Not many films begin with a voiceover narration by the voice of Death (Roger Allam). It was the 1930s, in Germany, and a lot of people were going to soon rush to meet him.
A little girl on a crowded train, Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), watches her baby brother die in her mother’s arms. The next thing she knows, they are all standing beside the railroad tracks, burying her little brother in the frozen ground. A book drops out of the pocket of one of the gravediggers, and she impulsively takes it – though she can’t read. It’s all she has, other than the clothes on her back.
Soon she is delivered to an older couple (well, older than her mother, whom she never sees again): Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). Liesel is so bewildered and frightened and lonely that she can barely even speak. But it turns out to not be so bad. Though Rosa is stern and overbearing and critical, Hans is kindly and gentle. He privately calls her “Your Majesty” and winks at her like they have some secret joke between them. Though she cries herself to sleep at night, she understands that at least she has a warm bed and food to eat (though Rosa is a horrible cook).
When the kids at school discover that Leisel can’t read or write, they mercilessly jeer at her and call her “Dummkopf” (literally, “dumb head,” meaning someone stupid. Is this is a portent of their cultural inclination to view outsiders as inferior?) A friendly neighborhood kid, Rudy (Nico Liersch), stands up for her and befriends her, and most of the time they’re inseparable. Except that Liesel does have some introversion and enjoys spending time alone with her words. Hans has taught her to read, using that book she had stolen from the gravedigger (it was “The Gravedigger’s Handbook,” but it was a start). The basement walls are adorned with large letters of the alphabet and places where new words can be written down and enjoyed. Liesel, in delivering the laundry to the ornate house of the village Buergmeister (similar to a mayor), makes a connection with the Buergmeister’s wife, who shows Liesel an enormous private library where Liesel can borrow any book, which is a source of great delight to her.
But this is Nazi Germany, where books are banned and burned, and Jews are hunted down and removed. Hans had fought in the first World War, and a fellow soldier there saved his life by sacrificing his own; Hans had promised the widow that he would do anything to help. Max (Ben Schnetzer), the fallen soldier’s son, comes to the front door one night, having been beaten by thugs. He’s a Jew, and Hans and Rosa decide they have to help hide him from the authorities, though this, of course, puts them at extreme risk, as well.
This film is endowed with fantastic performances. Sophie Nelisse is just luminous as Liesel; without even a hint of affectation. Geoffrey Rush is charmingly toned-down as the affable Hans, and Nico is winsomely boyish as Rudy. But Emily Watson is the fulcrum; it’s her character that evolves the most dramatically, and she handles every nuance with credible virtuosity.
“The Book Thief” is an almost-sympathetic tale of Nazi Germany told from the other side, from the perspective of a small village and townsfolk who find themselves caught up in events beyond their point of view. It keeps from being cloying by the genuineness of its characters. Though it understates the horrible things beyond its borders, it’s a winsome little story about a little girl who just loved to read. The ominous context just makes it that much more charming.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.