of the year so far. Some critics label it a Holocaust movie. However, while the story takes place in a small town in Germany right before the World War II starts, I think it’s about so much more.
In the mid 1940s, Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse) is traveling on a train with her mother and brother. When the boy dies on the journey, it’s too much for his Communist mother, so she gives Liesel up for adoption.
Liesel’s foster parents, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa Hubermann (Emily Watson), were expecting two children. Rosa is brusque and mad because they won’t get money for two children. She frightens Liesel, but Hans looks at her with puppy-dog eyes, addresses her as “Your majesty” and Liesel knows she will be okay.
Liesel has no choice but to fit in with her new family. Meeting Rudy (Nico Liersch), the cute blond boy next door, helps because he’s immediately fixated with her. Hans adores their new daughter. When he discovers she wants to read, Hans teaches her a little every night. He even creates an amazing word dictionary on the basement walls with chalk so she can add new words she learns.
The Book Thief includes many delightful moments of kids running free in the streets, playing soccer and laughing -- unaware of those dark shadows looming around them. When Hitler orders everyone into the streets to burn all the books because they are evil, Liesel is heartbroken. She actually stays behind and grabs one from the burning fire, stuffing it under her coat.
The Hubermann home becomes more complex when a young unhealthy man shows up at their door. Hans immediately pulls Max (Ben Schnetzer), the Jewish son whose father saved Han’s life, into the house. They hide him upstairs where he and Liesel become friends. When the Germans become more present in the neighborhood, the Hubermanns make him a bed in the basement. Liesel reads to him there, but he is so sick she knows he probably does not hear her.
Liesel’s pursuit of reading gets the best of her when she delivers laundry to Buergmeister Herman’s (Rainer Bock) house. His wife, IIsa (Barbara Auer) saw Liesel steal the book at the fire and invites the girl into their library. Walls filled with books become undiscovered treasures in Liesel eyes as she’s told she can visit anytime to read there. But when the invite is too dangerous, Liesel becomes a book thief sneaking in to “borrow” books.
When Max regains some health, it’s time for him to leave before he is discovered and the result would be the Nazis carting off the Hubermann family. Losing Max breaks Liesel’s heart, for she has already lost her mother and brother.
The excellent cast is one of the things making this film so special. Rush offers a role worthy of Oscar attention. The way his character turns Liesel’s life around by showing the child tenderness and love, yet always staying two steps ahead of danger is extraordinarily touching. He taps into her thirst of reading -- a sort of escapism -- helping her to envision worlds far beyond her imagination. When reading doesn’t work, he brings out his old accordion and livens up her life with even more pleasure. It’s like Rush went to bed one day an actor and woke up Hans Hubermann.
It’s the same for Watson. Rosa starts off as another of Liesel’s nightmares -- but in essence Rosa’s actions are toughening up the youngster for a future offering little promise. Schnetzer is adorable as the boy next door who shares good times and bad with Liesel while they rarely realize the world around them is changing.
Nelisse enchants us in her first film. She’s beautiful, intuitive, and so talented we only know her as Liesel. There’s a twinkle in her beautiful eyes that achieves its own communication whether admiring Rudy, loving Hans, or becoming more enduring to Rosa and Max. There’s a joie de vivre that lights her face -- probably in real life as well -- but her ability to dig deep in the emotional scenes puts her way ahead of actresses with far more experience. I couldn’t take my eyes off of Nelisse during the entire film.
There are scenes of German brutality here that are hard to watch as well as tear-inducing moments. But the film contains many funny ones as well. A very unusual element in this film -- adapted from author Markus Zusak novel “The Book Thief” -- is that Zusak has created an unusual narrator. I didn’t realize who it was the first time I saw the movie but found his words soulful and fascinating the second time. They’re like a metaphor of a clean sheet flapping on a clothesline and bouncing words of encouragement and merriment into the air, but then the corners of the sheet slowly fold and drift down enclosing the space with little air and a sense of darkness.
How director Brian Percival handles this difference and his terrific cast is a nod to the inspiration evoked here. John Williams’ score sets the varying moods so well. Cinematography by Florian Ballhaus (The Devil Wears Prada) doesn’t miss a scene, making each one feel believable. Kudos also to Michael Petroni for his adaptation of the book, which sold eight million copies worldwide and held a place on The New York Times best-seller list for almost seven years. This wonderful book has been translated into more than 30 languages, won literary awards, and appeared on numerous best-of-the-year lists.
Some people may refer to The Book Thief as a Holocaust film, but I call it a movie full of wonder, hope and courage during the worst of times.
(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated “PG-13” for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material.)
Review also posted at www.reviewexpress.com.