The huge success of Markus Zusak’s prize winning novel The Book Thief had many challenges to overcome in its adaptation for the screen. Namely, much of the novel’s originality was down to it being narrated by Death himself. Secondly, and perhaps more controversially, was the novel’s depiction of ordinary German people, living on the right side of the Nazi regime. However, it is with this, that the film has more success.
Director Brian Percival allows for a fresher perspective on the war, telling the story of Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) who is adopted by a childless couple Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). Liesel is herself a casualty of the Nazi regime that promoted the adoption of children considered suitably Aryan into German families, it’s a story we haven’t heard before. Through her perspective we see the impending war as it looms over the German people, personified with the ever present narrative of Death (Roger Allam), whose warm and comforting tones sooth the ear.
Significant historical events such as the terror of Kristallnacht, the burning of books and the declaration of war are all shown through the domestic lives of the film’s three leads and the impactful consequences they must wrestle with. This is made significantly harder when the family, through Liesel’s heartfelt demands, decide to hide Max (Ben Schnetzer), a local Jewish man.
The Book Thief has Oscar-baiting cinematography complimented by orchestration designed to swell the emotions. What elevates the film are the performances of Sophie Nélisse as Liesel whose deep pools of talent matches the well-measured and seemingly effortless work of both Rush and Watson.
The Book Thief weaves a consistent thread of humanity through its narrative via the commonality of Death, the importance of art and the concept of free will. The disturbing sight of children in Hitler Youth uniforms and Allied blanket bombing, when shown through the innocence of a child, humanises the German generation just living their lives without the hindsight of history. A blurring of vision due to tears is to be expected but that effect is delivered with respect and dignity to the audience.