In “The Book Thief,” opening Wednesday, it’s 1938 and the wrong time to be young in Germany. A little girl is adopted into a poor family, and the movie traces her trials and adjustments, balancing a personal story with the world going on outside. The resulting film has some wrong notes and touches of preciousness, but mostly it’s a moving and effective presentation of life under Nazism, as seen from an unusual angle.
The angle is that of non-Jewish Germans, living in a small town – people of no influence or power, just struggling to make a modest living and get through the day. We see what it was like to live under Hitler, and at first, it’s not exactly horrible. There is an undertone of anxiety, an awareness that one can’t speak freely, and the presence of neighborhood thugs who can’t be questioned.
But if you keep your head down and your mouth shut, and if you show up for public entertainments and give the Hitler salute, you can pretty much go about your business. But then it gets worse and worse still, hitting every stage of awful on the way to catastrophe.
As a storytelling strategy, this forces audiences to experience the war as the characters on screen experience it, and as real people at the time experienced it – not as the story of their lives, but as an obscene intrusion on their lives. In this way, an old sadness becomes a fresh sadness, and an event out of history that we’ve processed and filed away becomes renewed in its ability to inspire outrage.
From the beginning, Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) is a bit of an outsider. She is motherless, not because her birth mother is dead, but because her mother is a communist and, presumably, has been put in a concentration camp. On Liesel’s first day of school, she becomes an object of scorn for not knowing how to read. Later, she learns and becomes a passionate reader, and the movie, justifying its title, keeps coming up with opportunities for Liesel to steal books.
For example, at those Nazi book burnings, if you stick around and wait long enough, you can always find a book that was merely singed. And, as the Nazis only burned the best in literature, it’s worth the wait.
As Liesel, Nelisse brings loveliness and feistiness, the suggestion of innate strength just waiting for the rights and privileges of adulthood. But at least part of Nelisse’s performance also was lucky, in that she got to star opposite Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, the extraordinary actors who play her adoptive parents. One could hardly imagine a better lesson in screen acting than to share the frame with those two in this film.
Both Rush and Watson convey an entire personal history in these roles. We see them and just know their regrets and anxieties, weaknesses and strengths. As the mother, Watson plays someone who is almost incapable of showing softness, someone harsh and unsmiling, who lives with the burden of having a husband who is no breadwinner, just a sweet, whimsical guy. And yet somehow, without making a point of it, without even seeming to be doing anything in particular, Watson shows us a gentleness of soul.
As for Rush, he’s the heart of the movie, the kind of person that nobody writes books about, but who changes life for the better simply by being a warm and kind parent, for lavishing time and for always being interested, amused and amusing. This is Rush’s warmest performance and one of his best.
Based on the Markus Zusak novel of the same name, “The Book Thief” has a knack for the unexpected detail that just seems right, that makes you think this is what it must have been like, or at least might have been like for somebody.
For example, during an air raid, a Jew whom Liesel’s parents have been hiding in their basement, steps out onto the street for the first time in months. He knows everyone else is in a bomb shelter, and he just wants to see the sky. The movie also contains painterly shots that show the town in almost hyper-detail, as something that once existed that is now etched in memory.
Such sublime moments make up for discordant elements – for example, the irritating voiceover narration, spoken by Death, which actually gets in the way of some key moments. Wipe that from the soundtrack, and the movie could only improve.
the book thief
3 stars (Out of four)
Starring: Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson
Director: Brian Percival
Running time: 131 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for some violence and thematic material.
The Lowdown: While subjected to the horrors of World War II Germany, a girl finds solace by stealing books and sharing them with others.