Though The Book Thief avoids dealing explicitly with the Holocaust, it brings to mind Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997) in its depiction of an innocent child struggling to come to terms with the oppressiveness of the Third Reich and all its horrors. As a carefully crafted coming-of-age story, the film works largely because of Nélisse’s endearing portrayal of Liesel and Nico Liersch as her school fiend, Rudy. They bond over their common hatred of Hitler and the slyly rebellious nature they share. Liesel, whose younger brother dies en route to their new adoptive family, initially plans to run away from Mr. and Mrs. Hubermann. But she eventually warms to her new parents (actually, quite an instant bond is formed between she and the kindly Hans), lovingly addressing them as “mama” and “papa” before long. Her friendship with both Rudy and Max give her a reason to continue broadening her horizons as much as possible within the constraints imposed by the all-powerful regime.
In spite of the book-burning Nazis, Liesel is determined to explore her newfound literacy (Hans teaches her to read and write when she first arrives at the Hubermann home). Her first act of book thievery occurs at the grave of her little brother. She continues to find escape in the printed page with the help of Hans, even going so far as to smuggle a smoldering text from one of the Nazi’s bonfires. “Words are life,” Max tells her, encouraging her to keep a journal of her experiences.
While the performances are uniformly likeable, the narrative isn’t quite involved enough to sustain the running time. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, but Percival somehow manages to keep viewers at arm’s length. The emotional payoff of the film’s climax doesn’t have quite the impact it should. The Grim Reaper himself narrates the film (voiced by Roger Allam), explaining dryly that he meets everyone once. Death has a very different perspective on life, and here he presents himself as an indifferent presence that simply goes about his job. At the outset, however, he admits to actually caring when Liesel catches him the act of claiming her younger brother’s soul. The personification of Death could’ve been a gimmicky conceit, but luckily the narration is sparse and serves as an interesting framing device.
Florian Ballhaus’ cinematography looks inviting and warm, contrasting with the harsh realities of life during wartime. On 20th Century Fox’s Blu-ray, the visuals are everything we’ve come to expect from a modern production. No problems of any kind occur throughout a detailed, sharp, high definition presentation. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix is similarly effective, especially demanding attention during several sequences in which air raids occur near the Hubermann’s neighborhood. The bombs detonate powerfully, with strong rumblings coming from the LFE channel. John Williams’ stirring score (which was nominated for an Oscar) is well presented too.
While not packed with special features, there are a couple of nice supplements. “A Hidden Truth: Bringing The Book Thief to Life” is a half-hour series of featurettes that includes some good behind-the-scenes info. We learn about the casting process and see some of Sophie Nélisse’s self-made audition tape. Author Markus Zusak discusses his original novel, while director Brian Percival explains the legal issues the crew faced while filming scenes involving swastika flags (a crime to display in Germany). There is also a short set of deleted scenes. The package also includes an UltraViolet digital copy.
Benefiting immensely from the unaffected acting of its young star, The Book Thief offers a good point of entry for younger viewers who might not know much about Nazi Germany. If it soft-peddles the violence of the regime’s reign, it’s only because the film is clearly aimed at viewers of all ages.