The Book Thief, based on the novel by Markus Zusak, follows the story of adolescent “Book Thief” Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) during the time of Nazi Germany. After tragedy strikes her family, Liesel is adopted by kind-hearted working-class painter Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his strict but loving wife Rose (Emily Watson). Despite forging a fast friendship with neighbor boy Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch), Liesel is teased by her classmates on the first day of school for being illiterate. As a result, Hans commits to teaching his adopted daughter to read and write – at a time when the Nazis have begun outlawing most literary works.
Liesel settles into her life with the Hubermanns, attending school and relishing whatever books she can get her hands on, until a mysterious Jewish man, Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), with ties to Hans’ past, appears at the house one night. On the verge of death and hunted by the Nazis, the Hubbermans offer Max refuge. Over the coming months Liesel and the young man bond over the power of words; however, as World War II begins and Adolf Hitler’s forces stoke anti-Axis allies, life for the Hubbermans, their guest, and the titular Book Thief, becomes increasingly perilous.
The second feature film (not counting several TV movies) from director Brian Percival, The Book Thief is an impactful historical drama with captivating performances from its main cast – especially adolescent leading lady Sophie Nélisse. Still, while Percival captures intriguing juxtapositions from Nazi Germany (ex. a children’s choir singing about the inferiority of non-Germans), the feature film glosses over many of the book’s intricacies as well as the horror of the larger Nazi-led genocide. At times, The Book Thief adaptation is a mixed bag, successfully capturing the complexities of the time with personal stories of Germans who were not complicit in Hitler’s agenda, whereas other scenes are painted in extremely broad strokes that reduce multi-faceted social issues into one-note caricature.
Given the best selling novel source material, moviegoers shouldn’t be surprised that the core Book Thief story is riveting – full of interesting characters and encounters that provide plenty of room for high caliber actors to shine. Unfortunately, the 131 minute runtime causes a bizarre jumble of content – including some of the book’s richest ideas but failing to explore many beyond surface level plot points. Given the reach (and depth) of the source material, Percival was clearly pressed to include as much as he could – but the film falls short in several of its most important efforts.
Plot beats are rushed through the pipeline so quickly that there’s barely time to miss, or feel the absence of, characters that are stolen off to war – or the relief that comes with finding out a periled character is actually safe. The relationship between Liesel and Max, especially, is reduced down to a few sweet moments, but in spite of the pair’s chemistry onscreen, the friendship is extremely rushed and unearned – making it hard to understand the bond that the movie tells (but does not show) the audience exists between the two.
Nevertheless, The Book Thief cast is not to blame for any shortages in the onscreen drama. Nélisse is impeccable as Liesel – presenting subtle nuance and exemplifying the mix of fear and uncertainty that haunted even German citizens during Hitler’s reign. Despite a somewhat thin look at the greater implications of WWII, Percival excels at offering a diverse range of human moments that attempt to show a more intimate side of everyday people living under the ever-suspicious eye of the Nazi-regime. Many of these dramatic scenes excel because of Nélisse’s talent – as she consistently bumps into abrasive Nazi ideologies but is not in a position to publicly showcase her discontent. Instead, Nélisse presents Liesel’s beliefs through delicate scenes of honor and courage – which, regardless of the subdued approach, make for impressive and emotional drama.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Nélisse is surrounded by an accomplished stable of actors – especially Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as Liesel’s foster parents. Rush brings his usual command of humor and dramatic authority, making Hans one of the most likable and sympathetic characters in the film, even though he isn’t altered much by his various experiences. Conversely, Watson’s Rose steals several key encounters – as viewers will be endeared to the buttoned-up mother figure as unfolding events chip away at her no-nonsense demeanor. In fact, the scenes where Rose manages to forget the troubles of the neighborhood, her family, and the ever-persistent state of danger, to let go and join with Hans and Liesel in a fleeting moment of levity are some of the film’s most enchanting (and cathartic) sequences.
Supporting players, especially Nico Liersch, as Liesel’s best friend Rudy, are also solid in their roles – with Liersch owning several of The Book Thief‘s most insightful and comedic exchanges. Ben Schnetzer, portraying Jewish refugee Max, is also a strong, albeit underutilized, addition – who enjoys a much more prominent role in the book – and is mostly relegated to near-death duty (as well as a few witty exchanges with Liesel) in the movie adaptation.
While the restricted scope of the film helps to tell the main Book Thief storyline, the movie falls short of developing many of the presented events beyond interconnected, but mostly surface-level, displays of exposition and tension. Moviegoers who appreciate films for quality acting, immersive period settings, as well as a healthy dose of humor within a heartbreaking drama, will likely find The Book Thief delivers on all the necessary technical notes – exhibiting a rich series of historical fiction events. Yet, fans of the book itself (or those looking for a deeper exploration of WWII Germany) may find that outside the scene-to-scene drama very few relationships or thematic ideas are fully realized, since Percival relies on simply showing Nazi Germany and its citizens – instead of intimately exploring the setting and people through unique or particularly memorable insight.
If you’re still on the fence about The Book Thief, check out the trailer below:
The Book Thief runs 131 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material. Now playing in theaters.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below.
Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for future reviews, as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.