As a bestselling Young Adult novel by Marcus Zusak, “The Book Thief” has long dominated the imaginations and bookshelves of readers of all ages, mesmerizing them with its unique and compelling narrative. Now this haunting story has become a film, featuring young Leisel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse), fostered in the little village of Molching, Germany, by kindly Hans Lubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his gruff wife Rosa (Emily Watson)—and narrated by Death.
Liesel’s story begins in a manner similar to several other children’s tales. After her mother must leave her behind, she adjusts to her new surroundings, makes a new friend in the neighbor boy, Rudy (Nieco Liersch), and accepts the challenges facing her at her new school. These challenges are made more potent by both the impending Nazi control and Leisel’s illiteracy. Hans and Leisel strengthen their bond by reading together every night, as around them the light in the world dies under the martial music and jackboots of Nazi jingoism.
Leisel, with the help of her foster father, becomes completely enamored of books. But times are shifting and even words are threatened by the growing power of Hitler. Rudy is scolded severely for pretending to be his hero, Jesse Owens, the African-American Olympic contender deemed the fastest man in the world. Rudy and Leisel spend their school recitals buoyantly singing the refrain of “Deutschland Uber Alles,” celebrating a glorified German race that excludes all Jews and non-Aryans.
At the same time, Leiesl’s love of words evolves with the arrival of Max (Ben Schnetzer), a young Jewish man whom the Hubermanns agree to hide. Max and Leisel’s shared love of reading makes them fast friends, and Max encourages Leisel to use her eyes to paint all that she sees outside and offer her insights to him as a gift, since he is cloaked in darkness, hidden—not unlike the Invisible Man, in a book Leisel takes the opportunity to steal from a Nazi book burning. Max instills in Leisel a reverence for the power of words, explaining that in his Hebrew religion, words belong to the living and are a symbol of life.
As the world continues to change, with Hans conscripted into the army and Max threatened by the external forces that threaten to take him far away, Leisel leans on the comfort of words and their power to bring life, even when Death hovers overhead and steals more from her than she could have thought possible.
The film is a wonderful homage to the spirit of the novel. It captures the characters and events and Leisel’s passion for books beautifully. But while the novel was published for a YA audience, parents should know that the story is very dark and very disturbing. There are some mildly graphic images depicting the war and specifically the Allied bombs blasting the village. But the most disturbing facets involve the need for Max to hide, the march of Jewish prisoners being sent to a concentration camp, and the glimpse into the shattering violence of Kristallnacht.
While “The Book Thief” is dark and often trades hope for bleakness, viewers of faith will find much to engage with. Moments of humanity are strewn throughout: the Mayor’s wife offering Leisel full access to her library; Hans and Rosa sharing what little food they have with Max, the added member of their family; Hans speaking out on behalf of a Jewish man being taken from his village to the camps. There are also several instances reminiscent of a kind of communion: Hans plays his accordion in the bomb shelter at night, joining his neighbors together in momentary distraction; Leisel attempts to drown out the sounds of the bombs above with a story inspired by Max’s presence in her life.
“The Book Thief” is hard to place into a genre, nor is it easy to determine on viewing who the target demographic is. While based on a book written for teens, the mature themes and the severity of the subject matter seem more directed at adult viewers. One of its many strengths is its humane glimpse into the lives of an ordinary German family coping with the radical ideas of the Nazi: a perspective often overlooked by film and literature. Mature teens and adults will be rewarded by a stirring and unique glimpse of World War II.
The movie ends, as does the book, with Death noting that he is “haunted by humans.” Viewers of “The Book Thief” will be haunted by harrowing images of war and strife, reminding us that there is good and bad in all things; that there will always be lights in the darkness; that living words cannot be blotted out by the horrors of war; and that Death, in his final act, does not separate the good from the bad, the child from the adult, the Jew from the Christian. It is what happens after death that viewers of faith can ponder as a hopeful footnote after enduring a solemn and compassionate film.
Image copyright “The Book Thief” is rated PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material.
Rachel McMillan is a writer in Toronto. She blogs at A Fair Substitute for Heaven.