The Book Thief has all the aspects of an Oscar-worthy film: book adaptation, WWII Nazi theme, and fantastic veteran actors. Many times, attempts to create films based on such beloved and best-selling books fall short; in this case, The Book Thief absolutely delivers.
The film is based on the book of the same name by Markus Zusak and is technically classified as a children’s book (based on a strange publishing rule that basically states that whatever is the age of the main character, that is what age group the book is classified). However, this “children’s” book is very grim in the fact that the narrator is Death himself, who casually talks about taking lives and his impact on the world. In the film adaptation, Death’s voice and presence aren’t as prominent as they are in the book. While the few scenes where death makes an appearance or narration are always gripping, they are few and far between. So in this version, it’s easy to forget that, in a way, this is was not only Liesel’s story, but equally Death’s as well.
The film begins in 1938 as a young girl Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) is riding a train with her mother and brother. Her brother dies on the voyage, leaving Liesel alone with her new foster parents–Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson)–a poor, working-class family that needed Liesel (and her now deceased brother) for the financial stipend.
Liesel’s mother, a communist-sympathizer, was taken away, so Liesel must adjust to her new life in Nazi Germany. She is shy, but an outgoing blonde boy named Rudy takes her under her wing. It is soon embarrassingly brought to her attention that she is illiterate, so she and her new loving and patient foster father take on the task of learning to read. Her first book? The Gravedigger’s Handbook, which she stole from the grave digger at her brother’s burial. This robbery is the first of many books that she steals throughout the film, giving her and the film its name.
As Liesel adjusts to her new home, a surprise visitor arrives on her family’s doorstep: Max, a Jew who is the son of an old war friend of Hans who once saved his life. Hans is determined to repay his debt to that family and willingly hides Max in his basement, despite not even having enough money to feed his meager household and the repercussions he could face if Max is discovered.
The Book Thief details life in Nazi Germany from many different viewpoints: children, poor families, wealthy families, and Jews. We see Liesel grow and change from a wide-eyed, ignorant Nazi supporter to a Hitler hater. Liesel forms a relationship with Max, which is one of the high points of the story. Her interactions with these different groups mold her into an independent, intelligent girl.
This movie is emotional and heart-wrenching. At my screening, moviegoers were encouraged to write a one-word review of the movie on a chalkboard (a motif that is integral to Lisel’s story). I chose the word “haunting.” Upon leaving, The Book Thief left me pondering what I just saw and didn’t leave. I didn’t go back to regular life and turn on the radio; instead, I discussed the film with my mother and sister, re-exploring its concepts and themes. As someone who read the book, I felt this film did the original source material justice. It’s definitely one of my favorite movies of the year.