Set in a village in Nazi Germany during the outbreak of World War II, The Book Thief explores the root stages of intolerance, when it’s still being taught to children too pure to know its harmfulness. An especially memorable scene features young, Aryan blonde Rudy (Nico Liersch), an aspiring runner who, while practicing on a track, smears himself with mud to look like his black hero, “the fastest man in the world.” When asking his scolding father why he can’t “want to be black,” the father, humiliated and at an obvious loss, offers only, “Because I said so.” Other kids, like school bully Franz (Levin Liam), are all too willing to drink the Kool-Aid, harassing anyone who’s different, and waving a newspaper like the town’s Nazi flags while cheering the headline, “Germany goes to war with England!” Most intriguing is the film’s protagonist, Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), the illiterate, orphaned daughter of communist parents, whose complex, survival-based indoctrination is hauntingly gradual, and counteracted by an insatiable, yet frowned upon, hunger to study the written word.
At the start of director Brian Percival’s film, which screenwriter Micahel Petroni adapted from Markus Zusak’s beloved novel, Liesel arrives at the home of her adoptive parents after suffering her brother’s death and her mother’s early abandonment en route. Her new good-cop/bad-cop caretakers are benevolent World War I vet Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and his cantankerous wife, Rosa (Emily Watson), who takes a while before she stops calling Liesel “It” (instantly smitten, Hans calls the girl “Your Majesty”). Though their temperaments vastly differ, Hans and Rosa’s shared, heartrending sympathy for the oppressed comes to the fore when twentysomething Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jew whose father saved Hans in battle, shows up at the family’s doorstep and receives sanctuary in their home, hidden in various rooms while helping to balance bunkmate Liesel’s worldview.
A “ghost of a boy who had to live in the shadows,” Max becomes the embodiment of the ethereal hero in H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man, which Liesel steals from the ashes of a town book-burning, and regularly reads with both her houseguest and her ever-willing, tutoring accomplice, Hans. Books themselves become the story’s key symbol, representing the past and future, loss and possibility, of a place that’s ground zero for some of history’s darkest days. Percival, who makes gorgeous use of warm, natural light, and presents compositions stirringly evocative of the era, regards strewn pages like snow or ash, watching them flutter, discarded, amid more mass burnings and raids of Jewish ghettos. When it comes time for Max to leave Liesel with a gift, he passes her his copy of Mein Kampf, whose pages he whitewashes so Liesel can fill them with healthier words. (Max’s sentiments about writing and thought can lean toward the Hallmark-y, but The Book Thief is almost always remedying its schmaltz with lyrical language and rich, corresponding imagery.)
Like Zusak’s novel, the movie is narrated by Death (Roger Allam), who explains that World War II was an exceptionally busy time for him, and allowed him to find humans “at their best and their worst.” As the crammed third act nears its semi-maudlin end, this nifty device comes vexingly close to derailing the film’s pro-equality objectives by zeroing in on Liesel as the clichéd “special girl.” But by that time, The Book Thief’s spell has long been cast, and the narrator ultimately supports the film’s unlikely, compassionate act of leveling saints and sinners, particularly those who stood by idly to ensure their own survival. As Liesel’s ignorance-defying pastimes teach her, people do what they do because they’re all universally flawed, and by dropping her into a German family that fears and defies the status quo, The Book Thief doesn’t so much find sympathy for the devil as pinpoint a pack of angels living among his ranks. That the Grim Reaper takes us through this journey plays as the ultimate tolerance reminder: Sooner or later, we’re all carried off by the same omniscient specter.