The new drama The Book Thief isn’t focused on the enormity of the Holocaust and the devastation that Hitler and the Nazis brought to Germany and the world. Instead, the focus is on how one seemingly normal were affected by the Nazis as they adopt one child and end up protecting another.
Youngster Sophie Nelisse stars here as Liesel, a little girl who–alongside her brother–has been adopted by the playful Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his belligerent wife, Rosa (Emily Watson). Liesel’s brother dies en route to the new home so the little girl is forced to move into the new home alone. Liesel doesn’t know how to read but after she steals a book (and eventually others), Hans decides to teach her how to experience the joy of the literary world.
But that joy is soon interrupted by the harsh real world as the Nazis take on more power and Max (Ben Schnetzer), a young Jewish man whose father knew Hans, takes refuge in the Hubermann basement. A friendship is formed between the reserved Liesel and the scarred Max, who must spend his days living under the basement’s staircase to avoid detection.
Adapted by the bestselling book by Markus Zusak, this drama changes its direction several times, with varying degrees of success. The voiceover provided by Death (Roger Allam) awkwardly bookends the film, which goes off course when Hans is sent to the military for a few random scenes that add little to the story. Additionally, the early plot doesn’t flow that well and only begins to flourish when Max enters the situation.
At that point, the story finds solid footing as the family is forced to keep him secret. At first, Rosa hesitates trusting Liesel with the gravity of the situation but she quickly acquiesces and begins to trust her adopted daughter. It’s intriguing to see the story unfold from a young girl’s naïve perspective. Liesel might not understand the enormity of the situation but she witnesses firsthand Nazis burning books in her small town and she sees the lengths that her family must go to protect Max.
An interesting subplot focuses on Liesel’s friend wanting to be like Jesse Owens, the star African-American athlete whose victories dominated the 1936 Olympics. Hitler and his fellow Nazis looked down on Owens so Liesel’s friend gets a rude awakening when his dreams of becoming the next Owens are condemned by others. In the end, Liesel and her friend’s naivety are no match for the hateful rhetoric and actions pursued by Hitler and the two come together crying out “I hate Hitler,” albeit it far away from where others can hear them.
Its obvious unevenness aside, readers of the bestselling novel The Book Thief will likely enjoy this big screen adaptation. Nelisse, Watson and Rush deliver strong performances and the story’s focus on one family (and especially one little girl) offers up an interesting viewpoint in which to view Germany at that time. It’s not one of the best films about the Holocaust but this film stands out for its unique insight into that time and how that affected families, who were kind enough to shelter innocent people in their homes.