Narrated by Death (Roger Allam) and set in Nazi Germany, The Book Thief is a compelling film more about the people than about the time period. We know now that Nazi Germany was terrible and we don’t need that continually reiterated to us in the movies. It makes for a strong setting for a drama, however, and that’s how it’s used here. Sure, Nazis show up from time to time and there’s the occasional air strike, but for the most part their ever-present threat is more than enough. First and foremost, this is a film about people and their relationships.
The film’s lead is Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), a young girl who is given up by her mother and sent to foster parents living on Heaven Street in Germany. The parents are Hans (Geoffrey Rush), the nice father, and Rose (Emily Watson), the strict mother. Liesel can’t read, but she brought with her a book about burying dead bodies, which she found at her brother’s burial — he died on the trip to Hans and Rose’s house.
Once in Germany, Liesel has a series of things happen. She befriends the neighbor boy, Rudy (Nico Liersch), she begins to learn how to read with the help of Hans, and she also winds up befriending a man named Max (Ben Schnetzer). Max is kind of special, as he’s Jewish and winds up being hidden by the family. Liesel can’t tell anyone and Max is close to death for a lot of the film, but the two become fast friends. Both of their mothers were removed from them by Hitler, you see, so they share a bond that way.
Despite what the promotional material wants you to believe, the film isn’t a thriller about hiding a Jewish man in Nazi Germany. There’s really only one scene in which there’s a chance for him to be found, and the tension isn’t exactly high. It’s more about this innocent young girl learning a great deal and growing up over the war’s duration, while also building several relationships with those around her. One could say that the war rids her of her innocence, and I don’t think I’d argue too hard against that viewpoint. I was more fascinated with how she interacted with everyone around her.
Liesel is our center point, the person we follow around from the film’s start to its conclusion. Along the way, she meets a great deal of people, and has a unique experience with each one. She is enchanting, and you can see it in almost everyone else’s eyes. They also wind up impacting her life, mostly in a positive way. These interactions are very enjoyable. Good dramas don’t need to artificially create melodrama or tension, and while The Book Thief does both on occasion, it doesn’t do it often enough to become a problem. For the most part, it engrosses us because it’s simply that good.
It’s also really funny. That can often be a good measurement of quality for a movie like this one. The best dramas can be as funny as the best comedies. For most of its running time, you get a consistent number of laughs. That ensures that there are moments of levity, which is important to balance the darker and heavier moments that come later.
And, yes, they do come. Even though The Book Thief is PG-13, it doesn’t shy away from getting pretty dark. You can feel its conclusion coming from the midway point, but it still hits pretty hard when it arrives. The reason for this is the strong characters that the film has crafted for us. We are emotionally drawn to these people because (1) they’re kind-hearted and (2) they’re well-characterized. You sympathize with them because they don’t deserve to have anything happen to them, but more importantly you emphasize with them and their situation because of the job the film does at making them feel like real people.
This is helped by the performances, all of which are fantastic. There are fewer actors more dependable than Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, and while this isn’t the most dramatic work they’ll ever do, they sell their roles incredibly well and provide some wonderful and surprising comedic timing. The risk from the filmmakers’ part came from the two children: Sophie Nélisse has to carry the film and Nico Liersch certainly has a prominent role.
Sophie Nélisse has to carry this movie. She does a fabulous job at doing that. There aren’t a lot of great child performances out there — most child actors just aren’t good enough — but this is one of them. She displays some serious range here. Nico Liersch initially seems like a kid who has a crush and youthful exuberance but nothing more, but shows he has some promise in later, more emotionally compelling scenes. He holds his own with Nélisse. Both of them have a bright future if they want to continue acting into their adult lives.
The Book Thief is an emotionally gripping drama that happens to be set during the years of the Nazis holding control over Germany. It’s not about the period, which we’ve probably explored enough in film; it’s about the characters, their relationships, and the way these people impact each other. It’s compelling, it’s humorous, it balances its tone to ensure it never falls too far to one side of the comedy and melodrama, and it contains powerful performances from the entire cast. The Book Thief comes highly recommended.