Heartbreaking and heartwarming
You might not think that a film based in Nazi Germany and taking place during the throes of WWII would be good family entertainment, especially around the holiday season but that’s exactly what “The Book Thief” is. Granted, the film adaptation of the popular novel by Markus Zusak has a foreboding tone and a chilling ending that most parents wouldn’t find acceptable for elementary school aged children. Death himself narrates the story (a vehicle used in the book but unnecessary, even distracting here) so this isn’t exactly your average holly jolly yuletide heart warmer.
But “The Book Thief” is not a Holocaust horror story either and features a perspective – that of the German citizens themselves – that is unjustifiably rare in movies these days. Mixing thematic elements of “The Diary of Anne Frank” and Dickens’ hardscrabble 19th Century London, the film tells the story of young Liesel (wonderfully wide-eyed and natural Sophie Helisse) a German national abandoned by her mother and whose younger brother dies in transit while being sent to live with another family.
Fortunately for Liesel, she is sent to live with an older couple, twinkly-eyed and upbeat sign maker Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and his grumpy but good hearted wife Rosa (Emily Watson). These seasoned actors add plenty to director Brian Percival’s (Downton Abbey) sturdy direction. Though living in Germany, the family is at once intimated by the ever present Nazi soldiers and obligated to lend support to Hitler’s rule. One unsettling scene shows a large chorus of fair skinned, cherub-like school children dressed in brown uniforms and swastika armbands belting out “Deutschland Deutschland Uber Alles,” as viscerally effective a movie moment you will experience all year. Composer John Williams, here Spielberg-detached for a change, compliments the film with a penetrating score.
But the heart of this film is Helisse’s captivating Liesel along with fellow student Rudy (Nico Liersch) the neighborhood boy who befriends her while mindfully keeping a secret that if exposed would risk Liesel’s life and the lives of the foster parents that have given her hope amid the dangerous environs of a military state determined to achieve its totalitarian goals.
“The Book Thief” attempts to balance a decidedly opposing mix of sentiments and while not a perfect film, does an admirable job of telling an important and powerful story – even if it’s not your typical holiday fare.
Rated PG-13 for violence and adult themes