Narrated by Death, The Book Thief tells the moving story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl sent to live with foster parents in a German town just prior to the outbreak of World War II. Liesel can’t read, but possesses a copy of a gravedigger’s handbook which she stole at her kid brother’s funeral just prior to arriving at her new home. This morbidly becomes her first book, and sparks a love of literature and words which helps to carry her and those close to her through the upcoming storm.
Based on the novel of the same name by Markus Zusak (who I briefly met while at high school), The Book Thief plays it a little safe with its wartime setting but nonetheless succeeds in pulling at the heartstrings. Sophie Nélisse is incredible as Liesel, a quiet girl whose courage blossoms under the love of her new Papa Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and stern Mama Rosa (Emily Watson).
Director Brian Percival presents the story almost as if it were a play. Death chimes in every now and then as an omniscient narrator– a refreshing touch that’s used to underpin a key theme in the story: everybody dies. Death finds himself taken with Liesel’s story, which plays out against a backdrop of Nazi propaganda and Jewish subjugation. That said, The Book Thief establishes a reverent tone that avoids portraying the harsher realities of the war; it’s not a particularly violent film.
The result is a movie with a powerful message about humanity and the power of words, with strong performances from the entire cast. Oh, and I’d be remiss to mention the hauntingly beautiful score by John Williams! It does runs a bit long at 130 minutes and perhaps loses some impact by keeping its depiction of Nazi Germany relatively tame, but The Book Thief nonetheless compels with its memorable characters and emotional heft.
A stellar cast and thoughtful story make The Book Thief a worthwhile experience.